June 6, 2023
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American Dream: Romano lecture explores the myths and realities of immigration

Leah Boustan, professor of economics and director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University, gave the 2022 Romano Lecture in the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts. Leah Boustan, professor of economics and director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University, gave the 2022 Romano Lecture in the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts.
Leah Boustan, professor of economics and director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University, gave the 2022 Romano Lecture in the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts. Image Credit: Jennifer Micale.

Everything you think you know about immigration — from political rhetoric, cable news and personal anecdote — is wrong.

That includes such myths that today’s wave of immigration is unprecedented in scale. That while immigrants in the past quickly amassed riches, today’s immigrants are more likely to become part of a permanent underclass — and to end up in jail. That today’s immigrants make no effort to become American, and don’t integrate with the larger culture.

The facts, not the fiction, of America’s immigration experience was the subject of the 2022 Romano lecture, given by Leah Boustan, professor of economics and director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University. A native of Lexington, Mass., Boustan is an alumna of both Princeton and Harvard universities, and her work centers around large-scale issues, such as immigration, the Great Migration of southern Blacks to northern American cities, the economic effects of natural disasters and more.

The lecture series was established in 1984 by Mario and Antoinette Romano to bring to campus scholars in areas such as Roman history and art history, the history of medicine, and economics, all of which were Mario Romano’s passions as a Harpur student in the 1960s, said Dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences Celia Klin. Their son Richard, who earned his master’s and doctorate from Harpur, attended the Oct. 28 lecture with his wife, Ellen.

With Stanford University Economics Professor Ran Abramitzky, Boustan co-authored the recent book Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. The researchers applied big data to the question of immigrant success and integration, aided by a research partnership with Ancestry.com and a deep-dive into thousands upon thousands of records.

“We were inspired to write this book because we feel like the national conversation on immigration is too focused on anecdotes, fears and myths, rather than on data and facts,” Boustan said.

Their project drew on their own personal stories, too. In 1920, Boustan’s own great-grandfather Hyman — who immigrated to the United States in 1891 — was living in Chicago with his eight children. While he remained a peddler and small-time shopkeeper throughout his career, his children ended up moving through the professional ranks: The older ones ended up in retail or in offices, while the younger two children — including Boustan’s grandfather — went into the professions.

That story is emblematic of the larger-scale immigrant experience: The first generation moves up the ladder of material success slowly, but their children climb the ladder much faster — faster, in fact, than the children of white, native-born Americans of similar economic backgrounds.

From Ellis Island to today

One by one, Boustan exploded the popular myths surrounding immigration, showing that today’s trends are well within the norms of American experience.

Today’s population is 14% foreign-born, up from a nadir of 4% in the 1970s. While it’s true that there really are more immigrants than in previous decades, today’s percentage mirrors that of the Ellis Island era, Boustan explained.

After severe restrictions on immigration were put in place in the 1920s, the nation experienced a 50-year decline in immigration numbers, which began to reverse once restrictions were lessened in the 1960s. It’s also worth pointing out that during the Ellis Island period, immigrants faced many fewer restrictions than today; they didn’t require passports, visas or employer sponsorships, for example, she said.

And just like the Ellis Island period, today’s immigrants face a similar trajectory in achieving the American dream: a slow rise for the first generation, which may never reach economic parity with the native-born, and a more rapid rise for their children, no matter the countries they came from.

In fact, the second generation often outperforms the children of native-born white parents who grew up in similar economic circumstances, including those from Central American countries driving the current crisis at the southern border. Of all the groups that immigrate to the United States, there are only three exceptions: the sons — but not the daughters — of Haitian, Trinidadian and Jamaican immigrants, which may be related to incarceration rates in the particular neighborhoods in which those families live, according to Boustan. Interestingly, during the Ellis Island period, only the second-generation Norwegians remained near the bottom of their cohort, likely because they opted for careers in agriculture rather than settling in cities, which allow for greater economic mobility.

To measure integration, the researchers considered neighborhoods of settlement, marriage patterns, language abilities and naming conventions. Immigrants are just as likely today to live in integrated neighborhoods, marry someone from another country of origin or report speaking English as they were in the Ellis Island period.

For their first child or two, immigrant parents often pick names from their country of origin; the names of later children typically reflect those of native-born American mothers, Boustan points out. Her co-author is a case in point: An Israeli immigrant, he arrived during graduate school and wasn’t sure he would stay in the United States. His first two children were given names from his country of origin that are difficult for Americans to pronounce; his third child, however, is named Tom.

It’s also the case for Vice President Kamala Harris’ parents, one of which emigrated from Jamaica and the other from India. While her own first name — mocked for being too ethnic by political opponents — can be easily identified as Indian, her younger sister is named Maya, a much more ethnically ambiguous name, Boustan said.

Naming conventions in the larger American culture also change with the times; Eric, for example, was once a name found only among the foreign-born. Overall, however, the more time that immigrants spend in the United States, the more closely their children’s names resemble those common in the larger culture — even today, which the researchers verified through Californian birth certificate records.

Rhetoric versus reality

“If immigrants and their kids seem to be moving up the ladder today just as rapidly as they did during the Ellis Island era, and immigrants tend to be assimilated culturally just as rapidly, why is it so hard to pass immigration reform?” Boustan asked.

To answer that question, the researchers looked at the congressional record, sifting through 200,000 speeches over the past hundred years for mention of immigration.

“What we find is that up until the 1950s, attitudes toward immigration were uniformly negative,” Boustan said.

Starting in the 1960s, the perspective becomes positive, where it largely remains today — although starkly divided along partisan lines. By analyzing speech contents, the researchers discovered that the topics underlying this polarization aren’t economic in origin; Republicans tend to focus on crime and legality, while Democrats speak of family or the situations faced by refugees.

But do immigrants actually commit more crimes? The answer, according to the data, is no. To reach their conclusion, the researchers compared native-born Americans and immigrants from the same state with the same level of education.

“It turns out that there’s never been an era in U.S. history in which immigrants were more likely to be incarcerated (than the native-born whites),” she pointed out. “And these days, it’s even less true than during the Ellis Island period.”

How about undocumented immigrants? To trace a child of immigrants into the labor market, the researchers needed their research subjects to be around 35 or 40 years old, Boustan explained. For the most recent crop of immigrants, that means they needed to be born in the early 1980s.

“There’s something special about these kids, which is that their parents, even if they arrived undocumented, had the opportunity to go through an amnesty program that was overseen by President Reagan in 1986,” Boustan said.

These children of undocumented immigrants, therefore, followed the same trends as other immigrant groups in terms of economic mobility. But the situation for undocumented immigrants is significantly different today, and the researchers are unsure whether their children will face additional barriers to economic attainment as a result.

But indications are that, if given the same opportunities as other groups, the children of these immigrants would go on to achieve the American Dream, just like previous waves of immigrants all the way back to Ellis Island.

“Our main takeaway from the book is that the American Dream is just as real now as it was 100 years ago. That assimilation is a novel, not a short story, and it doesn’t happen in the first generation completely. That it takes until the second generation for the children of immigrants to rise, and this has always been true,” Boustan aid. “It’s not something unique to the diverse set of immigrants that America is receiving today.”

Posted in: Campus News, Harpur