Revising America’s Immigration Myths, Past and Present

When Democrat Jon Ossoff of Georgia was sworn into office in January 2021, becoming one of the youngest senators in US history, he carried in his breast pocket a copy of two ship manifests: one for his paternal great-grandfather, Israel Osshowsky, who arrived in the United States in 1911, and one for his great-grandmother, Annie, who joined her husband in the United States in 1913. Later that day, Ossoff mentioned this sentimental gesture on social media, marveling that “a century later, their great grandson was elected to the U.S. Senate.” This is the promise of America, Ossoff implied, that the sons and daughters of immigrants from all around the world can rise to the halls of power.

As economic historians who study the past with the hope of illuminating the present, we took special note of the manner that Ossoff chose to honor his ancestors: not with a sepia-toned photograph or a family heirloom but with passenger records, listing his great-grandparents by name at the very moment they set foot on American shores.

After his swearing in, we couldn’t help but look up Ossoff’s great-grandfather in the historical census records on, a source that we have turned to many times over the years. We found that by 1920, Israel Osshowsky had already changed his last name to Ossoff and was living with his wife, Annie, and their five young children in Peabody, Massachusetts, where he worked as a laborer in a leather factory.

By leaving Lithuania for Peabody, Israel Ossoff had likely already doubled his fortunes. A century ago, poverty was higher in many European countries than in the United States, so immigrants had a lot to gain by crossing the Atlantic. Escaping their financial plight was what 44 percent of immigrants who arrived during this period reported as the reason they came to America, while 34 percent were following family members and 20 percent were fleeing persecution, according to details gathered by the Ellis Island Foundation.

Looking at historical census data gives an even better fix on the financial value of moving versus staying home. In one of our research projects, we followed pairs of brothers born in Norway, one of whom left for the United States by 1900 while the other remained behind. (We focused on Norway because the Norwegian census data happens to be highly complete.) Brothers who immigrated to the United States earned nearly twice as much as their siblings back home.

When we turn to the big data, we find that many of Americans’ widely held beliefs about immigrant success do not stand up to scrutiny.

The best estimates suggest that much the same is true today: immigrants can more than double their earnings by moving to the United States. So the impetus to immigrate is as strong as ever. It’s only the countries that are different: you don’t see many immigrants from Norway to the United States these days because Norway has become one of the richest nations in the world, with a higher median income per person than the United States. Today, most immigrants hail from countries that, relative to the United States, are far poorer than European home countries were a century ago. Consider the fact that nine of the ten countries sending the largest numbers of immigrants to the United States these days are ranked between the 90th and 150th countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita (out of 195)—countries like El Salvador, India, and Vietnam. Korea is the only large immigration partner that cracks the top 50.

Our research shows that crossing the Atlantic in the past—or the Rio Grande today—is the biggest step on immigrants’ ladder of upward economic mobility. In this way, America really does have golden streets that allow newcomers to quickly make more than they could have earned at home.

But we also find that moving up the economic ladder in America—and catching up to the U.S. born—takes time. Nearly a decade after arrival, Israel Ossoff was still working as a laborer, a job that today would probably earn the minimum wage. Census records indicate that ten years later, he reported being in the “express business,” with a truck that hauled leather goods from the factory in Peabody. It was only by 1940, close to thirty years after his first arrival, that Israel converted this small business into ownership of a local gas station.

How immigrants paved their way to American prosperity

Although Jon Ossoff himself is an outlier for ending up on Capitol Hill, his family is a good illustration of our work tracing the rising fortunes of immigrant families through historical data. The Ossoffs represent only one entry in our larger ledger, a dataset that follows millions of immigrant families through historical census records from their arrival onward. The very power of such large datasets is that we do not need to rely on the recollections of a small number of immigrants who left diaries or memoirs, and we do not need to wonder whether a particular story is typical or an exception.

Indeed, when we turn to the big data, we find that many of Americans’ widely held beliefs about immigrant success do not stand up to scrutiny. One of our nation’s triumphal myths is that immigrants arriving at Ellis Island a century ago with only a few dollars in their pocket could quickly achieve prosperity through their own hard work and ingenuity. Indeed, many older academic studies—conducted using the sparse information that was available at the time—supported the view that immigrants in the past were able to catch up to the U.S. born remarkably quickly, matching and surpassing their earnings within a few years. By comparison with this rapid ascent, today’s immigrants seem to be lagging behind.

But our data tell a different story. In our book, Streets of Gold, we provide evidence that revise myths about immigration in three major ways. First, the nostalgic view of immigrants in the past moving quickly from rags to riches does not fit the facts. 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.

Immigrants in the past did not rise from poverty to comfort as quickly as we believe, nor are today’s immigrants climbing the economic ladder any more slowly than past immigrants.

The lives that immigrants lead after arriving in the United States have never been as easy as the common nostalgic view. Many of the historical immigrants that we follow through the data were slow to climb up the economic ladder. Often, the move from low-paid jobs to higher-paid positions took a whole lifetime, and many immigrants never caught up to U.S.-born workers in their occupations or earnings.

In the pace of their economic progress, immigrants of the past were very similar to immigrants today. Immigrants in the past did not rise from poverty to comfort as quickly as we believe, nor are today’s immigrants climbing the economic ladder any more slowly than past immigrants. We will see that the story of Israel Ossoff’s slow progress can very well be told of immigrant families today.

