More than 12 million immigrants moved through Ellis Island, a primary U.S. federal immigration station in New York, between 1892 and 1954. The assimilation of these newcomers into the great U.S. “melting pot” in their pursuit of the American dream is a key part of the nation’s story.
Many Americans have come to idealize those early immigrants, mostly Europeans, as somehow more desirable than today’s immigrants, who primarily hail from Latin America and Asia and are more likely to be viewed by some as slow to assimilate, potential criminals, a financial drain on the system, and as stealing jobs from the American-born.
Economic historians Leah Boustan and Ran Abramitzky are using cutting-edge data collection and analytics to separate fact from fiction by comparing modern-day immigrants to those who came to America a century ago.
“One big surprise was how well the children of immigrants are doing, and how (children of) immigrants from nearly every sending country are more upwardly mobile than the children of the U.S.-born. And how that stays constant over 100 years, regardless of the sending country,” says Abramitzky, a professor of economics at Stanford University.
The reason many children of immigrants do better than their American-born counterparts can come down to location, said Boustan, a professor of economics at Princeton University.
“They're locating in very dynamic cities with a lot of good job opportunities, and that's helping set up their kids for success,” Boustan says. “We find that the children of the internal migrants — the U.S.-born families that move somewhere else — actually look a lot like the children of immigrants. And so, what's really happening is that immigrants are willing to move to good places, and a lot of U.S.-born families stay in the location where they were born.
Another less-apparent advantage for children of immigrants in low-paying jobs, is that their parents might have college degrees and professional skills honed in their home countries that they cannot apply in the U.S., but they instill a drive for education and professional success in their children.
The data suggests that the children of today’s immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Guatemala who grew up in relatively poor families are doing just as well as the children of Norwegian, German and Italian immigrants of the past. Like them, they are more likely than the children of equally poor U.S.-born parents to make it into the middle class or beyond.
The duo’s findings are laid out in their book, “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success.”
Disputing existing narratives
The data also dispels the notion that today’s immigrants are a financial burden, Boustan said.
“Even if immigrant parents are low paid, their children are able to move up very quickly into higher paid, more productive jobs,” she says. “So, at this timescale of a generation, we see that immigrants are able to pay more into the system than they take out."
Abramitzky and Boustan extrapolated that today’s immigrants assimilate as quickly as immigrants did a century ago. They used markers like learning English, living outside an ethnic neighborhood, intermarriage and giving children American-sounding names to conclude that today’s immigrants are no more likely than past immigrants to retain their native culture.
Anti-immigrant forces often point to crime as a reason to limit immigration or build a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the data shows immigrants today are less likely to be arrested and imprisoned for a crime than people born in the United States.
Do immigrants steal jobs and reduce the wages of U.S.-born workers? The data suggests immigrants fill gaps at the opposite ends of the labor market, where there is a lot of demand but not enough workers to fill those roles, according to Boustan.
“These days, immigrants bring a set of skills that are not very widespread in the U.S. today,” Boustan says. “Many immigrants are very highly skilled Ph.D. scientists, tech workers, and those skills often create more jobs than take away jobs.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, uneducated, poorer immigrants tend to work in manual positions like construction, agriculture and landscaping or in service professions such as helping the elderly or providing child care.
“People who are at the lower tail of the income distribution are doing the kinds of jobs that are hard to find U.S.-born workers to do,” Abramitzky says. “Immigrants and the U.S.-born workers are not perfect substitutes to one another.”
A 2020 Pew Research poll suggests that Americans on both ends of the political spectrum generally agree that immigrants — both the undocumented and those in the U.S. legally — mostly work in jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want.
But Harvard professor George Borjas, a labor economist specializing in immigration issues, says the influx of immigrants can hurt the prospects of the working poor.
People in low-wage jobs that require limited education face significant competition from immigrants, according to Borjas, who writes that an increase in the pool of low-skilled workers drives a drop in overall earnings.
The immigrants themselves, and business owners who use immigrant labor, are the biggest winners from an influx of immigration, he says.
In their book, Abramitzky and Boustan point out that strict immigrant quotas in the 1920s did not result in higher wages for U.S. manufacturing workers, even though immigration had dropped by “hundreds of thousands.”
The co-authors hope lawmakers will examine the data before crafting future immigration laws and policies.
“That immigrants are upwardly mobile from nearly every sending country, regardless of where they come from, suggests that there are more similarities than differences in the immigrant experiences, despite the huge change in sending countries,” Abramitzky says.
“We see that immigrants are doing just as well as immigrants in the past. …Designing the policy (while) having in mind that immigrants aren't able to assimilate and integrate, is misinformed.”