A friend of mine whose family emigrated from Argentina to the United States when he was a kid recently told me he could never have built his small business back home because he wasn't born to the right class. No one in the United States cares about his background, he said. They cared about what he could do.
My friend isn't rich, but he is comfortable, with a full-time job and a robust furniture resale business. It's a tale worth telling as Forbes Magazine recently released its annual list of the 400 richest Americans, a record 42 of whom are immigrants from 21 countries.
The 42 have a combined net worth of $250 billion, Forbes reports, and include New York City grocery mogul John Catsimatidis ($3.3 billion, Greece), Tesla founder Elon Musk ($11.6 billion, South Africa) and WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum ($8.8 billion, Ukraine).
"There is no other country on the planet where you or your parents can show up and with a lot of hard work create huge wealth within one generation," said businessman Raul Fernandez, who was born in Washington to immigrant parents from Cuba and from Ecuador.
Six of the 42 richest immigrants on the Forbes list are from Israel, five are from India, and four each are from Hungary and Taiwan. Moscow native and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose parents brought him to the United States when he was six, leads the immigrant list with an estimated net worth of $37.5 billion.
Brin's "mathematician parents faced anti-Semitism in their homeland," Forbes staffer Jennifer Wang writes. "They were reportedly forced to sit in separate rooms during university entrance exams, and were limited in their choice of careers."
Most are self-made
All but two of the Forbes 42 are self-made, and a third are richer than real estate baron Donald Trump, who has made immigration a central theme of his candidacy. The Donald fell 35 spots to number 156. The billionaire still clocks in with a fortune of $3.7 billion, down $800 million from 2015.
Twenty-six people fell off the list, including Elizabeth Holmes, whose wealth has been lowered by Forbes to zero after the troubles of her medical testing company, Theranos. Another dropout is hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, who was burned by his investment in Valeant pharmaceutical.
According to a report on immigration and entrepreneurship by the Kauffman Foundation, "there is a little debate about the economic contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs." The Kauffman report said "immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born Americans."
"The risk-taking that defines an immigrant's experience in starting anew in a country often continues to benefit immigrant entrepreneurs as they channel a healthy appetite for risk in a way that leads to new business ideas," according to the report.
"It's a unique and truly American ecosystem that sets the stage for hungry, scrappy immigrants and entrepreneurs to create great companies and enormous wealth," Fernandez said.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates again leads the 400 - his 23rd consecutive year — with an estimated net worth of $81 billion. Although he still owns 13 percent of Microsoft, Gates has diversified his fortune into a wide range of investments, from Deere & Co. to Canadian National Railway.
The rocket-like rise of Amazon.com stock propelled founder and CEO (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos past famed investor Warren Buffett (former Washington Post part owner) to take the No. 2 spot on the Forbes list. Bezos's net worth is estimated at $67 billion. Buffett is now in third.
America's wealthiest are doing well, thank you. The era of low interest rates has boosted the stock market and the booming technology industry along with it. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is worth $55.5 billion, surpassing Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who fell to No. 5 at $49.3 billion.
Some are young
The youngest member of the Forbes 400 is Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, who is 26 years old and already worth $2.1 billion. (Messaging app Snapchat renamed itself Snap Inc. in late September.) The oldest is David Rockefeller Sr., age 101, the only living grandchild of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller.
They have a combined net worth of $2.4 trillion and an average net worth of $6 billion. Those are the highest for both categories since Forbes started tracking America's richest people starting in 1982. The entrance fee this year is a net worth of $1.7 billion, which is the same as 2015.
The best way to join this elite crowd is to inherit your money or start a company. There aren't many Buffetts out there who can stock-pick their way to billionaire status.
Some businesses launched by immigrants are small. Some are quite large, like Brin's Google. But others aren't: The National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan research group, says that 44 of the 87 American tech companies valued at $1 billion or more were founded by immigrants, many of whom now rank among the richest people in America.
Fernandez isn't on the Forbes list, but he has done just fine. He built his fortune in technology, sold his company and is now an investor. He is vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the holding company that owns Washington's Verizon Center, home to the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals.
"It's the America dream, not the Russian or Chinese dream," he said.