The true ascent for immigrant families happens in the next generation. The children of immigrants, like in Jon Ossoff ’s family, achieve incredible economic success—a pattern that has held in the United States for more than a century. We find in the data that the children of immigrants from nearly every country, especially children of poor immigrants, are more upwardly mobile than the children of U.S.-born residents. The children of immigrants from El Salvador are as likely to be economically successful nowadays as were the children of immigrants from Great Britain 150 years ago.

All in all, we find a common immigrant story of strong economic mobility in both the past and the present. This shared immigrant experience is all the more remarkable given the dramatic changes in immigration policy over time. A century ago, immigrants from Europe and Canada did not require a visa or passport for entry, nor did they need to prove that they had a family member or a job waiting for them (although immigrants from Asia faced many more restrictions). Today, immigrant entry is highly restricted, and many immigrants arrive without documents. But the bottom line remains the same: the American Dream is just as real for immigrants from Asia and Latin America now as it was for immigrants from Italy and Russia one hundred years ago.

Our findings are decidedly more optimistic than other studies that have warned that the children of immigrants from poor countries might be on a path to a permanent underclass. Being raised in America is a great equalizer for immigrant children from many ethnic backgrounds, and parents’ country of origin need not be destiny. But one important factor makes us less optimistic: race. As a group, children of Black parents have lower upward mobility than children of white parents, and we find a similar pattern in our data when comparing children of immigrants from Caribbean countries with children of immigrants from Europe or from Asia. But here, too, we find some room for optimism. Many children of immigrants from majority-Black countries (particularly daughters) do remarkably well.

Our data also busts another widely held myth: that today’s immigrants are slower to embrace American culture and society than were European immigrants in the past. The data shows that current immigrants do not assimilate into US society any more slowly than past immigrants. Both in the past and today, immigrants make tremendous efforts to join American society. We document the process of cultural assimilation in large datasets using a variety of measures: Do immigrants become fluent in English? Do they leave immigrant enclaves and move to more integrated neighborhoods? Do immigrants or their children marry spouses from other countries of origin or who were born in the United States?

In one generation’s time, we find that it becomes hard to tell apart the children of immigrants from the children of the U.S. born. Both groups are simply American.

What we find across all these measures is that the pace of cultural assimilation is very similar in the past and present. Not only that, the immigrant groups most accused of unwillingness to assimilate—Southern and Eastern Europeans in the past, Mexicans today— actually tended to assimilate the fastest. And, contrary to common concerns that refugees will remain isolated, we find that refugees assimilate even faster than other immigrants.

The story that emerges when we let the data speak is a happy one, a tale of economic prosperity and cultural integration. In one generation’s time, we find that it becomes hard to tell apart the children of immigrants from the children of the U.S. born. Both groups are simply American.

Immigration does not harm the U.S. born

Yet, simply knowing that immigrants themselves 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? In that case, it would be hard to justify the number of immigrants currently entering the country—let alone an increase in immigration.

Indeed, many politicians defend immigration restrictions as a means of supporting the American worker. If we block new immigration, the idea goes, there will be more jobs for the U.S. born. Yet, when we look to 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.

To be sure, immigration creates some winners and losers in the labor market—but only in the short term. U.S.-born workers who do the same types of jobs that immigrants tend to face more competition for jobs. But today, immigrants often fill roles that have few available U.S.-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 U.S.-born workers but immigrants who themselves came to the United States a few years before.

These days, research into episodes of immigration restriction or new immigrant entry strongly rejects the zero-sum idea that immigrant workers steal American jobs. Immigration policy is not as easy as saying “close the border and jobs will come.” Instead, 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 U.S. born. The important role of immigration in contributing to population growth is all the more critical now that we are in the midst of what census watchers call “demographic stagnation.” To continue building the labor force, immigration is essential for filling key jobs in health care, tech, construction, and manufacturing.

We need to design our immigration policy at the level of generations; the immigrants of today are the Americans of tomorrow.

As a country, we are in dire need of shared facts about immigration. Too often, rational discussion of immigration is overwhelmed by anecdotes that can slant the narrative in one direction or another. It is easy to get influenced by daily headlines of a “crisis” at the southern border, which can stoke fears that the country is being overrun by newcomers. As a result, voters overestimate the number of immigrants living in the country and underestimate immigrants’ economic contributions, assuming that more immigrants are dependent on welfare than really do use government benefits. Our large datasets comparing immigrants in the past and present bring new evidence to the national discussion on immigration policy.

We realize that different people can reach different conclusions from the same facts. Even to those who are convinced that immigration is good for America, more immigration isn’t always better. It would be facile to say that US policy should maximize the number of immigrants. Thus, we do not seek to give simplistic policy solutions.

Our main message is more basic: as a society, we need to design our immigration policy at the level of generations; the immigrants of today are the Americans of tomorrow. Taking a short-term perspective—as candidates focusing on the next election cycle often do—underestimates the potential contributions that immigrants and their children will make to the economy in the future.

It can feel, at times, like bringing facts to the table is futile. There is a vocal and emboldened minority who oppose immigration under the mantle of America First. But the data conveys a clear message: immigration is good for America, and immigrants and their children ultimately become Americans, both then and now.

This article has been excerpted from Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.