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The future of immigration

An economic historian explains how he is using 200 years of immigration data and AI to unravel long-held myths about our immigrant past.
Antique map with illustrated people figures.
How does allowing people to move across borders help alleviate global poverty? | iStock/Orbon Alija

Ran Abramitzky studies the economic history of immigration by tapping into now-public government records and using AI to chart changing attitudes on immigration captured in written documents and official speeches.

What’s revealed is a remarkable story that often diverges from conventional wisdom. Not all streets were paved with gold, Abramitzky tells host Russ Altman, himself a descendant of immigrants, on this episode of Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast.

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[00:00:00] Ran Abramitzky: That's something that we always have to remember when we study immigration. At the end of the day, it's about people who want to move to opportunity relative to what they had. And so, uh, you will not find any immigration policy that the World Bank can come up with that is as effective in lifting global poverty as allowing people to move across borders.

[00:00:26] Russ Altman: This is Stanford Engineering's The Future of Everything, and I'm your host, Russ Altman. Before I get started, please remember to follow the podcast if you're not doing so already and hit the bell icon if you're listening on Spotify. This ensures that you'll be alerted to all new episodes and won't miss out on the future of anything.

[00:00:43] Today, Ran Abramitzky will tell us that there are many myths about immigration and immigrants, and busting some of these myths will change the way we think about these issues; it's The Future of Immigration.

[00:00:55] Before we jump into this episode, I'd like to ask you to rate and review the podcast. It'll help others figure out if they're interested in The Future of Everything.

[00:01:11] Many of us descend from immigrants who came to the United States for a variety of reasons. They came from many places, they came for many reasons, they had different experiences once they arrived here, and they were accepted with different degrees of happiness. Well, this all can be studied, we have more than 200 years of immigration records here in the United States, and these data can be used to understand the details of the immigrant experience, and importantly, what have been the outcomes for America.

[00:01:41] Ran Abramitzky is a professor of economics and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He studies economic history, and applied microeconomics with a special focus on immigration and income inequality.

[00:01:56] Ran, thanks so much for being with us. And let's just get right into it. You study immigrants, their history and common myths about immigration and immigrants. How do you conduct this work? What are your, the tools of your study that allow you to draw conclusions? 

[00:02:10] Ran Abramitzky: Thanks for having me, Russ. It's a great question. I am an economic historian. So, I am a, first of all, an economist. So, I use quantitative methods and I construct large data sets, but I'm also very respectful of the history and listening to immigrants in their own voices and so on. And so basically the way we do it in terms of the data is after 72 years, all the records in public government records become publicly, all the private records become publicly available so that we can see immigrants. You know, in the same way that you look for your grand, great, great parents in the, we can see, look at people, see what they do for a living, where they live, what the names of the children are. And so, and then we can link them to the following census, you know, like in the following census. And that way we create genealogies of millions of millions of immigrant families that we can follow them and their children over time. So that's kind of one way we do it. 

[00:03:10] The other way is like we read text, for example, congressional speeches, presidential speeches, immigrants that speak, you know, with Ellis Island Foundation, and we use text analysis. But all of that is just, you know, so then we use statistics and economics to analyze the data. But at the same time, we never forget that this is nothing more than just the summary and the, and the collection of many individual immigrant stories. And we always try to bring the individual stories, uh, in our book and in our work. 

[00:03:39] Russ Altman: Wonderful. Thank you, and I, of course, I want to hear about the findings, which are fascinating. But the next question, and it seems basic is, is it clear what constitutes an immigrant? And I ask that because you can imagine immigrants who come for economic opportunity, immigrants who are refugees, immigrants who were enslaved, and that's how they got to the country. So maybe scope, what are we talking about when we talk about immigrants?

[00:04:03] Ran Abramitzky: Right. It's a, you know, so there is no obvious definition, you know, you, there is also like people who arrived here as children. People who are second generation immigrants, the grandchildren of immigrants and so on. So, you know, we are focusing on voluntary immigration. So, we focus on people who choose to, you know, choose to come here. We talk about both the children, the immigrants themselves and the children of immigrants. 

