ATLANTA (Reuters) - Many illegal immigrants in the United States are manual laborers on low wages. But there's another group that attracts much less attention: entrepreneurs who have set up businesses, created jobs and grown affluent.
There are up to 20,000 illegal immigrants earning upward of $100,000 a year as entrepreneurs, and their existence challenges the stereotype that illegal immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy, according to immigration lawyers and academics.
Many say they are living the "American Dream," but almost none trumpet their achievements because they fear deportation.
One example is a 38-year-old computer engineer who overstayed his visa after arriving from Colombia in 1999. Not long after, he founded a Web design firm in Miami that specializes in e-commerce.
Today it's a fast-growing, tax-paying company that recently developed a Web platform for online radio and television that could be a breakthrough technology.
"We are at a good point now, making money," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his immigration status. "We are growing every month because our customers are happy. They are U.S. companies making a lot of money from our Web sites."
But the man is near the end of a long administrative process that will likely lead to his deportation. Then his company would close and workers, including Americans, would be laid off.
"I have always tried to look at things in a positive way but now I am disappointed," he said in a telephone interview.
Michael Bander, a Miami immigration lawyer who has represented the man for six years, said his client's dilemma showed a larger flaw in the immigration system.
It is not easy to determine the number of illegal immigrants who earn six figure salaries, but there could be 20,000 of them and a significant proportion earn up to $300,000 a year, said Jeff Passel, lead demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.
Advocates see the group as trailblazers for the more than 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in the United States, most from Mexico or other Latin American countries.
"These people should be treated like heroes not criminals," said Felipe Korzenny, professor of marketing and communications at Florida State University. Wealthy illegal immigrants also came from India, China, Taiwan, Israel and South Africa, he said.
Congress should address their unique situation, not least because they have more to lose than others, said George Tzamaras, spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The United States runs a Green Card residence permit program for investors but it does not apply to those already in the country illegally.
But opponents of illegal immigration said the United States should grant no special status according to wealth for people who break the law.
"They should be deported as existing law dictates. We'd like to see their assets seized to compensate American taxpayers who are losing billions of dollars due to rampant illegal immigration," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration.
"We need to send a strong message to people who would like to come to the U.S. that disrespect for our laws will not lead to prosperity," said Gheen.
Under existing law, people who overstay their visas must return to their home country, and cannot re-enter for 10 years. Visas waiving this process are increasingly rare, immigration lawyers said.
More than half of Silicon Valley start-ups between 1995 and 2005 had one or more immigrants as key founders, according to a study by the University of California at Berkeley and Vivek Wadhwa, founder of Relativity Technologies.
Immigrant entrepreneurs launched 25 percent of technology or engineering companies in the same period, it said.
Some can be assumed to be illegal immigrants, said Wadhwa, a columnist and professor whose company was rated by Fortune magazine as one of the 25 coolest in the world.
"You have to figure out what to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants that are unskilled," said Wadhwa, who was born in India. "But what about the few hundred thousand that help us boost our competitiveness?"
Writing by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Michael Christie and Eddie Evans