A New Look at the History of U.S. Immigration: A Conversation with Ran Abramitzky

In their book, Streets of Gold, economic historians Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan examine the myths and truths surrounding immigration in the United States. They are like curious grandchildren, they write, hoping to trace the journey of their ancestors, piece together their stories, and find out what their lives were really like. Unlike most curious grandchildren though, Abramitzky and Boustan’s research consists of millions of families, not just their own.

What their research reveals is that stories about immigrants in the past and rhetoric about immigrants today needs a major revision. In Streets of Gold, they help rectify three fictions about immigration. “First, the nostalgic view of immigrants in the past moving quickly from rags to riches does not fit the facts,” they write. “Second, newcomers today are just as quick to move up the economic ladder as in the past, and immigrants now are integrating into American culture just as surely as immigrants did back then. And finally, immigrant success does not come at the expense of U.S.-born workers.”

I recently spoke with Abramitzky about how he and Boustan traced immigrant lives over the past century and a half and what they learned as they followed families over multiple generations. We then turned to questions around what it means for an immigrant to assimilate in America and why it makes sense to view immigration through the lens of generations in the U.S. rather than years in the U.S. Finally, we discuss what their analysis of 200,000 political speeches, dating from 1870 to the present, revealed about how attitudes toward immigrants changed (or didn’t) over time. (Preview: the tenor of speeches was negative for much of U.S. history, then flipped in the generation after WWII and has remained generally positive since.)

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Evan Nesterak: Immigration is a topic that’s heavily researched, it’s a topic that’s frequently in the news. What made you and Leah decide that the history of immigration in the U.S. needed more data, in particular a big data approach?

Ran Abramitzky: Leah and I are economic historians. We had this idea that a lot of what people think they know about immigration today—about how immigrants are behaving or misbehaving today—takes them back to think about how immigrants were in the past; this nostalgic view that in the past things were much better.

Even if you listen to people like Rush Limbaugh or Barack Obama, they would agree that Italian immigrants in the past were terrific. They came here and they made their way in the U.S. and they completely Americanized. But Limbaugh and Obama have very different opinions about immigrants today.

As economic historians, we knew that in the past too there were a lot of anti-immigrant sentiments, and things weren’t as rosy as they may sound. So we wanted to collect data on many, many immigrants and see whether some of these stories and myths that we have about immigration are true or are really myths.

Can you describe what you did to get a more accurate understanding of U.S. immigration past and present?

Think of us like the curious grandchildren who search for their ancestors in the historical records, in particular census records, and multiply these efforts by millions. The idea is that after 72 years in the United States all the records in government documents become publicly available. Seventy-two years because the idea is that enough time has to pass in order for you to stop worrying about confidentiality and privacy concerns.

After 72 years—meaning until the 1940 census and soon 1950—you will find the names of people, you will see who they marry, where they live, how they name their children, what they did for a job, their earnings (if you look at the 1940 census), you will see which neighborhoods they were in, you will see a lot of identifying information about them. And once you have that, you now have a cross-section of the life stories of many, many immigrants.

But one of the things we do is we want to see how things progress over time. For example, I found my relatives in the 1900s. They came to the U.S., they were a spotter and a junk driver, but I want to see how they and their families progress over time. If I find them in the 1910 census, I can look them up again in the 1920 census, and then in the 1930 census, and then I can look at their kids in the 1940 census when they are grown-ups. We don’t have Social Security numbers, so we can’t perfectly link everybody, but because we have their first name and last name, year of birth, place of birth, we can link people and their children over time, and that way we create genealogies of many, many thousands or millions of people.

We can start to ask questions like: Is it really true that immigrants came with nothing and then quickly moved from rags to riches? Is it really true that immigrants don’t attempt to assimilate? Is it necessarily the case that their success comes at the expense of the U.S. born?

Then we can start to ask questions like, Is it really true that immigrants came with nothing and then quickly moved from rags to riches? Is it really true that immigrants don’t attempt to assimilate? Are they actually moving away from immigrant neighborhoods and do they marry outside of their groups? Is it necessarily the case that their success comes at the expense of the U.S. born?

We also wanted to get a richer story. The census is kind of cut and dry. We wanted to get a sense of the richer experience of immigrants, and this is where we went to Ellis Island. The Ellis Island Foundation conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of immigrants where you can see what their experience was like, why they came, what it was like in the United States. We make use of those records as well. We also looked at Congressional speeches over the last 150 years to see how attitudes toward immigrants have changed.

