If you’ve been wrong for 100 years, it’s time to admit it and move on. That is the message to anti-immigrants, who have long argued that immigrants cannot assimilate and that immigrants’ children will live in poverty forever. In a new book, two economics professors from Stanford University (Ran Abramitzky) and Princeton University (Leah Boustan) show that today’s immigrants are assimilating just as well as earlier immigrants, and that their children are better off economically than native children.
“Many believe that immigrants who come to the United States from poor backgrounds today will never catch up with those who were born in the United States,” Abramitzky and Boustan write in Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. “The data show a different pattern: children of immigrants from almost every country in the world, including poorer countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Laos, are more upwardly mobile than the children of US-born residents raised in families with similar income levels.
“The second misconception is that immigrants in the past, who came almost exclusively from Europe, were more successful than immigrants today, who come from all over the world. Our data show that despite major changes in immigration policies over time, immigrants are now moving up the economic ladder at the same pace as European immigrants in the past.”
Abramitzky and Boustan observed: “The data show that current immigrants are no slower to integrate into US society than previous immigrants. Immigrants, both in the past and now, make tremendous efforts to be assimilated into American society.”
Her research, which included large datasets spanning a century, yielded another important finding: “Immigrant success does not come at the expense of US-born workers.”
The book provides an excellent introduction to immigration history, mixing a discussion of the dates with legal explanations and anecdotal evidence, including letters and archives of interviews. Looking back over the past 100 years, the authors state: “During the 1920s most of the proposed immigration restrictions were implemented. The new entry quotas barred nine out of 10 immigrants who could freely enter the United States just a decade earlier.”
The speeches, articles and restrictions targeting the immigrants of the time — primarily Catholics and Jews, who were said to be unable to assimilate into American society — were similar to those then-candidate Donald Trump launched in 2016 Muslims judged and now argue against it, Mexicans and other immigrants from Latin America.
The authors note that while the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the discriminatory “national origin” quotas imposed in the 1920s, it also abolished immigration exemptions for Canadians and Mexicans. Along with the termination of the Bracero program for farm workers, the restriction of legal avenues for Mexicans led to the sharp increase in illegal entry we see to this day. “Many of the same Mexican immigrants who had arrived on bracero contracts a few years earlier crossed the border, except they were now reclassified as ‘illegal’ immigrants and thus had a reason to remain in the United States rather than further border crossings risk,” write Abramitzky and Boustan.
A key reason why immigrant children do so well in America is immigrant mobility. “Immigrants tend to move to places in the United States that offer the best opportunities for their children, while those born in the United States tend to be more local,” the authors said.
Abramitzky and Boustan discuss the contrast between immigrants and the plight of family members that JD Vance wrote about in his book Backwoods Elegy, which was centered on an economically depressed part of Ohio near the Kentucky border. “For Vance, climbing the ladder meant moving out of his childhood community, a step many Americans are unwilling to take.”
Since running for the US Senate, Vance has become an opponent of immigration, even against highly qualified temporary visas, implying that restricting immigration would help people like those described in his book. However, the data, convincingly presented by economists Abramitzky and Boustan, shows that immigration control policies will not help people in economically weak parts of America. There is no connection between the two, except that immigrants show that moving when necessary is best to improve your family’s chances of success in the United States.
Mohit “Mo” Bhende’s parents immigrated to America from India. Mo was born in Houston, Texas. Since his father worked in Houston and his mother lived in New Orleans, he lived with his grandparents in Bombay until he was four years old. (Listen to a podcast of Mo’s story here.) The family reunited in New Orleans and later moved to Pittsburgh, where Mo was one of fewer than five Indian-American students in a 550-grade high school.
Although he graduated seventh in his class, 12 colleges rejected Mo for admission. He was accepted into his Penn State safety school on a scholarship. He said the defining moment in his life came from his father’s reaction. Rather than resent his son’s denial of admission to 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. “This simple philosophy of all you need is a guiding tenet of my life,” Mo said. “All it takes is one investor, one co-founder, one wife, one house, one everything.” Today, Mo is CEO and Co-founder of Karat, a $1.1 billion company with approximately 400 employees. The company has identified a lucrative niche by pioneering the “interviewing cloud” to match employers with the software engineers they need.
“Now that I’m a parent myself, I fully understand the magnitude of the sacrifices my parents made for me,” Mo Bhende said in an interview. Having grandparents as a toddler so they could establish themselves in their careers was a great sacrifice, but one that ultimately forged life-defining connections for me to my family and heritage. It was my grandmother who wisely told me from a young age that ‘money isn’t everything’ that ultimately led me to fulfill my purpose of creating Karat and identifying the purpose of our organization to create opportunity for all.”
Katya Echazarreta immigrated to America with her parents from Mexico when she was seven. “She remembers being overwhelmed in a new place where she didn’t speak the language, and a teacher warned she might need to be restrained,” according to CNN. Katya worked four college jobs and contributed to her family’s income in high school, including through her work at McDonald’s. After earning her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UCLA, Katya worked for two years as an electrical engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is expected to complete her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in 2023. On June 4, 2022, she was selected to take part in a Blue Origin space flight. She hopes to make space travel accessible to people like her in America, who start out with little but dream big.
“The dream that drives many immigrants to America’s shores is the opportunity to provide their children with a brighter future,” write Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan. “From millions of immigrant family records, we find that the children of immigrants outperform their parents, moving up the economic ladder both in the past and today. If this is the American Dream, then immigrants will achieve it—big.”