Immigration is a defining element of America’s society and economy. Yet our national conversations about immigration are driven largely by myths, not by facts and data.
As economists, our aim has been to rebuild what we know about immigration to the US from the ground up using data on millions of immigrants’ lives.
We collected information on immigrant families for the past and today using everything from Census records to tax filings. Our data includes everyone from bankers to errand boys — a bit like following the life stories of everyone in the phone book, rather than only the CEOs or the criminals who make it to the front page of the newspaper.
With our new data, we can reassess some of the common myths about immigration, contributing a new understanding of the immigrant experience to today’s national debate.
Myth 1: Earlier immigrants went from ‘rags to riches,’ but immigrants today lag behind
Many Americans have the impression that a century ago immigrants arrived penniless at Ellis Island and within a few years quickly ascended from rags to riches.
Is it really true that past immigrants moved quickly from poverty into the middle class? Are today’s immigrants less successful than immigrants in the past?
To start, European immigrants who arrived in the United States a century ago were generally not penniless. The data shows that around half of these immigrants arrived with education, job skills or family wealth — particularly those immigrants from Germany, the UK and other Western European countries.
Other immigrants in the past did start out in low-paying jobs — particularly immigrants from poorer countries like Italy, Portugal and Norway — but their pace of upward progress was no faster than that of immigrants today.
The American Dream is within reach, but just as in the past, progress is slow. Immigrants often double their income (or more) when leaving their home country for America, but once in the United States, newcomers move up the ranks slowly, at much the same pace as European immigrants did a hundred years ago.
Myth 2: Children of immigrants come from poverty and stay poor
While immigrants today hail from poorer countries than they did historically and the longstanding pace of economic mobility is slow, we find that background is not destiny.
The dream that propels many immigrants to America’s shores is the possibility of a better future for their children. Indeed, when we rank parents and then their adult children in the national income distribution, we find that the children of immigrants surpass their parents in the rankings.
If this is the American Dream, then immigrants achieve it — big time.
One pattern that is particularly striking is that the children of immigrants growing up in the bottom quarter of the income distribution are more likely to reach the middle of the income distribution than are children of similarly poor US-born parents who are white. This pattern holds both in the past and today, despite major changes in US immigration policy.
What’s more, this pattern is true no matter which country their parents came from. Children of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic today are just as likely to move up from their parents’ circumstances as were children of poor Swedes and Finns a hundred years ago.
“ Children of immigrants growing up in the bottom quarter of the income distribution are more likely to reach the middle of the income distribution than are children of similarly poor US-born parents who are white. “
Now, children who arrive without papers face more barriers to mobility than other children of immigrants. Fortunately, this group is relatively small: there are only 1.5 million children of immigrant parents who are themselves undocumented (around 5% of this group) because many children of immigrants are born in the United States and thus are granted citizenship at birth.
This small group of children is one exception to the hopeful story of upward mobility that we tell.
It’s not because they put in any less effort, but because they encounter obstacles all along their path. With a stroke of a pen, politicians can remove these barriers, providing work permits and a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived as children without papers. This is one policy question for which we don’t see many downsides.
Myth 3: Immigrants harm those born in the US by taking jobs
Simply knowing that immigrants eventually thrive is not the end of the story. What if newcomers squeeze out existing residents for jobs or housing or access to public services? Indeed, many politicians defend immigration restrictions as a means of supporting the US-born worker.
Yet when we look at the evidence — either for the past or the present — we do not find that immigrants steal the last slice from a fixed pie. Rather, immigrants help the economy grow, contributing to science, innovation and culture.
In studying the effects of past immigration restrictions — such as the major closure of the border in the 1920s — we find that restrictions had unintended consequences. Instead of benefiting the US-born workforce, restrictions pushed many industries towards automation or towards finding other pools of workers (Mexicans and Canadians in the past, perhaps offshoring today).
To be sure, immigration creates some winners and losers in the labor market — but only in the short term. US-born workers who do the same types of jobs as immigrants tend to face more competition for jobs. Today, however, immigrants often fill roles that have few available US-born workers: either very highly educated positions in tech and science or work that requires very little education, such as picking crops by hand, washing dishes, landscaping and taking care of the elderly.
In fact, the workers who can lose out the most in the short term from new immigrant arrivals are not US-born workers but immigrants who came to the United States a few years before.
As a nation we should focus on the ways in which immigrants promote a growing economy, with jobs available for all, rather than imagine that there is a fixed set of jobs to divide between immigrants and the US-born.
It can feel at times that bringing facts to the table is futile. There is a vocal and emboldened minority who opposes immigration. We believe that this new look at the evidence is sorely needed in our current political climate and the data conveys a clear message: immigration is good for America, and immigrants and their children ultimately become Americans, both then and now.
Ran Abramitzky is a professor of economics and the Senior Associate Dean for the Social Sciences at Stanford University. Leah Boustan is a professor of economics and director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University. This is aadapted from “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success.”