If you have been wrong for 100 years, it is time to admit it and move on. That’s the message to opponents of immigration who have long argued immigrants cannot assimilate and the children of immigrants forever will live in poverty. In a new book, two economics professors from Stanford University (Ran Abramitzky) and Princeton University (Leah Boustan) show today’s immigrants assimilate as well as past immigrants, and their children are better off economically than the children of native-born.
“Many believe that immigrants who come to the United States today from poor backgrounds will never catch up to the U.S. born,” write Abramitzky and Boustan in Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. “The data reveals a different pattern: children of immigrants from nearly every country in the world, including from poorer countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Laos, are more upwardly mobile than the children of U.S.-born residents who were raised in families with a similar income level.
“The second misconception is that immigrants in the past, who came almost exclusively from Europe, were more successful than today’s immigrants, who come from around the globe. Our data reveals that, despite major changes in immigration policy over time, immigrants today move up the economic ladder at the same pace as European immigrants did in the past.”
Abramitzky and Boustan found: “The data shows that current immigrants do not assimilate into U.S. society any more slowly than past immigrants. Both in the past and today, immigrants make tremendous efforts to join American society.”
Their research, which incorporated a century’s worth of large datasets, produced another important finding: “Immigrant success does not come at the expense of U.S.-born workers.”
The book provides an excellent primer on the history of immigration, mixing a discussion of the data with legal explanations and anecdotal evidence, including letters and interview archives. Looking back over the past 100 years, the authors note, “During the 1920s, most of the proposed immigration restrictions came to pass. The new entry quotas barred nine out of ten immigrants who would have been able to enter the United States freely only a decade before.”
The speeches, articles and restrictions directed against the immigrants of that time—primarily against Catholics and Jews, who it was argued could not assimilate into American society—were similar to those then-candidate Donald Trump directed against Muslims in 2016 and arguments made today against Mexicans and other immigrants from Latin America.
The authors note that while the 1965 immigration law eliminated the discriminatory “national origins” quotas imposed in the 1920s, it removed immigration exemptions for Canadians and Mexicans. Along with ending the Bracero program for farmworkers, restricting legal pathways for Mexicans led to the large increases in illegal entry that we see up to the present day. “Many of the same Mexican immigrants who had arrived a few years before on Bracero contracts crossed the border, except they were now reclassified as ‘illegal’ immigrants and thus had reason to stay in the United States rather than hazard more border crossings,” write Abramitzky and Boustan.
A crucial reason why the children of immigrants do so well in America is the mobility of immigrants. “Immigrants tend to move to locations in the United States that offer the best opportunities for their kids, whereas the U.S. born are more rooted in place,” according to the authors.
Abramitzky and Boustan discuss the contrast between immigrants and the plight of the family members who J.D. Vance wrote about in his book Hillbilly Elegy, which focused on an economically depressed part of Ohio near the Kentucky border. “For Vance, moving up the ladder meant moving out of his childhood community, a step that many Americans are unwilling to take.”
Since his bid for the U.S. Senate, Vance has turned into an opponent of immigration, against even high-skilled temporary visas, and implied that restricting immigration would help people like those described in his book. However, the data presented convincingly by economists Abramitzky and Boustan show a policy of restricting immigration will not help people living in economically depressed parts of America. There is no connection between the two, except that immigrants show the best approach is to move if necessary to improve your family’s chances of success in the United States.
The parents of Mohit “Mo” Bhende immigrated to America from India. Mo was born in Houston, Texas. Because his father’s job was in Houston and his mother’s residency was in New Orleans, he lived with his grandparents in Bombay until he was four years old. (Listen here for a podcast with Mo’s story.) The family reunited in New Orleans and later moved to Pittsburgh, where Mo was one of fewer than five Indian-American students in a high school with a senior class of 550.
Although he graduated seventh in his class, 12 colleges rejected Mo for admission. He was accepted to his safety school, Penn State, on a scholarship. He said the defining moment in his life came from his father’s reaction. Rather than being upset that his son was declined admission at many top colleges, Mo’s father told him, “All it takes is one” and encouraged him to make the most of his time at Penn State. “That simple philosophy of all it takes is one has been a governing thesis of my life,” said Mo. “All it takes is one investor, one cofounder, one wife, one house, one everything.” Today, Mo is CEO and cofounder of Karat, a company valued at $1.1 billion with approximately 400 employees. The company has identified a lucrative niche by pioneering the “Interviewing Cloud” to match employers with needed software engineers.
“Now, as a parent myself, I keenly understand the magnitude of the sacrifices my parents made for me,” said Mo Bhende in an interview. “As new immigrants with less than $100 in their pockets, their decision for me to live with my grandparents as an infant so they could get established in their careers was a huge sacrifice, but one that ultimately established life-defining connections for me to my family and heritage. It was my grandmother who wisely told me from an early age that ‘money is not everything,’ which ultimately guided me to find my purpose in creating Karat and identifying our organization’s purpose of unlocking opportunity for everyone.”
Katya Echazarreta immigrated to America with her parents from Mexico as a seven-year-old. “She recalls being overwhelmed in a new place where she didn’t speak the language, and a teacher warned her she might have to be held back,” according to CNN. Katya worked four jobs in college and contributed to her family’s income in high school, including by working at McDonald’s. After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UCLA, Katya worked for two years as an electrical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and expects to complete her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in 2023. On June 4, 2022, she was selected to join a Blue Origin spaceflight. She hopes to make travel in space accessible to people in America like her, those who start life with little means but have big dreams.
“The dream that propels many immigrants to America’s shores is the possibility of offering a better future for their children,” write Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan. “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. If this is the American Dream, then immigrants achieve it—big time.”