In American mythology, the huddled (largely white) masses of the Ellis Island era swarmed our shores, tamed the prairies, fueled the Industrial Revolution, and became the heroes of the American success story. Immigrants today (largely non-white) are portrayed somewhat less charitablely, often as people who have come without marketable skills in search of alms.
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Today, thousands of genealogists, working anonymously, have shattered this myth and upended our perception of American immigrants. No spoilers, but the data shows that the current wave of immigrants are succeeding and assimilating at nearly the same rate as immigrants a century ago.
“Mexicans today are just as upwardly mobile as the English and Norwegians of the past,” Ran Abramitzky, an economist at Stanford University, told us.
With Leah Boustan, now of Princeton University, Abramitzky helps change the way we look at American immigrants during a 14-year effort to track Americans across generations by linking their records into one of humanity’s greatest data treasures: the old files decennial census.
Seventy-two years after each census, the government publishes every data sheet collected by census takers in one beautiful data dump. But for decades, that was more or less the end. Piles of beautiful data dumps were slowly degrading in warehouses and government data centers.
It took years of painstaking research for pioneering researchers such as Joseph Ferrie of Northwestern University to link even a few thousand people across multiple censuses in the 678 million records now available.
Enter the genealogists. Boustan and Abramitzky realized that, line by line, great-uncle by great-uncle, people on genealogy sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch, many of whom were devoted amateurs, had quietly built the Taj Mahal of economic data: digital copies of early censuses.
To access this data, economists only needed to break into the Taj Mahal.
There were some early setbacks. When they wrote a program to automatically download hundreds of thousands of Ancestry records, Abramitzky said, they got a call from a curious corporate lawyer. The company noticed their activity and assumed they either had an insanely huge family tree or were trying to steal company data and kick out a competitor. (A spokesperson for Ancestry said the company had no knowledge of this interaction.)
But Abramitzky’s enthusiasm for immigration research is highly infectious. Within minutes, the corporate lawyer was fascinated by their findings and launched questions about how generations of Italians and other nationalities had evolved in the New World.
Thus began a long working relationship that discreetly transformed economic research.
A few years after that phone call, the High Priesthood of Data at the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS would make much of that historic census data freely available to scholars online. Today, hundreds of millions of records at IPUMS can be credited to genealogy sources such as Ancestry – a Utah for-profit organization that was purchased in 2020 for $4.7 billion by private equity giant Blackstone – and FamilySearch, a nonprofit affiliate of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which relies heavily on volunteer efforts to decipher ancient documents.
Ancestry alone has more than 30 billion records in its database, including contributions from its nearly 3.8 billion subscribers. Using genealogical data, economists could soon follow generations of Ellis Island-era immigrants as they assimilated (or not) and prospered (or not).
“Our work would not be possible without the volunteers who digitized this data,” Abramitzky said.
As we speak, more than 150,000 FamilySearch volunteers are racing to digitize 151 million 1950 Census records, newly released in April. With the help of Ancestry’s handwriting recognition algorithms, which are double-checked by volunteers on FamilySearch’s phone and web apps, they’ve turned checking census data into a friendly, high-scoring competition.
One of those volunteers, Laurel Peregrino, 66, has already reviewed more than 51,000 names and entered additional demographic data for more than 2,000 families, most of them in California and Texas – two of the many states in which she has lived before settling around Philadelphia. A passionate genealogist, Peregrino dug into her family’s history for a quarter of a century and made half a dozen trips to the DC National Archives to delve into topics such as her grandfather’s 1952 testimony before the House Un -American Activities Committee.
“I love feeling like I’m giving back and helping other people find records that are important to them,” Peregrino said. “I’d rather play word games or do a wordy project like the census than play video games or watch movies.”
Armed with data from genealogists, Boustan and Abramitzky methodically dismantled the myths that have grown up around past generations and revealed startling truths. Overall, immigrants struggle, fail, succeed, and assimilate at similar rates. And those who assimilate the fastest and whose children improve the most are often those who suffered the most contempt upon their arrival.
The data reveals that there was nothing particularly special about the immigrants at Ellis Island. Most of them have struggled all their lives to make it in America and have never caught up with their native-born peers. Many others abandoned the American experience altogether and returned home where, Boustan said, they “were able to take what they learned or saved in America and apply it to success on European shores.”
In fact, while immigrants from Ellis Island were better off when they arrived than immigrants today, thanks in large part to the prosperity of their home countries, the economic progress they made during of their lives were surprisingly similar.
Because their data tracks immigrants across generations, the researchers were able to write the surprising sequel to immigrants’ early struggles: Their children thrived in America, climbing the economic ladder faster than their native-born peers. And it’s the same for immigrants today.
“Children of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic are just as likely to grow out of their parents’ circumstances today as the children of poor Swedes and Finns were a hundred years ago,” the economists write in their new book, “Streets of Gold”. ”
According to Boustan and Abramitzky, the secret weapon deployed by immigrant parents was not education. Nor was it a demanding parenting style like that depicted in Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”
It was geographic mobility.
Immigrant children tended to outperform their peers from similar economic backgrounds because, unhampered by deep roots in their hometown, their parents were willing to move to where the jobs were. If you compare immigrants to similar native children born in the same place, they succeed at similar rates. It’s just that immigrant children are much more likely to have grown up in one of these places with many opportunities.
“Immigrants live in places that provide upward mobility for everyone,” Boustan said.
Given the limitations of census data, cultural assimilation is more difficult to measure. But Abramitzky, himself an immigrant from Israel, noticed something about his own family. When he was new to the United States, he gave his first son a distinctively Israeli name, Roee. Friends and teachers had trouble pronouncing it. For each subsequent child, Abramitzky and his wife struggled to find names that fit their culture, but sounded more familiar to American ears — first Ido and, finally, Tom.
Economists have found the same trend in census data. The longer they stayed here, the more likely immigrant parents were to choose less foreign names for their children. This is closely linked to other measures of assimilation, such as intermarriage and English proficiency.
By the time the immigrants of the Ellis Island era had been in the United States for 20 years, they had already closed half of the “foreign name gap” with native residents. For immigrants today, California birth records—one of the largest databases of modern names available—show an identical pattern.
Moreover, the lower the economic status of a group upon arrival, the faster it assimilates: the Mexicans of today, like the Portuguese of the time of Ellis Island, were among the fastest to adopt American names.
Like their Ellis Island predecessors, today’s immigrants have sparked a nativist reaction. But in that backlash, they faced an unfair adversary: impossibly high expectations based on rose-tinted memories of their predecessors.
In fact, today’s immigrants – and their children – are building the American dream with as much speed, ingenuity and success as the huddled masses of centuries past.
At the Data Department, fun facts are serious business. We’ll have more information on where the genealogy data revolution is heading in a later column. But we’d love to hear your data suggestions in the meantime. We have figures on insect eggs and Italian immigrants in Argentina, but what datasets are we missing? What questions do we need to answer? Maybe you are curious which countries are hosting the most refugees or how many tankers are still carrying Russian oil. You just have to ask!
If your question inspires a column, we’ll send you a button and ID acknowledging you as an official Data Department agent. Today’s column button will go to our friend Marion Harrell in Maryland, who helped inspire it.