IMMIGRATIONDebunking Defining Myths About Immigration in American History

Published 6 June 2022

A new book traces millions of immigrant lives to understand how they – and their children – thrived in the United States.

Painted on a wall at the Ellis Island Museum in New York City is a quote from an unknown Italian immigrant: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.”

This sobering observation of life as a newcomer to America opens Stanford economist Ran Abramitzky’s new book, Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigration Success (Public Affairs, 2022), which examines the nostalgic idea that immigrants in the past got rich quickly whereas immigrants today lag behind.

“The immigrant in this quote knew better though – that immigrants had to pave their way to American prosperity,” said Abramitzky, a professor of economics and the senior associate dean for the social sciences in Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences. “It is a perfect example of one myth this book busts – the idea that European immigrants in the past were able to easily move from ‘rags to riches.’ ”

Co-authored with Princeton economics Professor Leah Boustan, the book analyzes data about millions of everyday immigrants to America and their network to help illustrate how they – and their descendants – fared over time in the United States.

The pair also found that both in the past as well as today, immigrants are motivated to adapt to life in America, learning to speak English, frequently leaving immigrant enclaves after they find their footing, often marrying U.S.-born partners, and giving their children American-sounding names as they spend more years in the U.S.

“These findings carry a lesson for today’s highly fraught immigration debate: far from consigning themselves to permanent outsider status, as many fear, immigrants and their descendants participate in a broadly shared American culture and adopt deeply felt identities as Americans,” Abramitzky and Boustan said in the book.

Using Big Data to Uncover Immigration Trends
The new insights about American immigrants come courtesy of large datasets that Abramitzky and Boustan spent over a decade compiling. Included are historical records from government agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. They also drew on interviews from the Ellis Island Oral History Project.

In total, the scholars collected millions of data points spanning the years 1880 to 2020.