In the present, the data is a little bit easier to access. At the same time, there are confidentiality issues, so we don’t have access to the same level of granularity to exactly see how you name your children and everything like that, so we make use of the data available—for example, through Opportunity Insights, which is data from IRS and Census Records on all Americans. Wherever possible, we try to collect data in the present so that we can make a past-present comparison—if it’s in the speeches in Congress, if it is in the mobility of children, if it is in how immigrants themselves are doing.

In the book, you tell immigration stories that are more representative of the immigrant experience based on the data. How does the nostalgic immigration story that many might have in mind, the mythical rise from rags to riches, compare to a story that’s more representative?

We have a complicated relationship with stories in the book. On the one hand, it is the stories that immigrants tell themselves, the family lore, that make some of these myths persist for a long time—“My father came here with $20, very quickly opened a business, and became rich.” Things like this. Somehow the stories, overtime, become even more heroic. Almost everybody you talk to will come up with a story of somebody who moved up very quickly. And that is, I think, where the nostalgic view that we have about America, as someplace you can come to and move quickly from rags to riches, comes from.

When 30 million immigrants arrive in the United States, you will be able to find a story like this, many stories like this. You will also be able to find many stories that are very different than this. This is in part why immigration is such a contentious issue, because when there are 30 million immigrants, there will be an Einstein and there will be a mass murderer.

We were interested in following the phonebook, rather than the outlier stories. We wanted to see, What is the typical immigrant experience? When we do that, we find a more gradual story.

We were interested in following the phonebook, rather than the outlier stories. We wanted to see, What is the typical immigrant experience? When we do that, we find a more gradual story.

If you focus on my family or on Leah’s family, our stories are the more typical immigration stories. It’s the story of immigrants who arrived to the U.S. Even if they didn’t earn very much when they arrived, they improved their prospects a lot relative to how things were for them in Europe. But when they came here, they often would work in manual jobs. They did, over their lifetime, maybe move up the occupational ladder a little bit, but they very often remained in manual types of jobs, and they never moved to riches.

It is their children who really make this move from rags to riches. In my family’s case, the children of the immigrants became a lawyer and a doctor, for example. Leah’s family story is similar. One of the things we find is that the experience today is very similar to the experience in the past, which is no rags to riches in the first generation, but the second generation, the children of immigrants, are doing remarkably well.

You’re in a unique position as an economic historian studying U.S. immigration and a person who immigrated to the U.S. I’m curious, how do your experiences from your own personal immigration journey both intersect and diverge from what you are seeing in your research?

My interest in immigration is, in large part, because everybody in my family is an immigrant, both my family in Israel and my family in the United States. My grandparents moved to Israel and then subsequently lost all their family in the Holocaust, including parents and siblings. The other part of the family was a bit luckier. They moved to the United States in the 1920s, were at first in relatively manual labor, and then later their children did their very well. At least the American part—but, in fact, even the Israel part—is a typical story.

My story—I came to do my Ph.D. in economics at Northwestern University, and then I ended up staying; I became a professor at Stanford. That is also a quite a typical story, because immigrants today tend to come in one of two groups—either the low-skilled, the ones who end up picking crops, taking care of the elderly, working in construction, and so on. Or, they tend to be in academia, in the sciences, they’re more educated and working in business and academia, and so on. This is also a quite a representative story of the skilled part.

We’ve talked mostly about the unskilled part so far because there seems to be less debate in the U.S. about skilled immigrants and how much they contribute to the economy. In our book, we make the case that we shouldn’t be obsessed with only trying to get the very skilled and educated workers, because even for those who come with fewer skills, less education, and who end up working in manual jobs, they are doing work that is important to the U.S., because who else will take care of the elderly and pick the crops and do all these kinds of jobs that many Americans are not doing? But also, the children end up upwardly mobile, and more upwardly mobile than the children of the U.S. born even. Even people who come here with low skills eventually end up rising, and that was true both in the past and today.

How is studying immigration in the U.S. different from studying immigration in other countries? My perception is that the U.S. has a unique immigration story, different from Europe’s. And both are different from Israel’s. Can you put the U.S. immigration story in context with immigration elsewhere?

Your intuition is right. What we find is that this is not necessarily the immigration story everywhere. There is something special in America. For example, research in Europe, Canada, Australia, Germany, and England, doesn’t find the same upward mobility of immigrants that we find in the United States. There is some kind of special sauce in the United States that makes the experience of immigrants more successful. We haven’t quite figured out what the special sauce is.

