Leah Boustan is an economic historian, Professor of Economics at Princeton University, and co-author of Streets of Gold, a first-of-its-kind exploration into the economic history of immigrant prosperity in the U.S.
Q: A central task of your book is to debunk misconceptions both about immigration in general and how immigration today differs from the last wave of mass migration in the early 20th century. Nearly all of us are in some ways connected to immigrants via family, friends, coworkers or neighbors, so why does immigration tend to get so mythologized?
A: Our understanding of immigration in the past – a century ago, during the Ellis Island period – gets mythologized through family stories and through selective anecdotes that have been curated to paint a rosy picture.
Immigrants tend to embellish how hard their life was when they first arrived in the country and how quickly they rose up the ranks. One story we tell in our book is of an immigrant’s son who says something like “my father used to say he came with fifty dollars in his pocket, but as he told and told his story, the fifty dollars became fifty cents.”
The stories that survive from the Ellis Island period are also highly curated. Some of these ‘rags to riches’ tales were printed in newspapers at the time by progressive reformers hoping to keep the border open to immigration. That’s why it’s important to test some of these myths with real data on immigrant experiences.
Q: What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about immigrants and immigration?
A: Perhaps the biggest misconception is the idea that we are experiencing an unprecedented flood of immigration today, that we have more immigrants in the country now than ever before in history. This myth feeds into a panic about a ‘crisis at the southern border.’
Beyond that, a second big misconception is that idea that immigrants in the past – during the Ellis Island period—were more successful at moving from ‘rags to riches’ than are immigrants today. This myth inspired the title of our book Streets of Gold, the notion that immigrants could arrive in the US with a dollar in their pocket and move up the ladder.
Nostalgic sentiment about immigrants from the Ellis Island era is widespread and shared across the aisle. Even President Trump, who in general was opposed to new immigration, pined for immigrants from Norway and contrasted these earlier European immigrants with immigrants from poor regions today. What’s ironic about this view is that Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe at the time, on par to some poor home countries today in relative terms.
Q: Talk about the work you and your co-author have done with Ancestry.com data. What does it add to our understanding of more recent immigration?
A: Ran and I have been working for the past 15 years to try to build up the first truly ‘big data’ to study immigrant families in the United States, both in the past and today. To gather this data for the past, we started with the insight that, if we could follow our own family members on Ancestry.com, we could probably do the same for other families. So, we started by automating searches on the Ancestry.com website, which is a time-consuming process. These days, Ancestry.com has research agreements with scholars and we are able to use the data underlying their Census records.
What this process adds is the ability to compare immigrants in the past and present. We are able to follow immigrants themselves over time to look at their earnings growth. We can also follow the children of immigrants from their childhood household to adulthood. And we can look at measures of cultural assimilation like learning English, intermarriage and living in integrated neighborhoods.
Q: You and your co-author find that immigrants in the turn-of-the-century wave of mass migration actually struggled to catch up to the earnings of native-born Americans. Can you tell us about some of the difficulties they faced climbing the economic ladder?
A: Well, as it turns out, some immigrants in the Ellis Island period struggled to catch up, but others were already earning more than US-born workers when they first arrived in the US. Many European immigrants back then arrived with job skills and other resources already in hand. These include immigrants from England, from Germany and other parts of Western Europe, countries that had similar level of development to the US at the time.
But, yes, at that time immigrants who did start out with low-paying jobs were not able to catch up quickly, and most of them continued to lag behind even at the end of their work lives. The pattern is very similar today – immigrants who start out behind the US-born do make some strides at catching up, but this catch up is not complete within immigrants’ own life time. One common barrier that immigrants faced then and now is that many immigrants do not know English upon arrival, and so they often cannot work in communication-intensive jobs.
Q: The Immigration Act of 1965 ended up changing the scale and composition of immigration dramatically. The list of leading countries immigrants come from today looks very different than it did a century ago, yet in the book you argue that these two waves ultimately look very similar in terms of how immigrants assimilate culturally and economically. Why is that? Is this ability to absorb such a diverse range of people and successfully integrate them into mainstream culture unique to America?
A: Yes, immigrants to the US these days are very different from the past in two important ways. In the past, 90% of immigrants hailed from Europe, and today immigrants come from all over the world, with the majority from Latin America and Asia. Also, a century ago, visas or passports were not required for immigration to the US. Many descendants of European immigrants say that their ancestors “followed the rules” and entered legally, but that was far easier to do according to the lax rules of the time. Today, we have an annual immigration cap. Yet more immigrants arrive than are authorized to do so, so one quarter of immigrants today are undocumented.
So, it’s all the more surprising that immigrant mobility looks just as strong now as it did then. We follow the children of immigrants who are raised in poor households, then and now, and find a very similar degree of upward mobility. This pattern holds even for the children of parents from poor countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, or Nicaragua, currently at the center of our political debate about the southern border. These countries are even poorer in relative terms than the poorest European sending countries were a century ago, which underscores how impressive the upward mobility truly is today.
