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Economists Ran Abramitzky & Leah Boustan: Immigrants Are Still Building America, No Matter What Our Lawmakers Say

The economists join Robert Scheer on "Scheer Intelligence" to discuss how their new book documents the extent to which American prosperity is founded on immigration—and raises questions about how we treat immigrants today.
“Super Heroe.” [Illustration by Mr. Fish]

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Leah Boustan.
Leah Boustan. [Photo courtesy of Princeton]

“America was built by immigrants.” This is a phrase many Americans grew up hearing. Those immigrants are often imagined arriving at Ellis Island, greeted by the towering Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet, “The New Colossus,” with its welcoming words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Nowadays the story of immigrants takes on a very different tone, especially when it comes to brown and Black immigrants. And yet, according to a new book by two economists from Princeton and Stanford universities, the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island have a lot more in common with those arriving at the country’s southern border than many realize. Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan’s book “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success” traces the economic contributions and triumphs of multi-generational immigrant families to debunk myths prevalent today about immigrants “stealing jobs” or undermining labor conditions.

Ran Abramitzky. [Photo courtesy of Stanford]

Abramitzky and Boustan join host Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about what their findings reveal about the United States’ complex past. In a thorough algorithmic analysis of the economic standing of thousands of immigrant families, the two researchers learned that while the first generation is often relegated to manual and other forms of low-paid labor, their children are often able to access opportunities that were unavailable to them upon arrival. To Scheer, who was born to Lithuanian and German immigrants, the story the two economists tell takes on a personal note as he discusses how he sees his own family reflected in their findings.

Part of the reason they chose to focus their research on the working lives of American immigrants, Abramitzky and Boustan tell Scheer, is that they believe the country is at an inflection point when it comes to its immigration policy. If you admired the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island, Abramitzy tells “Scheer Intelligence” listeners, you should take note of the similarities between them and those arriving in the U.S. now in terms of economic and social contributions to the nation as a whole. Boustan adds that most Americans actually already have positive views on immigrants, despite what the media reports and what policymakers push. Listen to the full conversation between Abramitzky, Boustan and Scheer as the economists examine how their research can help change perspectives–and perhaps even policy—and whether the U.S. will ever abolish its two-tier system of undocumented and documented immigration in favor of an open-door policy.



Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer

Automated Transcript:

Robert Scheer (00:01):
Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Sheer Intelligence where I hasten to say the intelligence comes to my guests. And in this case, no question, Leah Boustan of Princeton, Ran Abramitzky of Stanford. They’re both economists and much to my delight, they are economists that not lost in mathematical models or just advising Wall Street and how to cheat the rest of us. They’re actually doing some old fashioned, I think we used to be called institutional economics, and they’re dealing with a major, maybe the most important issue the country faced, certainly under Trump, but president Biden isn’t really doing very much about immigration, and they’re challenging the basic mythology or a good part of it about immigration. And they’re doing it… I shouldn’t have dismissed mathematics. They’re doing it with good research into big data, what we know about immigrants, well, not just the Ellis Island records, but all of the other records that we’ve been able to develop, and also using good journalistic and interview techniques.

Robert Scheer (01:07):
So they’ve produced this fascinating book called Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, and it’s a success. They extend from the German immigrants to the Mexican immigrants, and people who came illegally or people who came with enthusiastic support of the dominant culture, like the Germans or not all the Irish, but certainly the English.

Robert Scheer (01:32):
And so, let’s talk about that. And in your book you have three big conclusions. And then I noticed in the publicity for the book, which by the way, is coming out May 31st, a few days after this broadcast, you have four conclusions. Why don’t you tell us the conclusions or what you’ve learned, how you’ve done your work, and really make the argument that science can be brought not only to the examination of a pandemic, but also a big social issue like immigration? So take it away.

Leah Boustan (02:07):
So thank you so much. We’re very glad to be here. And I should say at the beginning, that KCRW was my NPR station for years and years when I was at UCLA before I moved to Princeton, so I’m glad to be here. So you’re right. We think that our book, Streets Of Gold overturns a number of common myths that we all share as Americans about the role of immigration in US history.

Leah Boustan (02:35):
First of all, I think we imagine that the immigrants who came through Ellis Island a 100 years ago somehow were able to move up the ladder very quickly. We have this image of rags to riches when we think about immigrants from a 100 years ago, whereas today there’s more concern that immigrants may be achieving economic success more slowly. So the first effort that Ran and I set about to undertake is to assess this myth. Is it really true that immigrants in the past were more successful?

Leah Boustan (03:10):
In order to do that, we needed to go back to old records, as you say, and not just follow a few families, not just look at the anecdotal evidence, but our goal was to follow as many immigrant families as we could through the old census records. So we think of ourselves as sort of like curious grandchildren, going back to construct our own family tree from resources like, but doing this millions of times over, imagining that we’re trying to reconstruct the family tree of America and of American immigrants.

