Why immigrant children outperform more than children born in the United States

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More than 12 million immigrants moved through Ellis Island, a primary US federal immigration station in New York, between 1892 and 1954. The assimilation of these newcomers into America’s great “melting pot” in their pursuit of the American Dream is an essential part of the nation’s story.

Many Americans have come to regard these early, mostly European, immigrants as more desirable than immigrants today, who hail primarily from Latin America and Asia, and are likely to be viewed by some as slow to absorb, potential criminals, a financial drain on the system, and thieves. Jobs are american born.

Economic historians Leah Bustan and Ran Abramitsky use cutting-edge data collection and analysis to separate fact from fiction by comparing modern immigrants to those who came to America a century ago.

successful children

“One of the big surprises was how well the children of immigrants do, and how (children of) immigrants from almost every sending country are more upward mobility than children born in the United States. And how that remains constant over 100 years, regardless of the sending country,” she said. says Abramitsky, professor of economics at Stanford University.

A graduate wears a mortar board decorated with a message in support of immigrants before starting exercises at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., May 11, 2019.

The reason children of immigrants do better than their American-born counterparts is back on the site, said Bustan, an economics professor at Princeton University.

“They reside in very dynamic cities with lots of good job opportunities, and that helps set up their kids for success,” says Bustan. “We found that the children of internal immigrants—families born in the United States that move elsewhere—actually look a lot like the children of immigrants. And so, what really happens is that immigrants are willing to move to good places, and a lot of US-born families stay in the place where they were born.

Another, less obvious advantage to children of immigrants in low-paying jobs, is that their parents may have college degrees and professional skills polished in their home countries that they cannot apply in the United States, but instill a drive for education and professional success in their children.

The data shows that the children of today’s immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Guatemala who grow up in relatively poor families do just as well as the children of Norwegian, German, and Italian immigrants of the past. Like them, they are more likely than children of poor US-born parents to make it to the middle class or beyond.

The duo’s findings are presented in their book, Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success.

Existing narratives dispute

Bustan said the data also dispels the notion that immigrants today are a financial burden.

“Even if immigrant parents have lower salaries, their children can move very quickly to higher-paying, more productive jobs,” she says. “So, on this generational time scale, we see that immigrants are able to push more into the system than they do.”

Abramitsky and Bostan extrapolate that today’s immigrants are assimilating as quickly as immigrants a century ago were assimilating. They used signs such as learning English, living outside an ethnic neighborhood, intermarriage, and giving children American-sounding names to conclude that today’s immigrants are no more likely than earlier immigrants to retain their original culture.

Dr. Muhammad Jaber prepares to visit a patient in Sacramento, California, November 17, 2015. Jaber immigrated from Syria to the United States to pursue a medical degree.

Dr. Muhammad Jaber prepares to visit a patient in Sacramento, California, November 17, 2015. Jaber immigrated from Syria to the United States to pursue a medical degree.

Anti-immigrant forces often point to crime as a reason to limit immigration or build a border wall along the US-Mexico border. However, data shows that immigrants today are less likely to be arrested and imprisoned for a crime than people born in the United States.

business thieves?

Are immigrants stealing jobs and lowering wages for US-born workers? Data shows that immigrants are filling gaps at opposite ends of the labor market, where there is a lot of demand but not enough workers to fill these roles, according to Bustan.

“These days, immigrants bring a skill set that’s not very prevalent in the United States today,” says Bustan. Many of the immigrants are highly skilled Ph.D.s. Scientists and tech workers and those skills often create more jobs rather than take away jobs.”

Google co-founder Sergey Brin (right) is a Russian-born immigrant.  Google's parent company employs more than 100,000 people.  (File photo taken Jan. 15, 2004, at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.)

Google co-founder Sergey Brin (right) is a Russian-born immigrant. Google’s parent company employs more than 100,000 people. (File photo taken Jan. 15, 2004, at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.)

On the other end of the spectrum, poorer, uneducated immigrants tend to work in manual jobs such as construction, farming, and landscaping, or in service occupations such as helping the elderly or providing child care.

“People at the bottom end of the income distribution do the kinds of jobs that are hard to find native-born workers to do,” Abramitsky says. “Immigrants and native-born workers are not perfect substitutes for each other.”

A 2020 Pew Research poll indicates that Americans from both ends of the political spectrum generally agree that immigrants — undocumented and legal residents of the United States — often work in jobs that American citizens don’t want.

Tile subcontractor Horacio Gomez, right, originally from the Mexican state of Michoacan, measures and talks with homebuilder Joshua Correa about plans at a custom home under construction in Plano, Texas, Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Tile subcontractor Horacio Gomez, right, originally from the Mexican state of Michoacan, measures and talks with homebuilder Joshua Correa about plans at a custom home under construction in Plano, Texas, Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

But George Borgas, a Harvard professor and a labor economist who specializes in immigration issues, says the influx of immigrants can hurt the prospects of the working poor.

People in low-paying jobs that require limited education face significant competition from immigrants, according to Borjas, who writes that an increase in the pool of low-skilled workers leads to a decline in total income.

He says that the immigrants themselves, and the business owners who use the immigrant labor, are the biggest winners from the immigration flow.

In their book, Abramitsky and Grove point out that the strict immigrant quotas of the 1920s did not lead to an increase in the wages of manufacturing workers in the United States, even though immigration fell by “hundreds of thousands.”

The co-authors hope that lawmakers will examine the data before formulating future immigration laws and policies.

“That immigrants move upwards from nearly every sending country, no matter where they come from, suggests that there are more similarities than differences in immigrant experiences, despite the huge change in sending countries,” Abramitsky says.

“We see that immigrants are doing like immigrants in the past. … Designing policy (while) keeping in mind that immigrants are unable to assimilate and integrate, is misguided.”

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