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.”

Stanford economist Ran Abramitzky is co-author of a new book that looks at how the immigration experience has evolved over time in America. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

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 the 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.

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.

Abramitzky and his co-author, Leah Boustan, showed that children of poor immigrants achieve more economic mobility than the children of white U.S.-born fathers. This chart tracks the average income rank of sons raised at the 25th percentile of the income distribution by fathers born in various countries or in the United States. (Image credit: Courtesy of Ran Abramitzky)

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.”