The American Dream

What millions of genealogical records teach us about immigration

In January 2021, while he was being sworn into office, Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff carried with him copies of two historical documents. As he later tweeted

“Today, as I was sworn in, I held in my jacket pocket copies of the ships’ manifests recorded at Ellis Island when my Great Grandfather Israel arrived in 1911 and my Great Grandmother Annie arrived in 1913. A century later, their great grandson was elected to the US Senate.”

Ossoff’s story is but one of many in a new book, Streets of Gold by Ran Abramitzsky and Leah Boustan, two economists who study immigration. The book is the product of years of effort digitizing and evaluating millions of genealogical records and old government documents about people, their names, and where they came from. 

Abramitzsky and Boustan paint a vivid picture of immigration. They make it clear that immigration has been a benefit to the country—it’s likely how most of us got here. 

Streets of Gold brings much-needed perspective to today’s debates on what to do about immigration. Even though the United States has prided itself on being a nation of immigrants, we have always had a segment of the population that wants to put “Stay Out!” signs around the country.  

The tension between wide gates and closed doors is obvious today as well. We can release much of it by integrating three truths about immigration from Streets of Gold into our conversations around it: 

  1. Immigrants assimilate or “Americanize.”
  2. The US brings new opportunities to immigrants.
  3. The success of immigrants complements the success of natives.

On assimilation and attitudes towards immigrants, there’s nothing new under the sun

Today’s debates about immigration have obvious echoes in American history. In 1882, members of Congress worried that Chinese people would not assimilate—and so passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. As a predecessor to COVID-19’s effects on immigration, one congressional Representative claimed that “Ninety-nine out of every hundred of [Chinese migrants] have the smallpox.” 

Much like the misinformed idea that 99 percent of Chinese migrants had smallpox, evidence to warrant worries about assimilation does not show up in the data. As Abramitzsky and Boustan conclude, “We find in the data that immigrants today are no more likely to retain their home culture than were immigrants in the past.” 

More recently, in 2009 political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that cities like Los Angeles or Miami, with their large influx of Cubans and others from Central and South America, were being lost. English, he asserted, was second to Spanish, and Cuban flags were often more prominent than American flags. This, “Hispanic Challenge,” as Huntington called it, demanded a response because immigrants were not Americanizing. 

Huntington could have been writing in almost any period of American history. 

As Abramitzsky and Boustan point out, these same concerns motivated policymakers 150 years ago. In addition to the genealogical records they analyzed, they also digitized 150 years of congressional speeches and used an algorithm to analyze whether those speeches attacked or defended immigrants. According to the authors, concerns about assimilation have always followed immigrants. 

Consider Huntington’s worries about English-speaking abilities, a key indicator of assimilation. In truth, immigrants speak English at high rates. In 1920, about 80 percent of immigrants were proficient in English. Applying those same standards today, 87 percent of Latino immigrants and 95 percent of Asian immigrants speak English. But these measures come from a simple yes or no question—what about fluency? 

To look at this, Abramitzsky and Boustan used recordings from the Ellis Island Oral History Project. These are recordings taken of immigrants who entered the US through Ellis Island. The authors and their assistants coded the complexity and proficiency of English using these recordings. Then they evaluated how well the immigrants spoke English. 

Studying these recordings reveals what you might expect. Those who came to the US at a younger age were better English speakers later in life. Those who came from English-speaking countries did better. But overall, the research team concludes, “All these differences dissipate as immigrants spend more time in the country.”

English-speaking is one of the primary ways that immigrants assimilate, but it’s far from the only marker of Americanization that Streets of Gold reveals. Another is more personal—what parents choose to name their children. Using the genealogical records, the authors show not only that people often Americanized their own names, but as time passed, parents chose more American names for their children. 

Abramitzsky, himself an immigrant from Israel, followed this pattern in his family. His first son is named ‘Roee,’ a Hebrew word for shepherd (to the reported bewilderment of babysitters and teachers). But later, the Abramitzskys chose the name ‘Tom’ for one of their children. Tom means innocence in Hebrew but is common in the US (making it easier on the American-born child, and his teachers). 

Any discussion of assimilation should include a difficult question. How much assimilation do we really want? So much that the Indian family that runs an authentic restaurant in your town begins serving hot dogs and apple pie instead of curry? Too much, and assimilation wipes individuality that is strengthening. Even the word assimilation at its extreme conjures pictures of body-snatching aliens. 

This is why Abramitzsky and Boustan conclude their chapter on how immigrants become Americans with a section simply titled, ‘Support assimilation, but don’t force it.’ Their research is clear that worries about assimilation are disconnected from America’s actual immigrant experience. 

Assimilation has happened throughout US history. It continues today without being forced. The diversity that immigration brings should be celebrated, not feared. 