Leah Boustan (03:47):
And when we did that, we found that this nostalgic or kind of rosy view that we have of immigrants from the Ellis Island era was really overblown. In fact, many immigrants from that period arrived already doing quite well. Those immigrants from England or from Germany that you mentioned arrived with a lot of skills and already earned a lot. So in that sense, there really were no rags, but there were a number of immigrant groups that did start out poor. And for those groups, we see that there was a small amount of progress over the immigrant generation, but really nothing complete.

Leah Boustan (04:22):
So there was no complete catch up with the earnings or the jobs of US-born workers in the first generation. And the pace of change was very similar to what we see for immigrants today.

Robert Scheer (04:37):
Yeah, go ahead Ran. Even though you’re gender different, why don’t you use your first name when you speak so we can differentiate?

Ran Abramitzky (04:46):
Sure. So this is Ran.

Robert Scheer (04:47):
Oh, yeah.

Ran Abramitzky (04:47):
So just to complete Leah’s story is the good news for immigrants that we find is in the second generation. So the children of immigrants. So we find that the children of immigrants, even if the parents didn’t move from rags to riches as quickly as we believed, the children are doing remarkably well. So the children of immigrants are highly economically mobile, both in the past and today, and from nearly every sending country in the world.

Ran Abramitzky (05:19):
So despite the children of immigrants often raised in poor households, these children are able to reach the middle class and beyond. And when we do like these apples to apples comparison, comparing children of immigrants who were born in relatively poor households, we find that the children of immigrants are more upwardly mobile than the children of the US-born parents raised in similarly poor households.

Ran Abramitzky (05:45):
And then remarkably, this pattern holds for immigrants from pool countries today, like El Salvador, Mexico, just as it was true for immigrants in Sweden and England in the past.

Robert Scheer (05:59):
So let me jump in for a minute, because first of all, I think that’s all obviously true because I’ve done some reporting on this issue and I’ve looked at the data. I don’t have your expertise but that’s a story that should have been known and was denied basically by people who wanted to do immigrant baiting and a nativist argument, and hold the immigrants responsible, scapegoat immigrants for all of our problems. And I think that your book is the essential corrective to that fake news or that deliberate misunderstanding.

Robert Scheer (06:37):
And also, what’s interesting about your book is it’s not just the White immigrants that did well. I forget who the first person you quote in the book, but the person was the Italian or something who said, “When I came to America, I expected the streets to be paved with gold, but the streets were not paved. There was no gold, they were not paved. And in fact, I had to do the paving of the streets.” Did I make that up or is that a quote in your book?

Leah Boustan (07:08):
Oh, that’s exactly correct.

Robert Scheer (07:09):
Oh, okay. I started to think-

Ran Abramitzky (07:12):
In fact, that’s the title of the book and the idea was exactly to show that the streets were never paved with gold. Even when we have this nostalgic view that in the past, immigrants were doing really well and quickly became rich, even then they had to pave their own way, just like immigrants today are.

Robert Scheer (07:33):
Yeah. And I happen to know this from a little anecdotal, because my father came over at the time of World War I from Germany. And he was in the group when they, for the longest time, I don’t even know if it might still be true, German Americans were the largest immigrant group, at least the largest legally admitted immigrant group. And yet that whole generation got stuck in lower paying jobs, but they had skills, were familiar with some of the machinery that was imported from Germany. My mother came over without papers and never got them actually, from Lithuania and had the opposite experience. Nonetheless, they occupied similar jobs.

Robert Scheer (08:17):
The question I want to raise is two things. One was the role of racism, which your book gets into, but in a way, the Mexican statistic and the central American kind of says, “Yeah, but there’s a feel good thing. They do better in their children,” but we still have, I don’t know what the right number is, 12,000,000 undocumented people from Mexico and central America primarily. So racism is alive and well, and chauvinism.

Robert Scheer (08:47):
And the other question I wanted to raise is about the role of labor unions, because a lot of the period that you’re examining where people did well, they did well because they could go into industrial jobs, auto, steel, coal mining, everything, where there in fact were good labor protections. Part of it came from the government and the new deal, you guys are economists, and part of it came from strong union organizing, particularly the move from craft unions to industrial unions.

Robert Scheer (09:21):
And the racism persisted, persisted today, and one startling example, of course, with the Chinese immigrants who were not allowed to even marry until even World War II, it’s a horrible record, and we have the racism now. We had it under Donald Trump, and the other is the weakness of labor unions to absorb these workers and pass on, and extend the hard earned benefits. So can you comment on those two?