It could be related to the fact that the U.S. has always been a nation of immigrants, and for 150 years has been a major receiving region of immigrants. Many people in the U.S. are immigrants or the children of immigrants, many people can trace their ancestors either to the Ellis Island era or to the current wave of immigration, and they are descendants themselves of immigrants.

There is some kind of special sauce in the United States that makes the experience of immigrants more successful. We haven’t quite figured out what the special sauce is.

Whereas in Europe, for much of the century, Europe was a sending region of immigrants. In the age of mass migration that we study in the book, many Europeans moved to the United States, 30 million of them. It’s only in recent decades that Europe is becoming more of a receiving region of immigrants. So perhaps they don’t have a long history of immigration.

One reason we couldn’t do a similar study in Europe is because we don’t have this long-term perspective that we have in the United States. There also seems to be more barriers, institutional barriers and otherwise, for immigrants in Europe. For all the issues that there are in the U.S., maybe it is a place that immigrants feel overall welcome and that they can come and be successful.

When immigrants come to the U.S., what are they assimilating to? Is it these broad behaviors like speaking English and marrying outside their communities? Or is there something definitively American that they’re assimilating to?

It’s actually a great question. It really is a deep question. As we write in the book, we don’t love the word assimilation. What exactly is it? What do you assimilate to? There are many different cultures in the United States. There is no one single thing into which to assimilate. We use it because that’s the word that the literature is using, also the word that politicians are using when they want to say that immigrants don’t integrate and become Americans. There is really no single answer for this.

We chose to analyze this in a more nonjudgmental way—speaking English, for example. We almost define it as how much immigrants are willing to reduce their cultural markers and adopt new ones. What exactly that is, it’s hard to define. This is why we look at it in various different ways. For example, we know what names Americans are giving to their children, so we can see whether the names that immigrants give their children become more like the ones that the U.S. born give. That would be an example of giving up some of the original marker of identity for the benefits of assimilation.

But you’re right, it’s hard to know exactly how you define what they integrate to. And this is related to one of your previous questions, which is, at some level, unless you were brought here against your will, or you were Native American, then you’re an immigrant. The only question is when you arrived, and from where.

And so, at some level, what it is to become American is something that is constantly changing. What immigrants assimilated to in 1900 and what they assimilated to in 2000 will be very different. Mainly the points we wanted to make were, whatever it was at any point in time that was “U.S. born,” the immigrants adapted to it. They spoke English, but they also ended up not just marrying among themselves, not always staying in immigrant enclaves, and so on—and to remarkably similar degrees today and in the past, while at the same time enriching the U.S. culture and enriching the diversity in the U.S.

Something that I appreciated about the book was that you are bringing data to bear on an emotionally and politically charged topic. You describe the realities of the first generation and the upward mobility of the second generation. To me this point felt like a key to understanding the widely varying rhetoric that we hear from politicians and pundits about immigration. A lot of the rhetoric seems to depend on whether the reference point is the first generation or later generations. You and Leah write that when thinking about immigration policy in the U.S., it’s important to view it as a generation-by-generation policy. Could you unpack this idea?

We focus on the children of poor immigrants. Think about the children of immigrants growing up in families that are relatively poor, in the 25th percentile of the income distribution. Today, that would be something like both parents work minimum wage jobs. We look at the children of immigrants and the children of similarly poor U.S. born families. What we find is that the children of immigrants are more upwardly mobile than the children of the U.S. born, meaning they are more likely to move away from their parents’ poorer circumstances than the children of the U.S. born.

What’s remarkable is that this is true for immigrants from nearly every sending country. It is true both in the past and today, and to a similar degree. The children of immigrants from, say, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are just as upwardly mobile as the children of Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians 100 years ago.

The children of immigrants from, say, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are just as upwardly mobile as the children of Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians 100 years ago.

That was very interesting for us, because it shows that when there are all these concerns about immigrants,  critics often take a short-term view. Politicians often take a very short-term view. They say, Let’s look at who the immigrants are in this country, look, they are struggling, they are not doing as well as U.S. born. But that’s five years after they arrive, maybe 10 years even. And that was true always.

But when you take a longer-term view, and you look at the children of immigrants, or when you take the perspective of the immigrants that came here 100 years ago, and we know how things ended up for them, then you get a much more positive view of immigrants.

