Roughly 1.8 million people have been turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border since March 2020, when the Trump administration invoked Title 42 — a public health order that allows Border Patrol agents to deny migrants entry to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus. Under the policy, agents can quickly expel the migrants without allowing them to seek asylum. The Biden administration’s intention to lift this restriction has set off renewed debate about the value of immigration and derailed plans for broader immigration reform. This is just the latest episode in a raging battle marked by divergent narratives about immigration. In 2016, President Barack Obama voiced his view that “America is stronger because of immigrants, America is great because of immigrants.” Announcing his presidential bid, Donald Trump offered a bleaker perspective, arguing that immigrants from Mexico “have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.”
Advocates of further restrictions on entry into the United States often cite concerns that immigrants might take jobs that would otherwise go to other Americans, strain public resources and create a permanent underclass of unassimilated families who never catch up. This has led to a particular focus on restricting entry by poorer immigrants and those from what Trump infamously referred to as “s---hole countries.” Proponents of immigration make both a moral case — “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” — and an economic one, arguing that immigrants have the potential to fuel the economy.
The reality is that immigration debates are often driven more by feelings than facts. And there is often disagreement about basic facts — such as how immigration has evolved over time, how successful immigrants become once they enter the United States and how they affect the communities they enter. The problem is, in part, a lack of accessible empirical evidence on the topic.
Enter “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success,” a book by economic historians Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan that seeks to set the record straight, using an economics tool kit and a treasure trove of data. Their mission is twofold. First, to offer a data-driven account of the history of American immigration. Second, to provide guidance into what research suggests about the design of immigration policy.
The book reflects an ongoing renaissance in the field of economic history fueled by technological advances — an increase in digitized records, new techniques to analyze them and the launch of platforms such as Ancestry — that are breathing new life into a range of long-standing questions about immigration. Abramitzky and Boustan are masters of this craft, and they creatively leverage the evolving data landscape to deepen our understanding of the past and present.
In contrast with the rags-to-riches mythology, a more systematic look at the data shows that low-income immigrants do not tend to catch up to nonimmigrant income levels in their lifetimes. Instead, financially successful immigrants tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. To name a few: the authors point out that the father of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk “co-owned an emerald mine.” EBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s “father is a surgeon who worked at Johns Hopkins University,” and his “mother has a PhD in linguistics.” Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s “father is a professor of mathematics,” and his “mother is a NASA scientist.” Looking at how many companies have been led by high-skilled immigrants, I wonder how much more innovation we are missing out on by not further opening our doors to the world’s talent. Yet these are hardly tales of huddled masses.
The case that lower-income and lower-education immigrants also meet with success rests on assessing not only the fates of immigrants themselves but also those of their children and their children’s children. As it turns out, Abramitzky and Boustan write, “children of poor immigrants from nearly every country in the world make it to the middle of the income distribution.” Immigrants from mainland China, Hong Kong and India do especially well.
The book debunks myths that immigrants dramatically increase crime and displace U.S.-born workers. Much of this work focuses on natural experiments in which sudden shocks to immigration levels have allowed for a better understanding of cause and effect. For instance, the authors point to the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought an influx of Cuban immigrants to the United States, especially to Miami, virtually overnight. The surge of low-income immigrants did not lead to large spikes in unemployment for U.S.-born workers. Low-skill immigrants have a history of taking jobs that would otherwise be unfilled or filled by machines. As companies around America were rushing to automate operations, the influx of Cuban immigrants to the Miami area slowed this process, and jobs went to people rather than to machines. Compared with the rest of the country, businesses in high-immigration areas have access to more workers and hence less incentive to invest in further automation.
This has implications for today’s immigration debates: The United States is expected to face a dramatic labor market shortage as baby boomers retire and lower birthrates over time result in fewer young people to replace them. Increased immigration is one approach to avoiding the crunch. Notably, the other way to avert this crisis is through further automation, enabled by rapid advances in artificial intelligence. Immigration policy will help shape the extent to which the economy relies on people vs. machines in the decades to come.
Immigration is, of course, about more than economic activity. Part of its beauty is the cultural richness and diversity that it brings. A multicultural society is greater than the sum of its parts. Miami is exciting not because of assimilation but because of the culture that its diverse population has created. It’s a city where you can find croquettes and Cuban coffees as easily as pizza and burgers. There is a rich history of immigrants bringing new cuisines, which are then adopted and adapted throughout the United States, a journey that can be seen in the evolution of Italian American food.
Drawing on the research, Abramitzky and Boustan weigh in on a number of hot-button policy issues: For instance, should the United States focus on encouraging high-education immigration? They conclude that “policies designed to deter less-educated immigrants from entering the United States are misguided.” Discussing the border wall, they argue that “no one wins from the border fencing policies.” And on the 1.5 million undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, they make a full-throated argument in favor of “providing work permits and a path to citizenship,” noting that “the barriers that undocumented children face are stumbling blocks of our own making.” On this last point, it is hard to disagree. Our treatment of undocumented children is a stain on our nation.
In the end, the authors offer an optimistic message: “Immigration contributes to a flourishing American society.” In a rapidly evolving world, Abramitzky and Boustan urge us to take “the long view, acknowledging that upward mobility takes time, and is sometimes measured at the pace of generations, rather than years.”
“Streets of Gold” led me to reflect on my own family’s journey. I thought about my great-grandparents Carmelo and Vincenza, who moved from Sicily to New York in the 1910s. As a recent immigrant, my great-grandfather didn’t speak English and — according to the census — worked as a “laborer.” “Scrivilo” (Write it down), he would say when looking for work. His employers would write down the address, and he would go there for the day. He and my great-grandmother spent the rest of their lives in a railroad-style apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they raised four children, including my grandmother. In my grandmother’s telling, her parents left Sicily in search of opportunity for their family. My grandmother lived her entire life in those same few blocks of Manhattan, worked as a nanny and had a culture that was distinctly Italian American (from her cooking to her mixing of languages) and distinctly New York (her love of the Yankees and H&H bagels). My parents taught elementary school in Upstate New York.
And a century after my family moved to this country, I moved to Boston and became a professor. I still cook my grandmother’s recipes (such as a pasta dish with sardines, raisins and fennel); I still root for the Yankees (despite living in Boston!); and I don’t speak a word of Italian.
Shortly after my grandmother passed away a few years ago, I was chatting with one of her friends. She shared stories about my grandmother and reminisced about her love of children and of cooking. She told me how happy my grandmother was to see her children and grandchildren as adults, enjoying their lives and contributing to society.
As we parted ways, she said something that has stuck with me and echoes the main message of “Streets of Gold.” Commenting on the struggles, the successes, the sorrows and the joys that families face across generations, she said: “That is the American Dream.”
Michael Luca is the Lee J. Styslinger III associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a co-author of “The Power of Experiments: Decision Making in a Data-Driven World.”
America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success
By Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan
PublicAffairs. 237 pp. $29