Immigrant assimilation then and now

Noah Smith interviews Leah Bustan about her research on various aspects of immigration at his Noahopinion website. (July 17, 2022). Asked about “the most popular misconceptions about immigration in America today,” Bustan replies:

Americans certainly overestimate the number of immigrants in the country today. According to a survey conducted by Stephanie Stancheva and her co-authors, Americans assume that 36% of the country’s residents were born abroad, when in fact it is 14%. Thus, this misconception gives rise to fears that we are in an “immigration crisis” or that a “flood” of immigrants is coming to us. In fact, the proportion of immigrants in the population today (14%) has just reached the same level as during the existence of Ellis Island for over 50 years! After that, I would say that the second biggest misconception is that immigrants now have worse economic lives and are less likely to become Americans than immigrants 100 years ago.

On the question of how immigrants are catching up economically:

We found that Mexican immigrants and their children achieve a significant degree of integration both economically and culturally. First, from an economic perspective, we compare the children of Mexican parents who grew up in the 25th percentile of the income distribution—that’s like having two full-time parents who both earn the minimum wage—with children born in the United States. parents or parents from other countries of origin. Children of Mexican parents feel very well! Even though they were raised at the 25th percentile as children, they reach the 50th percentile on average as adults. Contrast this with children of US-born parents who grew up at the same time, who only reach the 46th percentile. Of course, children of other immigrant backgrounds do even better, but children from Mexican families experience more upward mobility. …

[T]The model… that children of the poor and working-class immigrants learn better than their American peers holds true today and in the past. The children of poor Irish or Italian immigrant parents outnumbered those of poor US-born parents in the early 20th century; the same can be said about immigrant children today.

We can examine in detail the reasons for this advantage of immigrants in the past, and we find that the single most important factor is geography. Immigrants tend to settle in dynamic cities that provide opportunities for themselves and their children. So in the past, this meant avoiding the Southern states, which at the time were mostly agricultural and cotton-growing, and—outside the South—moving to the cities more than the countryside. Come to think of it, this makes sense: immigrants have already left home, often in pursuit of economic opportunity, so when they move to the US, they are more willing to go where there is opportunity.

Geography is still important today, but not as much as it was in the past. Instead, we suspect that differences in education between groups matter today. Think of an immigrant from China or India who doesn’t make much money, say, working in a restaurant, hotel, or babysitting. In some cases, an immigrant himself arrived in the United States with an education, even with a higher education, but finds it difficult to find a job in his chosen profession. Although these immigrant families do not have many financial resources, they can pass on the benefits of education to their children.

When asked about how immigrants are culturally assimilated, Bustan comments:

We are economists, so our first immigration work focused on economic outcomes such as earnings and profession. But voters are often more concerned with cultural issues, both in the past and today. So we realized that we wanted to try to measure “accommodation” or cultural assimilation using as many metrics as possible. We looked at learning English, of course, but also who immigrants marry, whether immigrants live in an enclaved area or in a more integrated area, and—one of our favorite metrics—the names that immigrant parents choose for their children. These are all measures that can be collected for immigrants today and 100 years ago; there are other indicators today that did not exist in the past, such as “do immigrants call themselves patriots” (answer: yes).

We have learned that immigrants are taking steps to “adjust” today just as they did in the past. So, for example, we can look at the names that immigrant parents choose for their children. Both in the past and today, immigrants choose less American-sounding names for their children when they first arrive in the US, but they are beginning to lean towards the names that US-born parents choose for their children as they spend more time in the country. . Immigrants never completely close this “naming gap,” but they got pretty far in that direction, both then and now.