The American dream is alive for immigrants’ children 

One hundred seventy-four years ago, Andrew Carnegie came to the US as a Dreamer. At least, that’s what we would call him today. He was a 13-year-old child with practically nothing. As an adult, he became a steel industry magnate—one of the richest people alive at the time. Carnegie was richer than Bill Gates is today. He supported a variety of charitable projects from his success. You may have visited one of the more than 1,500 Carnegie libraries he supported across the country

Carnegie’s life is the rags-to-riches story we often tell about immigrants. However, Abramitzky and Boustan’s research shows that Carnegie’s story was less common than we might expect. 

Achieving the American dream was difficult. Instead of being an immediate success, immigrants often worked in jobs where they were paid less than their skills or education merited. 

But their children found the American dream.

In fact, according to Abramitzky and Boustan, the children of immigrants have a history of climbing much higher up the income ladder than similar natives. The research gives two reasons for this. 

First, immigrants may not have earned as much as their skills or education level should have brought them, but they were still able to pass on more education and skills to their children. Their children were then better able to use those skills—perhaps because they spoke English or were otherwise more Americanized. Children may not have faced the same discrimination that their parents did. 

Second, immigrants moved to places of great opportunity. Since immigrants were already paying the cost of moving, they chose areas that were moving up in the world. Immigrant families that settled in areas that needed workers planted their children in fertile soil. This enabled the children to rise much higher than the children of natives who didn’t move. 

It may also be that education mattered—Abramitzky and Boustan include comments from a variety of children of immigrants about the parental pressures to succeed. But they show that it’s really the location, not the education, that determines success. In the past, the children of immigrants received comparable schooling or less, not more schooling than the children of natives. So the historical success of the children of immigrants isn’t because of extra schooling.

This might not be the same today, the authors caution. Education matters much more today in a world of artificial intelligence and coding than it did in the days when many people worked in manufacturing or agriculture. But their research so far suggests that location is key.

The location you live in has immense power on long-term outcomes. Think about this finding from Streets of Gold: The children of immigrants earned more than the children of natives in other locations—but they don’t earn more than the children of natives who grow up in the same location. On top of that, just like the children of immigrants, the children of natives who moved into another state earn more. Migration is the secret sauce to economic success.

Of course, migration is not cheap. Immigrants are already paying the costs of moving. Natives aren’t. Instead, natives may view the sunk costs of the community, home, and their current job as reason to stay. Because of their social ties, encouraging natives to move to opportunity may not be enough. Though Abramitzky and Boustan’s research suggests great promise for those who take the leap.

There’s nothing to fear from immigration

Streets of Gold’s findings should put fears of losing America to bed for good. Immigrants neither send natives to unemployment offices nor rob America of its culture or institutions that make it the most powerful country on Earth. 

In this, Abramitzky and Boustan join a host of researchers pushing back the ever-present claims of doom, but never realized. The evidence that Abramitzsky and Boustan present suggests that cultural concerns about immigration will largely be molehills masquerading as mountains.

Likewise, the book’s discussion of economic research on immigration suggests that we’re better together. Yes, some research findings suggest immigration reduces wages for subsets of the native workforce. But our attempts at excluding immigrants have not improved wages for natives—even when done at a large scale. 

For example, the ending of the Bracero work program in 1964 between the US and Mexico meant excluding almost half a million Mexican workers from the US. This was a policy choice explicitly intended to help native workers, Abramitzsky and Boustan explain. 

Before his assassination, President Kennedy had been working on ending the Bracero program. Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, ended the agreement and kicked out the workers as part of his war on poverty. But native wages did not improve. Instead, the agricultural businesses that previously hired immigrants automated and mechanized

A similar process is playing out today. Agricultural companies are looking to rely less on workers and more on machines. This is because immigration declined during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not returned to previous levels yet. Today, the US has about five million more open positions than unemployed people. We don’t have enough natives to fill those positions. That’s a strong incentive to start working out how to automate agricultural jobs and manufacturing.

If kicking out almost 500,000 workers didn’t improve wages in 1964, there is good reason to doubt that similar efforts at exclusion or deportation will improve them today. 

Streets of Gold points to research showing that much of our border enforcement has backfired. As US policy has made it increasingly difficult to move between Central and South America and the US, more and more temporary workers have become permanent settlers. In 1995, only about a “third of Mexican immigrants stayed in the United States for more than ten years,” the authors write. “By 2018 this number had risen to 83 percent.”

Streets of Gold presents a compelling argument that there’s nothing to fear from immigration. The immigration story it tells is one of cultural assimilation and greater economic outcomes—for immigrants and natives.  

We’re better together—that’s the simple takeaway from the millions of genealogy records that Abramiztsky and Boustan analyzed.

As the authors conclude, “We find overwhelming evidence that the children of immigrants move up the ladder, regardless of which country immigrants come from.” 

That’s an American story worth celebrating.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.