[00:04:24] And so, you know, today there are like 45 million immigrants in the United States, immigrants defined as people who report their Country of origin as not the United States. Uh, there are 45 million of them, but we look at immigrants and their children going back to the 1900s, uh, people who arrived from Europe, then people who arrived from Latin America and Mexico in the current period. But we focus mostly on, uh, you know, we don't talk that much about, uh, slavery. That's a whole different topic that my coauthor has done, uh, much work on. And so, we focus mostly on, on voluntary immigrants. 

[00:05:01] Russ Altman: Great. So, I want to get into it and I'm going to tell you about myself for just a minute. So, I'm from New York, bunch of people come to New York, it's a great mixing pot, but I'm going to focus just, just to tell you this, because it might be relevant to our conversation. One of my ancestries is Italian. And as I understand it, there were four brothers in Sicily, two came to America and two didn't come to America. And I went back to Sicily and the family that I visited in Sicily was very poor. It was clear that they had not had a lot of opportunities and it, what really struck me, which was the difference in the experience that the two brothers who stayed behind and the two brothers who came to America had. 

[00:05:38] So, that's, as I, as I was reading about your work and this story came, because nobody's ever analyzed it, but I suspect you have a lot of insight for me and for many others who are descendants of these immigrants of like, what was their experience. So, tell me about the myths, because you, a lot of times you construct your, you, you present your work as a series of these fascinating myths. The first one being that, um, once people come to Ellis Island in the 1900s, as you just described, and as my ancestors did, um, they rose up through culture very quickly, their economic opportunity was right there, and they just took advantage of it, and everything happened very quickly. Is that true? 

[00:06:16] Ran Abramitzky: It's not exactly true, although what is true in your family story, your family story is quite representative in the sense that the first part of the story is by how much immigrants improve their prospects when they come to the United States relative to what they would do in the old country. And so, immigrants at least double or more than double their incomes and their prospects relative to, uh, to the home country. And that's something that we always have to remember when we study immigration. At the end of the day, it's about people who want to move to opportunity relative to what they had. And so, uh, you will not find any immigration policy that the World Bank can come up with that is as effective in lifting global poverty as allowing people to move across borders. Which is what you saw with your family, you know, like people who moved from Sicily to here relative to those who stayed. But what is a myth is the rags to riches story. So...

[00:07:10] Russ Altman: Right. 

[00:07:11] Ran Abramitzky: There is this, uh, you know, there is this myth immigrants came with nothing and then they quickly move from rags to riches in the past. And that's kind of like where the streets of gold story came from, you know? 

[00:07:21] But in fact, we, the, the, the, the title of our book is Streets of Gold for a different reason. It's because, you know, the. An Italian immigrant, actually, in the 1900s who came to the US, he said something like, you know, when I came to America, you know, I was told that the streets in America were paved with gold. But when I came here, I realized three things. First, the streets were not paved with gold. Second, they were not paved at all. And third, I was the one expected to pave them. 

[00:07:50] And so that captured perfectly what we wanted to capture with, you know, that there is this story based on this nostalgic view, you know, maybe family stories. Oh, you know, like my, we came with nothing, and we moved very quickly from rags to riches. But in fact, many immigrants in our large data set, uh, they continue to, you know, they came, they either came in rags, and they continue to work in menial jobs throughout their lives and they never moved to riches. 

[00:08:19] Or some of them did actually not come in rags. They actually came, they did better than the U.S. born even upon first arrival. And they continue to do better than, than the U.S. born upon, uh, you know, 30 years later. So, both the rags and the riches, the story, you know, both the coming in rags and the moving quickly to riches are based in myth. 

[00:08:39] Russ Altman: Do they tend to take jobs that are below the level that they had in the old country?

[00:08:44] Ran Abramitzky: Yes, we have that too. So, you know, yes, you know, the story of, you know, the Russian scientists who come to the US and they, they, they drive the taxi and then, uh, and then, uh, yes, so he does that, that happens too. Uh, and, and, you know, some of them, uh, depending on, of course, on which country they come from, if they come from a country that speaks English, they have an easier job finding a job that is appropriate, appropriate to their skills. If not, they often go working in manual labor. They, many of them, you know, make a sacrifice in order for the second generation to be more, you know, more successful. 

