Walk into a nail salon in New Jersey, or a dry-cleaning establishment or small grocery store, and odds are you're helping the bottom line of someone born outside the United States.

The Garden State's immigrant population, including both documented and unauthorized individuals, has doubled since 1990, and the shares of immigrants in the labor force and foreign-born business owners have grown along with it.

Only in California is there a higher share of Main Street businesses owned by immigrants, liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective said Monday in a new report.

Despite making up just 22 percent of the state's population, immigrants owned 47 percent of New Jersey's Main Street businesses in 2016. The immigrant share was significantly greater than the native-born share in the Main Street categories of household maintenance; dry cleaning and laundry; taxi and limousine; nail salons and personal care services; and grocery stores.

Overall, immigrants made up 31 percent of New Jersey's business owners in 2016 — up from 18 percent in 1990.

"In New Jersey, immigrant businesses overall make $4.4 billion a year," said Erika Nava, report author and policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective. "And Main Street businesses, which are smaller, earn a collective $950 million a year."

The report said mounting evidence suggests immigrants are more likely to start and own small businesses because of discrimination in the job market due to their limited English proficiency or, perhaps, their citizenship status. In addition, immigrants who earned advanced degrees in their own country may struggle to advance their careers in the U.S. if their foreign academic achievements are not recognized.

About a third of immigrant business owners in New Jersey have achieved only a high school degree or less. That's 8 percent higher than the U.S. rate.

"Having a business today is like the new way of the immigrant to be a little more ahead economically," said Alfonso Hernandez, owner of Ay Chihuahua! restaurant in Passaic.

Passaic Mayor Hector Lora said immigrant-owned businesses are "more than just a lifeline" in the city; they're one of Passaic's biggest draws.

"We often boast about the fact that you can travel around the world by going through a couple blocks of Passaic," Lora said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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