This is why we say that taking a short-term view of immigrants understates their success, and when you take a longer-term view, look at the children, then they are doing remarkably well. This is where we think that immigration policy that takes more of a generation view (that is, a view that takes generations in the U.S. rather than years in the U.S.) will have a more positive view on immigration. That’s one part of it.

The second part—the children of immigrants finding is quite interesting in another way. On the one hand, it cuts against the story that immigrants from some places will be successful and immigrants from other places will not be successful. On the other hand, it also cuts against the story that is saying, Of course immigrants and the children of immigrants are amazing, immigrants are so motivated, and they are so terrific, and they are great in any place.

But when we look at why it is the case that immigrants are more upwardly mobile than the children of the U.S. born, we find evidence for a more mundane explanation that has to do with location choice. For sure immigrants are motivated, they are resilient and all that; it’s not to take anything away from that. But what we find is that one of the reasons the children of immigrants are more upwardly mobile than the children of the U.S. born is that immigrants tend to move to places in the United States that offer upward mobility for everyone. In the past, this meant that immigrants avoided the U.S. South, which was a place of very low upward mobility for everyone. They moved to places that offer upward mobility for everyone, whereas U.S. born are more rooted in place.

Taking a short-term view of immigrants understates their success, and when you take a longer-term view, look at the children, then they are doing remarkably well.

And that’s not very surprising. It is not reflecting badly on the U.S. born. But if you think about it, if you are born in a certain place in the United States, your parents were born there, your grandparents were born there, moving to opportunity for you means moving away from home. Whereas immigrants, they already left home for a new country, and so they may as well choose a place within that new country that offers upward mobility, where they are needed, and that offers good education and opportunities for them and their children. That location choice ended up being a big part of the difference between immigrants and nonimmigrants.

When we compare the children of immigrants to the children of the U.S. born in the same location, we find that the immigrant advantage all but disappears. So it is not that the children of immigrants in New York are doing better than the children of the U.S. born in New York, but it is that the children of immigrants are more likely to move to New York rather than Detroit.

What myth about U.S. immigration troubles you the most?

Myths, in general, bother me because I’m very comfortable with people having different opinions and outlooks about immigration and immigration policy when they look at the same piece of evidence. What bothers me is that we don’t have shared facts that we can at least agree on, and then argue about what to do with them.

One that bothers me that we didn’t talk about so far is this idea that the attitudes toward immigrants are very, very bad now in the United States—that everybody used to like immigrants, because they were so great, but now attitudes are more negative towards immigration.

This is a topic that we worked on with a group of linguists at Stanford. We have a new paper out in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where we analyzed congressional speeches and presidential speeches. We looked at all the 8 million speeches, 200,000 of which are about immigration, going back to the 1870s. We asked how attitudes toward immigration changed over the last century and a half.

What we find is that attitudes toward immigrants today are as positive as they ever were in U.S. history. If you look at the past, 100 years ago, it will be hard for you to find a positive speech about immigrants. Immigration speeches moved from mostly negative to on average positive in one single generation, just after the Second World War from 1945 to 1965. Then, even though starting in 1965 with the Immigration Act immigrants started to come from different countries, from Latin America, from Asia, rather than mostly from Europe, that positive attitude toward immigration remained all the way until today. On average, today, immigration speeches are more positive than ever.

“Average tone in congressional speeches has become more pro-immigrant over time, but increasingly polarized by party. Source: Congressional Record, 1870–present. Credit: Illustrations by Patti Isaacs, based on Ran Abramitzky, Leah Boustan, Chris Becker, Dallas Card, Serina Chang, Dan Jurafsky, Julia Mendelsohn, and Rob Voigt, ‘Political Speech About Immigration to the US Is More Positive but More Polarized Than Any Time in the Past 150 Years’ (working paper, November 2021)” Citation: Abramitzky & Boustan, Streets of Gold

Of course, they are also more polarized by political parties. Today, Republicans are more likely to make negative speeches about immigrants—they tend to refer to words like crime and illegal in their speeches when they talk about immigrants. Democrats talk more about family and contribution when they speak about immigrants. But this idea that attitudes toward immigration are worse than ever is just not true.

If you look at a Gallup survey from 2021, 75 percent of Americans say that immigration is a good thing to the United States. I think that means that public attitudes are more positive toward immigrants than you might think. And it will be great if there will be a politician that is brave enough to adopt a more positive take on immigration policy, because we think that more of the public might support such policy than might appear by the myth that attitudes are very negative.