[00:09:17] Russ Altman: Yes. Yes. So, another myth you've talked about is, um, the degree to which they want to become citizens eventually. And I'm sure you have pretty good data on conversion from immigrant to, like, green card or citizen. What, how do immigrants make that calculation? Do they even care about it? Maybe they're just trying to feed their family and, and citizenship status is not important, or is it? 

[00:09:38] Ran Abramitzky: You know, we, we studied this in, in a broader context of, you know, as we were, we are economists. So we were, we, we tended to focus on the economics of it, you know, how do immigrants do, how do the children do economically.

[00:09:49] But then we realized, you know, people ask, well, but, you know, people who are opponents of immigrants say, well, it's not about the economics. Like we don't like that they, that they don't assimilate culturally into the United States. So, we thought, how can we, in the big data, capture some of this more cultural assimilation of immigrants?

[00:10:06] And so we looked at various things, including, uh, did they apply to citizenship? In the past, it was real, it was a uh, relatively easy to, to get. Uh, who do they marry? Do they marry inside the ethnic group, or do they marry outside of the group? Do they live in immigrant enclaves, or do they move outside of immigrant enclaves? How do they name their children? 

[00:10:26] And we find that, uh, you know, like any, any way we can measure it, immigrants, even within the first generation, uh, they make substantial efforts to become Americans. They are marrying outside of their ethnic group, giving their children more American sounding names as they spend more years in the U.S., applying to citizenship, and to a remarkably similar degree in the past and today. 

[00:10:53] Russ Altman: That's what I wanted to ask. So that's very, so let's talk about that a little bit more because some people might listen to this and say, Sure, that was true in 1910, 1915, but is it true in 2023? So, you know, the world is so different and the world and the country that they're entering is so different, so tell me a little bit more about whether these are really persistent traits? To what degree are they specific to specific ancestries, like, are there certain nationalities? How persistent are these observations? 

[00:11:21] Ran Abramitzky: Right. So, one of, one of the, I think the most surprising to us findings in the book is that the remarkable similarities in the patterns that we find today and in the Ellis Island generation. So, the, despite all the many differences that you mentioned, you know, immigrants used to come mostly from Europe, 90% of immigrants in the 1900s were from Europe. Today, 75% of immigrants are not from Europe, are from Central Latin America, mainly Mexico and from Asia. Uh, Europe is no longer a very big sending region of immigrants to the United States. The policy changed. Now in the in the past, in the Ellis Island immigrants, they didn't need a visa or a green card to come here. It was the borders were, were open to European immigrants, today, there are restrictions. And despite all these differences, uh, some of the patterns that we find are remarkably similar.

[00:12:14] So the rags to riches in the first generation, uh, didn't happen neither in the past nor today. The children of immigrants that are doing remarkably well, the children of immigrants are remarkably upwardly mobile, both in the past and today. Immigrants from nearly every sending country are more upwardly mobile than the children of the U.S. born, and this is a pattern that persisted for over a century. Immigrants from nearly every sending country are more upwardly mobile. The children of, uh, uh, Immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Mexico today are just as upwardly mobile as the children of Swedes and Danes a hundred years ago. This, the, the degree of cultural assimilation that I was telling you is just as true today as it was in the past. And so, we find remarkable similarities, despite the differences in immigration policies that happened over the century. 

[00:13:09] Russ Altman: Fascinating. And I'm going to guess that where the other area where we see similarities might be in the resistance to the immigrants. And, and one of the issues and I want to be very sensitive about this, but I know that in the, at the turn of the 20th century in the 1900s, people were saying that the Irish and the Italian immigrants were the cause of crime. And I'm sure, and that's the same story we're hearing now, especially from many politicians who we all know. Do we have data about crime? 

