Debunking Defining Myths About Immigration in American History

They traced where immigrants settled, what type of work they found, whom they married, and the names they gave their children.

By developing computer algorithms and using the tools of modern data analysis, Abramitzky and Boustan were also able to link immigrants to their descendants.

This allowed them to overturn another common myth: that children of immigrants come from poverty and stay poor.

They found that while immigrants often worked in low-paid jobs, their children were very economically mobile – a trend that persists to this day. “Despite the fact that children of immigrants are raised in poorer households, they’re able to reach the middle class and beyond. This is true for families today from nearly every sending country, including from poorer countries like El Salvador, Mexico, and Laos,” Abramitzky and Boustan write.

The scholars identified two distinguishing features that explain this pattern.

The first: location, location, location. Immigrants tend to move to areas that provide more opportunities for their children. Historically, these have been areas in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and certain parts of the West – all places that offer both better industrial prospects and widely available public school systems. Immigrants tended not to move to the South, a region that up until the mid-20th century was mostly agricultural and offered few economic prospects.

The second explanation is immigrants are often not earning their true potential, creating an artificially lowered bar for success that their children are more likely to surpass, the scholars report. “Think about the proverbial Russian scientist who ends up driving for Uber: His earnings don’t fully reflect his true talents and abilities. But when his children graduate from an American school and speak English without an accent, they can quickly catch up and surpass their peers raised in families with similar earnings, presumably because their parents transmitted other values or skills that money can’t buy,” Abramitzky and Boustan write in their book.

Overturning Myths
The scholars’ research challenges other wide-ranging rhetoric about immigration in America.

For example, they found that immigrants are not “taking over” the country as some fear. The scholars found that immigrants today make up 14% of the U.S. population – the same share as they did a century ago.

Moreover, immigrants are far from violent criminals. In fact, Abramitzky and Boustan’s data analysis shows the inverse is true: “Immigrants are less likely than those born in the U.S. to be arrested and incarcerated for all manner of offenses,” according to Abramitzky and Boustan. “This was true in the past and is actually more true today.”

Also not true: the notion that immigrants are “stealing” work from those born in the U.S. Instead, the scholars found that immigrants are more likely to fill positions that employers can’t fill with native-born workers.

“Today, immigrants tend to hold jobs that have few available U.S.-born workers, including positions that require advanced education like those in tech and science, and jobs that require very little education like picking crops by hand, washing dishes, or taking care of the elderly,” the scholars write.

Abramitzky and Boustan also found that when it comes to public opinion of immigration, anti-immigration beliefs are in the minority, even if they are more polarized by political parties than ever before. When last year Gallup asked Americans, “On the whole, do you think immigration is a good thing or a bad thing for this country today?” 75% of Americans answered that immigration was a “good thing.”

Taking the Long View on Immigration Policy
Abramitzky, who is also a fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), hopes this research will inspire people, particularly those who shape immigration policy in the United States, to take the long view when they look at immigration.

“Taking a short-term view – thinking about how immigrants perform and assimilate when they first arrive in the U.S., as politicians often do when they think about the next election cycle – undermines immigrant success,” Abramitzky said. “When you take the long view – thinking about the children of immigrants – immigrants in the U.S. are doing great.”