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Immigrants and cultural assimilation

Author(s): Ran Abramitzky, Leah Boustan

Attitudes toward immigration policy are driven by fears about cultural diversity, not just individual economic circumstances. This column looks back at the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1913), when 30 million migrants moved from Europe to the US, to examine whether such fears are justified. US Census data from 1920 reveals that recent immigrants gave their children more foreign names than long-standing immigrants, which suggests that cultural assimilation did take place over time. This assimilation had economic benefits for children, both in school and in the labour market. 

From VoxEU:

Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee was based, in large part, on anti-immigrant sentiments. Trump first gained traction with the voters by proposing to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, claiming that Mexican immigrants were prone to crime.1 After a series of attacks, first in Paris and then in Orlando, Trump called for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries.2 Speaking of Muslim immigrants, Trump lamented that “[f]or some reason, there’s no real assimilation... I’m talking about second and third generation.”3

The resonance of Trump’s anti-immigrant message is consistent with survey evidence demonstrating that voters’ attitudes toward immigration policy are driven by their fears about cultural diversity, rather than just by their individual economic circumstances and whether they stand to gain or lose economically from in-migration (Citrin et al. 1997, Hainmueller and Hiscox 2007).

A century ago, anti-immigration politicians similarly argued that immigration was “bringing to the country people whom it is very difficult to assimilate and who do not promise well for the standard of civilization in the United States—a matter as serious as the effect [of immigration] on the labor market.” This statement was made by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a leading advocate for border closure, in 1891, but could just as well have been made by Trump in this election cycle. Like today, in the early 20th century, 15% of the US population was foreign born. But unlike today, the US border was open to nearly all immigration at the time, with exception of restrictions against Chinese and Japanese immigrants. A coalition of anti-immigration politicians built the case for closing the border by emphasising what they saw as immigrants’ inability to assimilate (King 2000). Strict immigration quotas were finally passed over a presidential veto in 1921.4

Despite the centrality of these concerns to voters’ preferences, there is little empirical evidence about the extent and speed at which different immigrant groups culturally assimilate into US society. In the past, new immigrants arrived from Southern and Eastern Europe, joining earlier waves of migrants from Britain, Germany and Ireland. Today, many immigrants hail from Latin America and Asia, entering a country that is already more diverse. Are fears that immigrants retain their own cultural practices and fail to fully join American society justified by the data?

In recent work with our co-author Katherine Eriksson, we study the cultural assimilation of immigrants during the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1913), during which 30 million migrants moved from Europe to the US (Abramitzky et al. 2016). We trace out a ‘cultural assimilation profile’ with time spent in the US, using changes in the foreignness of names that immigrant parents selected for their children as a measure of cultural adaptation. Children’s names offer an attractive measure of the assimilation process, both because names carry cultural content5 and because naming is a pure choice for immigrant parents, unconstrained by financial limitations or by discrimination on the part of natives.6 In particular, we measure the relative probability that each first name was held by a foreigner versus a native in the 1920 Census, and use this to construct a Foreignness Index, a measure between zero (name only held by natives) and one (name only held by foreigners).7


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