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Immigration: True or False?
Was There Ever a Golden Age of Immigration, and What if It’s Now? Reviewing ‘Streets of Gold’ by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan
If there’s one thing people do, it’s move. From our earliest days, humans have ventured in trickles and waves to every corner of the globe. And whenever whoever moves wherever, we do it for one basic reason: Point B offers a better deal than Point A. The problems come when there are already people with opinions about it at Point B. When, for instance, migrants from Asia first populated the Americas? No big deal. When Europeans staged the sequel? Different story.
The United States finds itself amid a very contentious period on the question of immigration. The opinions at Point B are hot. There are genuine issues to resolve, of course, and both sides of the debate have concerns that warrant attention. But right now the subject less resembles a conversation topic than a dumpster fire, and resolution seems impossible. Thankfully, into that mess comes an eyeopening book with the rare potential to add more light than heat.
In Streets of Gold, economists Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan not only offer some vital historical perspective on American immigration, they do so while contributing the most extensive dataset on the subject ever compiled. Previously, researchers were limited to patchy records, gathered from such sources as U.S. Census files and local parish registries. But in 2008 Abramitzky and Boustan landed on a better idea: mining Ancestry.com for family histories. Suddenly, they had access to information on not just hundreds or even thousands of Americans but millions.
The pair realized such a massive dataset would yield previously unavailable insights about immigration patterns and effects, especially when indexed against other data, such as birth certificates, tax records, and the like. This dataset would permit the pair to follow immigrant families from one generation to the next. The significance? Many Point B opinions about immigration rely on comparative assumptions; we think immigration used to be one way but now it’s another.
Consider the standard immigrant story from prior generations: Great Grandpa and Grandma came from the Old Country with whatever they could cram into a suitcase. With no less than hearts full of hope and little more than a pocketful of cash, they disembarked under the watchful gaze of Lady Liberty, found a place to live, started a little business, and raised a family. Within a few years they were successfully integrated into the mainstream. Whether they hailed from Ireland, Italy, Poland, or Greece they were Americans before you knew it.
Now take that account and juxtapose it against recent immigrants from, say, India, Haiti, or Honduras. About them we tell different stories. They seem to struggle far longer to get established. They seem to disrupt the status quo instead of becoming part of it. They remain every bit as foreign decades after their arrival and seem to take more than they contribute.
Abramitzky and Boustan’s data challenge these and similar assumptions. Take three specific claims:
Immigrants today don’t excel as fast as prior generations did.
Immigrants don’t assimilate like they used to.
Immigrants steal American jobs.
The data show popular assumptions of Eastern and Southern Europeans wandering through Ellis Island one day and being indistinguishable from Joneses or Smiths the next are far off the mark. The instant success stories are largely inflated.
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The historical data show that poorer European immigrants from earlier waves of migration tended to lag behind the U.S.-born their entire lives. They never caught up. Instead, their children did—as do the children of more recent immigrants. Write Abramitzky and Boustan,
The dream that propels many immigrants to America’s shores is the possibility of offering a better future for their children. Using millions of records of immigrant families, we find that the children of immigrants surpass their parents and move up the economic ladder both in the past and today. . . . What’s more, no matter which country their parents came from, children of immigrants are more likely than the children of the US born to surpass their parents’ income when they are adults.
Hold those findings together and an interesting narrative emerges. Immigrants then and now make tremendous sacrifices to find opportunity in America. They take one for the team, so to speak, and establish a foundation on which their children build. By the second generation they’ve attained the kind of success that motivated their migration in the first place.
When we use the romanticized story to benchmark our view of successful immigration, we unfairly handicap more recent arrivals and judge them failures. In reality, compared to prior waves of immigrants, they tend to be right on track, making exactly the same sort of progress.
The American dream is real. It’s just not instantaneous—not then, not now. With a more realistic picture of the timeframe necessary to get established, we might cut new immigrants some slack. Well, we might, except we’re worried about assimilation.
While we wait for immigrants to get with the economic program, we’re worried they’re undermining our societal cohesion. Along with our accelerated rags-to-riches assumptions, we assume the fried-rice-to-fried-chicken timeline should be even more compressed. So when we don’t see rapid movement toward the middle, we assume it doesn’t happen at all.
The data reveal the opposite. Today’s immigrants integrate the same as prior generations and pretty much on the same schedule. “As immigrants spend more time in the country, they change their habits, attitudes, and behaviors in many ways, acting more and more like the US born,” write Abramitzky and Boustan.
Immigrants learn English. They leave immigrant neighborhoods. They marry spouses from other ethnic groups. Even when marrying within the same ethnic group, they choose to give their children less foreign-sounding names as they spend more time in this country. . . . Furthermore, immigrant groups most often accused of a lack of assimilation are actually among the quickest to assimilate—pattern we find among Southern and Eastern Europeans in the past and Mexican immigrants today.
If anything, they say, cultural integration happens much faster than economic progress, “measured in years, not generations.” The data show that refugees in particular tend to rapidly gain English proficiency and accelerate both their economic progress and cultural integration.
Even then, inflows of migrants are problematic, no? Let’s say they make economic progress and effectively integrate into America society; they still disrupt the job market. In fact, the better they integrate the more disruptive they are because they displace American workers. But not so fast.
Right now about 15 percent of the American population was born outside the U.S. Abramitzky and Boustan ask what would happen if that number floated to, say, 25 percent? It stands to reason such an increase would bump American workers out of the running for jobs and drive down wages—but that’s not what the available data show about past influxes.
You can’t rerun history like a lab experiment. But you can isolate variables and study comparative effects. Along these lines, Abramitzky and Boustan look at the economic impact of several prior situations, principally:
Immigration restrictions between 1922 and 1965.
Ending the Bracero guest-worker program in 1964.
The massive Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980.
The upshot is that there were no real economic gains from immigration restriction and no long-term negative economic impacts attributable to immigration upticks. In fact, the general picture has been the reverse: Immigrants contribute to economic growth. And that’s true now more than ever.
Unlike prior generations, a third of today’s immigrants have college degrees. While these immigrants do compete for American jobs, they also inject the economy with high-value human capital that powers economic expansion—which means more jobs, not fewer. They even directly create many of those jobs. “Immigrants are nearly twice as likely as the US-born population to be scientists or inventors,” say Abramitzky and Boustan.
Immigration is the best natural sorter available for human capital and one of the best ways to generate more of it. It would seem to require far fewer tax dollars than the investment in education required to generate similar results. Immigration selects for contributive traits, such as ambition, entrepreneurialism, and high risk tolerance. One doesn’t leave home thousands of miles behind and relocate on a lark. And with today’s crop of immigrants the human-capital payoff is actually greater than prior generations (when a larger percentage of immigrants were unskilled and undereducated). Raise the limits and we’d likely prosper even more.
We are in a particularly polarizing time for immigration right now, which makes Abramitzky and Boustan‘s work in Streets of Gold so welcome. Does it address all the concerns readers at Point B might have? No. But it does contextualize many of the issues and provides a sturdy framework, grounded in real data and traceable history.
The underlying message is one both conservatives and progressives can embrace: America works. People want to come here, and they enrich their own families and the rest of us when they do. We can celebrate that much while we work on existing problems. What’s more, we can let that motivate the work. If we don’t, we’re depriving our economy and culture of the kind of human capital that benefits us all.
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