[00:13:37] Ran Abramitzky: Yes. So, in fact, you are, you know, we have a forthcoming 2024 paper on immigration and crime. What we did, you know, as we searched the censuses in the past, we realized that we found, oh, you know, here's a very big family of 200 people, but their occupation is listed as inmates. And so, we are like, oh, we can actually then identify all the prisoners in the United States based on them living in a prison and being inmates and we, and we have the country of origin. Uh, and so we constructed the first large series of, uh, you know, like, uh, incarceration. 

[00:14:16] Russ Altman: Yes. 

[00:14:17] Ran Abramitzky: Since 1870 until today. And we, and we, since we know where they are born, we can compare the US born and the immigrants. And what we find is that the, that there has as a group, there has never been a period in US history since 1870 when immigrants were more likely to be incarcerated than the U.S. born. In the past, uh, you know, up until the 1960s, uh, the rate of incarceration was similar, but ever since the 1960s, uh, immigrants are much less likely to be incarcerated than the U.S. born. 

[00:14:55] And when we try to understand why that is, we find that this is, uh, you know, who, what are the, what is the group that is most likely to be incarcerated? It's men that are high, more likely to be high school dropouts. And this is one of many things that haven't gone well to men, high school dropout men, uh, that are U.S. born. So, you know, like they are, they have lower self reported health, more likely to be unemployed, uh, less likely to be married outside of the labor force. So being incarcerated is one of, uh, one, uh, of those things of various outcomes that where immigrants actually with similar levels of education, uh, are less likely to be incarcerated, maybe more likely to be resilient to shocks, uh, and so on.

[00:15:39] The other thing I would say about your comment about the attitudes towards immigrants that you mentioned, is that, uh, yeah, you know, yes, people told us, well, you know, the things that Trump and others are saying today about immigrants are shocking. We never heard them in the past. And we are like, well, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, you know, with a PhD, Harvard PhD in history, who was one of the architects of the Dillingham Commission that put an end to the first age of mass migration, said things like immigrants have lower levels of IQ and they are, they come from the lowest and most illiterate races.

[00:16:11] And, and, and so, you know, we had these two anecdotes and we thought, well, but how can we scale this up? So, then I don't know if you, if you're interested in this, in this work, but you know, we, we, in work with computational linguists at Stanford, we looked at the 8 million congressional and presidential speeches over the last 150 yrs.... 

[00:16:31] Russ Altman: wow.

[00:16:31] Ran Abramitzky: And we, uh, 200,000 of them are about immigrants. And we try and we use machine learning and other methods to see, you know, like what is the language used towards immigrants and how attitudes towards immigrants change. 

[00:16:43] Russ Altman: Yes. I've heard it called sentiment analysis. What's the sentiment? Are they being negative? Positive. 

[00:16:49] Ran Abramitzky: Positive or negative. Is there a dehumanizing language? For example, you know, immigrants infest, you know, immigrants, cargo of immigrants. And what we find when we do that, is that attitudes towards immigrants in congressional speeches today is also more positive than it ever has been in U.S. history. Even though over the last 30 years since the 1990s, it's way more polarized by political party, where Republicans tend to be much more negative and focus on crime and legality of immigrants. And the Democrats tend to be more positive, focusing more on, you know, family and contribution that immigrants make to this country.

[00:17:28] Russ Altman: But I'm guessing that that kind of polarization may have existed even a hundred years ago, or does it look more polarized? 

[00:17:34] Ran Abramitzky: A hundred years ago, everybody was negative about immigrants. It would be hard pressed to find anybody saying something nice about immigrants a hundred years ago. And so, what happened was most speeches were negative in the past and the change is not so much that you know, there are still negative speeches today, but there are some positive speeches about immigrant starting the 1960 and going until today.

[00:18:00] Russ Altman: So, before we end this segment, I want to ask one more question related to that, which is, what do immigrants, how do their beliefs about immigration evolve once they're here? So, I've always wondered if immigrants become more pro-immigrant because they've just had this great experience. Or as they assimilate into the culture, they start adopting the negative attitudes towards immigration that they confronted when they arrived here. Do we have any data on that? 

