European immigrants assimilated successfully, economist says

European immigrants assimilated successfully, economist says
New research challenges conventional wisdom about immigrant assimilation during the bygone era of open borders and mass migration. Credit: Lewis Hine/Library of Congress

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an "open borders" United States absorbed millions of European immigrants in one of the largest mass migrations ever. New research by Stanford economist Ran Abramitzky challenges the perception that immigrants lagged behind native-born Americans in job pay and career growth.

European to America during the country's largest migration wave in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had earnings comparable to native-born Americans, contrary to the popular perception, according to new Stanford research.

"Our paper challenges conventional wisdom and prior research about immigrant assimilation during this period," said Ran Abramitzky, an associate professor of economics at Stanford and author of the research paper in the Journal of Political Economy.

Abramitzky and his colleagues found the average immigrant in that period did not face a substantial "earnings penalty" – lower pay than native-born workers – upon their arrival.

"The initial earnings penalty is overstated," said Abramitzky.

He said the conventional view is that the average European immigrants held substantially lower-paying jobs than native-born Americans upon first arrival and caught up with natives' earnings after spending some time in the United States. But that perception does not hold up to the facts, he said.

Abramitzky's co-authors include Leah Platt Boustan from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Katherine Eriksson from California Polytechnic State University.

The researchers examined records on 21,000 natives and immigrants from 16 European countries in U.S. Census Bureau data from 1900 to 1910 to 1920.

"Even when U.S. borders were open, the average immigrant who ended up settling in the United States over the long term held occupations that commanded pay similar to that of U.S. natives upon first arrival," Abramitzky said.

In that bygone era of "open borders," Abramitzky said, native-born Americans were concerned that immigrants were not assimilating properly into society – yet, on the whole, this concern appears to be unfounded. "Such concerns are echoed in today's debate over immigration policy," he added.

At the same time, Abramitzky said that immigrants from poorer countries started out with lower paid occupations relative to natives and did not manage to close this gap over time.

"This pattern casts doubt on the conventional view that, in the past, immigrants who arrived with few skills were able to invest in themselves and succeed in the U.S. economy within a single generation," Abramitzky and his colleagues wrote.

Age of migration

America took in more than 30 million immigrants during the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1913), a period when the country had open borders. By 1910, 22 percent of the U.S. labor force – and 38 percent of workers in non-southern cities – was foreign-born (compared with 17 percent today).

As the research showed, immigrants then were more likely than natives to settle in states with a high-paying mix of occupations. Location choice was an important strategy they used to achieve occupational parity with native-born Americans.

"This Age of Mass Migration not only is of interest in itself, as one of the largest migration waves in modern history, but also is informative about the process of immigrant assimilation in a world without migration restrictions," Abramitzky said.

Over time, many of the immigrants came from the poorer regions of southern and eastern Europe.

Abramitzky pointed out that native-born Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were concerned about poverty in immigrant neighborhoods and low levels of education among children, many of whom left school early to work in industry.

Consequently, American political progressives championed a series of reforms, including U.S. child labor laws and compulsory schooling requirements.

Still, some natives believed that new arrivals would never fit into American society. And so, in 1924, Congress set a strict quota of 150,000 immigrant arrivals per year, with more slots allocated to immigrants from northern and western European countries than those from southern and eastern Europe.

But those early-20th-century fears of unassimilated immigrants were baseless, according to Abramitzky.

"Our results indicate that these concerns were unfounded: The average long-term immigrants in this era arrived with skills similar to those of natives and experienced identical rates of occupational upgrading over their life cycle," he wrote.

How does this lesson apply to today's immigration policy discussion? Should the numbers of immigrants and their countries of origin be limited and those with higher skills be given more entry slots?

Abramitzky said stereotyping immigrants has affected the political nature of the contemporary debate.

"These successful outcomes suggest that migration restrictions are not always necessary to ensure strong migrants' performance in the labor market," he said.

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Journal information: Journal of Political Economy

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Aug 08, 2014
Count on to push the leftist political agenda.

Aug 08, 2014
an "open borders" United States

There were no open borders.
There was a process and not all were allowed into the USA.

Aug 08, 2014
The author of the article apparently lives in alternate reality. The immigrants always tend to form ghettos, especially at the moment, when their concentration and economical self-sufficiency increases. The global monopolies solved their problem with import of cheap labor force, but they leaved the solution of related social problems for local governments. At the case of economical or political crisis they just fired the excessive laborers and leave all care for them to country, which accepted them.