It’s hard to compare directly to the immigrant experience in other countries so far because similar research in these areas is just getting off the ground. But, from what we can see, it looks like historically immigrant-receiving countries like Canada and Australia are also having success with integrating immigrants from around the world (albeit with rates of assimilation that are not quite as fast as in the US), whereas European countries are not doing as well.
Q: Your work finds that, although earlier waves of immigrants did struggle to catch up to the incomes of native-born Americans, their children–both in the early 20th century and more recently–are even more upwardly-mobile than the children of native-born Americans. You attribute this at least in part to differences in where immigrants choose to live. Why do immigrants tend to settle in places more conducive to economic mobility? What is it about these places that fosters so much more mobility?
A: Immigrant parents are more likely than US-born parents to settle in high-opportunity areas. In the past, this meant avoiding the South, which was an agricultural region, primarily engaged in cotton-growing, and not an area of high upward mobility for anyone, either white or Black Americans. Outside the South, immigrants were also more likely to settle in cities instead of rural areas. In this period, what mattered most for upward mobility was the availability of manufacturing jobs, rather than the presence of good public schools.
These days, what makes an area ‘high opportunity’ has likely changed. But immigrants continue to settle in areas with higher opportunity, even now. One thing that’s special about immigrants is that they have already left their home country in pursuit of opportunity, and so they may be more willing to settle in dynamic regions within the country. By contrast, US-born parents are more rooted in place by social networks and family responsibilities. Yet those US-born parents who do leave their state of birth have children that look more upwardly mobile too.
Q: Opportunity Insights recently published two papers that got a lot of buzz in media and policy circles. Their conclusion was that integration and relationships across class are a key driver of economic mobility. How do you see this work fitting in with your findings on the importance of “place” and the story of immigration in America in general?
A: One of the key drivers of upward mobility for the children of immigrants is that their parents settle in high-opportunity areas. Yet we are just starting to learn more about what makes an area “high opportunity” today. As I mentioned before, access to high-paying manufacturing jobs was really important in the past. But what about now?
That’s where the Opportunity Insights papers come in. Their recent work uncovers an interesting fact: that connections between the rich and the poor in an area (as measured by social networks on Facebook) is one of the strongest predictors of upward mobility. So, the sources of upward mobility appear to have changed over time. It remains to be seen whether immigrants particularly gravitate to these ‘economically connected’ areas, or contribute to forms of cross-class interaction.
Q: Immigrants’ success is in part tied to the features of the local economies in which they settle, but how do immigrants themselves shape those economies? What impact does this have on American workers?
A: Supporters of border restriction argue that immigrants steal the jobs of US-born workers. This argument sounds reasonable. Indeed, if there were a fixed number of jobs, then more immigrants would necessarily mean fewer jobs for the US born. But the number of jobs is not fixed, and by contributing to innovation and starting new businesses, immigrants often create new employment opportunities for others. Furthermore, immigrants need new housing and consumer products themselves, all of which helps put Americans to work.
Immigrants tend to concentrate in tasks that don’t require English language skills (like landscaping or construction), while the US born are more likely to hold jobs that require interacting with customers or the public. What’s more, immigrants often create markets for certain products that otherwise might not exist, like crops that need to be picked by hand or services like manicures and child care that customers might otherwise do themselves at home.
Economists have studied changes to immigration policy or sudden arrivals of unexpected immigration due to world events. In most cases, studies tend to find little effect of immigration on the wages or employment rates of US-born workers.
Q: The country is rapidly aging and much of the country is outright shrinking. From an economic perspective, what do we lose if efforts to dramatically cut immigration are successful?
A: These days, the contributions that immigrants make to the labor force are more important than ever. If not for immigrants, who will be the workers of the future? Fertility rates have been low for more than a decade. The US-born population is getting older. In fact, population growth was lower in the last decade than at any time in nearly a century, and without immigration, this number would decline further.
Q: What do you see as the most urgent priorities for US immigration policy today?
A: Most importantly, we think that policymakers should take the long view when designing immigration policy. Immigrants these days come from all around the world, including from some very poor countries, and the first generation may not end up earning very much. But the children of immigrants rise. And so if we have labor market needs today in low-paying positions like agriculture, child and elder care, and construction, we can continue welcoming immigrant workers without worrying that their children will be stuck in a permanent underclass. We do not believe that the US has to shift toward a Canadian-style ‘point system’ based on pre-existing skills for immigrants and their children to thrive.
We think that politicians should embrace an optimistic message about immigration and that this message can be broadly popular. Immigrants contribute to our economy through science, innovation and vital services. The children of immigrants from nearly every poor country move up to the middle by the next generation. Immigrants are just as keen to become Americans now as they were in the past, and America thrives as a country that embraces diversity and lets in new ideas.