[00:18:25] Ran Abramitzky: Yeah, it's, yeah, it's a very fascinating thing. You know, immigration, I, I used to have, you know, immigration was 14% of the population in the age of mass migration, it's 14% today. Uh, but still you, uh, and then you, and then every time there is a 14% of the population, you start to see people complaining about, about immigrants.

[00:18:45] And one of the things that is striking is that, uh, it appears that, uh, you know, maybe half the people today can trace their ancestors to either the first age of mass migration or are immigrants or children of immigrants today. But it feels like, uh, the negative attitudes is, is always like, you know, it was the English complaining about the Germans, then the Germans complaining about the Italians. And now it's all these past immigrants complaining about Mexicans. And maybe if you, you know, if there is a podcast in a hundred years, somebody will say those Mexican immigrants were terrific. 

[00:19:15] But what about this new immigrant waves? And I think part of what it is, is that the immigrants, if you judge immigrants by how they do immediately upon first arrival, they are, you know, they are often not doing incredibly well. It takes the perspective of, of a long time for you to appreciate the contribution of immigrants to, to this country. 

[00:19:38] Russ Altman: This is the future of everything with Russ Altman. More with Ran Abramitzky next.

[00:19:54] Welcome back to the Future of Everything. I'm Russ Altman, and I'm speaking with Professor Ran Abramitzky from Stanford University. In the last segment, Ron told us about immigration, about some of the common myths, and why many of them are wrong. In this segment, he'll tell us that he's begun to study refugees, which is a different type of immigrant. And he'll also tell us how some of his findings for immigrants and for refugees might impact governmental policy makers. 

[00:20:20] I wanted to ask you about refugees. We've mostly been talking about people who come for economic opportunity, but I know that you've done some work with refugees as well, very different situation there. Tell me what you, how you've approached that work, and what have you found? 

[00:20:34] Ran Abramitzky: Yes. Thank you for asking. So, this is like a I went to Ellis Island, I don't know if you've been. Wonderful, wonderful museum. When you, when you walk in there, you have, you can pick up a phone and you will hear an immigrant speaking their own voice saying, you know, I, you know, I came here and this is why I came, there was a revolution in my country and, uh, and here was my experience in the United States, and they will have like an hour speech. It's a fabulous project at the Ellis Island Foundation, retrospective interviews with about 1500, uh, immigrants. Wow. 

[00:21:06] And, and we are like, oh, can we get your data? Can we get the 1500 speeches? And then we transcribe them. And because we have a, and so in the first part of the interview, we can understand why immigrants came. And so, some of them came because there was a revolution or a pogrom or like, uh, a war in the country. 

[00:21:26] Russ Altman: So, it's like literal physical safety. 

[00:21:28] Ran Abramitzky: Literal physical safety. Let's call them refugees, even though there wasn't still a refugee program. And then others came because, uh, uh, you know, family, uh, they wanted a job opportunity, let's call those economic immigrants. And because we have a and this is an opportunity for us to say, well, how did refugees do in the world before they received assistance? So, we know today refugees tend to sometimes do well, but there is a debate about whether this is because they get support, you know, they get, they get access to the welfare state.

[00:21:59] Here is a place where they didn't get much. And because we have hour long speech, we can see how good their English is. So how, how good is, you know, how good is the vocabulary, how complex of language they use? How, you know, how strong is their accent? And one of the things that we find in this work is that people who came as refugees because of wars and revolutions, they end, they ended up with having better English later in life relative to those who came as economic immigrants.

[00:22:29] Russ Altman: Wow. 

[00:22:29] Ran Abramitzky: And the, and, and, and the way, you know, and more research is needed about why, but one of the, of the things we speculate that is going on is because, you know, refugees when they come to a country, they have nowhere else, no place to go back to. And so, they have all the incentives in the world to make it work in their new country, whereas economic immigrants, you know, about a third of them in every immigration wave, go back and forth and return to their home country.

[00:22:53] Russ Altman: So, they're all in. All in. 

[00:22:55] Ran Abramitzky: They are all in. Exactly. 

[00:22:58] Russ Altman: Wow. And so that might actually affect things like their motivation to either lose or reduce an accent and things like this. 