This is a similar corruption problem, like the selling out the raw sources and similar things. Of course this is not the problem of global companies, but less or more corrupted governmental officers, which allowed this in the name of "freedom and interests of immigrants". But where the freedom and interest of their own citizens are?

Aug 08, 2014
For example in our country the Vietnamese are best assimilated from all minorities, but they never form a mixed families or markets - only Vietnamese markets with their own rules and economy (which are often on the verge of the grey economics with respect to paying of tax etc.). Macroscopically these immigrants appear assimilated for someone, but from micro-economical perspective they're still forming an independent social continuum, like the oil shaken with water. At the case of whatever problem, this continuum will start to condense and it will precipitate out of its host society. The migrants are a timed bomb problem.

Aug 08, 2014
Not just the Vietnamese.
There were all sorts of similar enclaves of Irish, Italians, Poles, .... in all major cities.
Boston's North End was traditionally Italian and still may have many Italians living their, but diffusion eventually occurs.
Especially with 2nd and 3rd generations.
Filipinos assimilate all over the world yet still maintain a culture.

Aug 08, 2014
We apparently should define, what the "assimilation" means. It's not just a getting a job in the foreign country (although for global monopolies it's apparently more than enough).

Aug 08, 2014
Clearly they did not assimilate, at least in the case of Jews, for instance Abramitzky, who still support their tribe and its nation-state Israel against their nominal country the USA, while at the same time pushing immigration to dilute and demographically displace their fellow US citizens, yet also supporting a war to prevent mixing of more Arabs into their Jewish ethno-state. To put it as gently as possible, it is inconsistent and not plausibly unintended.

How can any economist not realize that expanding the supply of labor through immigration depresses wages? Or is that the point, and he really wants that to happen to Americans?

Aug 08, 2014
Clearly they did not assimilate,

Do you always mumble?

Aug 08, 2014
Here's my top-ten list of what we should expect from those who want to become Americans (and those who are already Americans, for that matter). The list was first published in a National Review Online column a decade ago [link: ], and it is fleshed out in Congressional testimony [link: http://www.aila.o...d=164788 ]:

1. Don't disparage anyone else's race or ethnicity.
2. Respect women.
3. Learn to speak English.
4. Be polite.
5. Don't break the law.
6. Don't have children out of wedlock.
7. Don't demand anything because of your race or ethnicity.
8. Don't view working and studying hard as "acting white."
9. Don't hold historical grudges.
10. Be proud of being an American.

Aug 09, 2014
This clown ignores the main objection that native-born Americans had to massive immigrants, which was that they competed for jobs and drove down wage rates. When my grandfather arrived from Ireland in 1912 he was able to get a fairly good job as a railway inspector (through family connections). This was good for him but not so good for the guy who didn't get the job.

According to this clown's criteria, my grandfather "assimilated" in the US because he landed a well-paying job. In actually my grandfather always lived in immigrant neighborhoods and when he retired he returned to Ireland with enough savings to buy a farm.

Aug 09, 2014
Keyword "European". Also immigrating into what was already largely an offshoot of European culture. Other immigrants may or may not assimilate, depending on their cultural traits and other things. This certainly cannot be generalized to all immigrants.

Aug 09, 2014
According to this clown's criteria

Why don't you rebut each one by one, clown?
Did your grandfather speak English?
Other immigrants may or may not assimilate, depending on their cultural traits

Those that don't support life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and want socialism to plunder the wealth of others shouldn't assimilate well.

Aug 09, 2014
"Border Patrol agent and vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, Shawn Moran, debunked the argument that illegal immigrants are only coming to the United States to work on Friday's "America's Newsroom" on the Fox News Channel.

"These are not people just coming here to work as the so-called line is fed to us. These people are coming here to do horrible things. And I think the murder of Agent [Javier] Vega shows what these people are capable of," he said. And, "We're up against close to 50 years of lack of border enforcement by the U.S. government. We have two political parties that are unwilling to take real enforcement action, and we have had two administrations in a row that gutted enforcement actions by the U.S. Border Patrol, by ICE agents, that do not allow us to actually go to do our job. We are handcuffed at every single turn.""

Aug 09, 2014
@ryggeson- The clown I was referring to was Abramitzky, the sorry economist who wrote the article we are commenting on. His criteria are already in the article.

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