[00:23:06] Ran Abramitzky: Yes. And so, the accent, interestingly, the accent was the one thing they couldn't reduce. So, you know, listen to me, you know, I'm, I'm trying really hard, but it's really, you know, if you come here as a, as a, as an adult, it's very hard to, to, uh, change your accent. But the vocabulary, the syntax, there is, for example, an interesting measure that linguists use, age of acquisition.

[00:23:28] So, you know, like if you, uh, every word in the English language, uh, is acquired in a particular age on average. So, for example, you know, brother at the age of two, hectic at the age of 12. And so, you can calculate the average age of acquisition of the language of immigrants. And you find that refugees have a higher. average age of acquisition to this language that they use relative to economic immigrants, for example. They use also longer sentences and more complex language, uh, and so on. 

[00:23:57] Russ Altman: And I presume that that work is ongoing to kind of now understand also what they were saying and how they kind of managed. 

[00:24:04] Ran Abramitzky: Right.

[00:24:05] Russ Altman: Is your hypothesis that they will kind of become very similar to other immigrants, or do you think they probably have a very unique and different path? 

[00:24:13] Ran Abramitzky: You know, one of the things that we find is, you know, by the second generation for good and for bad, you know, immigrants become more similar to the U.S. born. So, I think that by the second, third generation, uh, unique paths tend to converge at the end. But I think for the, for the, at least for the refugees themselves, uh, we could detect, uh, that they, that they were doing, uh, that they were doing a little better in terms of their English. 

[00:24:36] Russ Altman: Fantastic. Okay. So, in our last few minutes, you have all of these not only fascinating, but important, um, uh, observations that are very relevant to current debates and current decision making. So, the big question is, is the government listening to your work and the work of others in your field? And are policy makers listening and thinking about how it may impact policy?

[00:25:00] Ran Abramitzky: You know, I, I, you know, I don't know if the government is, is listening very carefully. I can tell you that though, that, uh, that the, the book is received very well, not, not just very well, not just in places where we expected it to, like people who already like immigrants and they think that, uh, that they are doing well. But even the center right is, is, is quite interested, uh, in the hopeful story we say about something that is going on in America and, and, and try to understand.

[00:25:27] I guess our goal with this is, you know, I would say is a, if I have, you know, in a couple minutes, I will just say the couple messages. One is, uh, the big ones. One is, uh, we want to set the record straight. We want to give you evidence and data on some of the myths that Americans have. We are fine with different people making different conclusions about what it means for immigration policy. So, you know, for example, immigrants, we find that assimilate culturally into the United States, but they don't fully, uh, become Americans. You know, they become Americans, but they also keep some of the original identity. Does it mean for you that that's a worry or not? You know, we don't, you know, we, we want people to be able to interpret it in, in, in their own way, but we want them to at least talk about the same set of data. 

[00:26:13] But I would say the one maybe hopeful big message that we want to have is, I think that the short term that politicians tend to take for immigration tend to undermine immigrant success. So, you know, politicians tend to look at the next election cycle and then they look at how immigrants are doing right now. And, you know, immigrants off the boat, off the plane, often, as we talked about, you know, they don't move quickly from rags to riches, there is a period of struggle and sacrifice. But if you just look at that, it undermines immigrant success. 

[00:26:42] When you look at the Children of immigrants, or when you look at immigrant groups who arrived here 100 years ago, you see that immigrants are doing very well. They are upwardly mobile, they are assimilating into the culture, they are becoming Americans, and they are moving to the middle class and beyond and paying taxes. Not even to speak of pay taxes, not even to speak about the high skilled immigration that contribute to innovation and science. And, and so I think that if, if policymakers take a longer-term view for immigration, they will reach more positive conclusions.

[00:27:15] Russ Altman: Thanks to Ran Abramitzky, that was The Future of Immigration. You have been listening to The Future of Everything with Russ Altman. With close to 250 episodes in our library you have instant access to an extensive array of discussions from The Future of Everything; they're ready whenever you are. You can connect with me on Twitter/X @RBAltman or Threads @Russbaltman. You can follow Stanford Engineering @ Stanfordeng.