Leah Boustan (09:54):
So there’s a lot in what you just said. I’ll start with the 12,000,000 undocumented, which we describe in the book as one of the central issues for immigration policy going forward. Now, the modern data that we’re able to analyze is focused on kids who were living at home and born in the early 1980s.

Leah Boustan (10:16):
The reason why is because we need enough time to follow these kids until they’re old enough to complete school, enter the labor market, and then move up a little bit in their career so that we have an accurate measure of how well they’re doing. So the labor market we’re looking at is the very recent 2010s, but that means we’re focusing on kids who were born in the 1980s. There’s something really special about that period because this comes right before 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was the major comprehensive immigration reform passed under Ronald Reagan. And this was sort of a grand bargain where the idea was there’s around 3,000,000 undocumented families living in the US at the time. Those families will get a path to citizenship, and in exchange, there will be a lot of trumped up border security.

Leah Boustan (11:09):
We have not been able to pass a comprehensive immigration reform or path to citizenship since then, which means that the families that we’re looking at are somewhat special, but they also sort of point the way towards what we might expect if we were able to have successful reform going on right now. And what I mean is when we look at Mexican families, central American families in our data, these may have been families, many of them did arrive without papers, but somewhere in the midst of their kids’ childhood, maybe when their kids were five or six, the parents were able to find a way towards citizenship, they were able to apply for amnesty.

Leah Boustan (11:51):
And so when we see that the kids are doing remarkably well, that’s a statement about the recent past, but it may not reflect our current future, unless we take action. And so that’s something that remains to be seen in the data when we have enough time goes by that we can look at the kids who are born more around 1990 or ’95, but there is some reason for concern. We talk about work of qualitative sociologists who have studied small samples, but samples that they’ve been able to really get to know the subjects and follow the subjects over their late childhood into early adulthood. And there’s reason to be very concerned about kids who are either living in undocumented families or who are themselves undocumented, and cannot access either a college education or the labor market.

Robert Scheer (12:46):
Yeah, I just want to say you cleared up at the end, born where? They obviously all were born somewhere, but you could see it right here in Los Angeles, and I know you went to UCLA where I happened to speak last night, and there’s a live issue here at these colleges and everywhere because even though they’re leaning over and trying to be helpful to undocumented students, they don’t get the grants, they don’t get the support, they don’t get the jobs, and they could have the greatest work habits, the greatest… and really a high skill level and get frozen out, and that is where we have stopped.

Robert Scheer (13:27):
So I just want to say, your research supports the idea that if we had normalcy and we had a path to citizenship and so forth, and it was welcoming, we would have a good outcome. But the fact is we’re kind of still in the pits here of lousy immigration policy. Are we not?

Ran Abramitzky (13:45):
Yeah. And related to this, the one thing is that people often complain when you mention racism, and people often complain that immigrants are not just hurting the economy or something, but that they also are culturally different than us. And one of the things that we find in the data is that both in the past and today, immigrants kind of any way we can measure it, they take active steps to become Americans. They learn English, they are moving out of immigrant neighborhoods. They are marrying outside of their own group. They give their children more American sounding names when they spend more years in the country.

Ran Abramitzky (14:36):
And then the other thing is that despite what we hear and we hear it both today and in the past, anti-immigrant sentiments, it does look like today, the American public has never been more supportive of immigration according to opinion polls, for example. I think in 2021, when Gallup asked, “Is immigration good for the country or bad for the country?” I think more than 70% of Americans said that immigration is good for the country.

Ran Abramitzky (15:05):
So there is a silent majority I think, even despite this more polarized view of immigration today. There does seem to be a silent majority that think that immigration is a good thing.

Robert Scheer (15:19):
Let me just throw… I brought up the question of unions and workers’ rights and so forth, and the gut argument is while they’ll cheapen wages, they’ll work for less and so forth, and there is truth to that. If somebody is not documented, they’re not going to complain as loudly about not getting time and a half for any of the things that they’re legally should be having because these laws apply to anybody working, and they’re not going to ask for where is that bathroom or where is that break? Or so forth.

Robert Scheer (15:54):
And the record of unions historically was not consistent and not always positive, and certainly not from my point of view, they discriminated against others and so forth. But at some point, the existence of these industrial unions was welcoming and they would organize people and sign them up and so forth. We don’t have much of that force.

Robert Scheer (16:17):
And I just wanted to ask you, I know Leah, you went to school here in California and we did have something called the TIP program. Did you encounter that in your researches at all? This was a program that was started in California, but backed by the US Labor Department, which said whether you’re documented or not, you’re entitled to the protection of labor laws. Robert Rice was the Secretary of Labor then who pushed that and it failed, but it went to the heart of the argument that your book raises, do they hurt wages? Do they help others who are already here?

Robert Scheer (16:57):
And I just want to throw in one other idea, with our President currently attacking China, where most of our manufacturing is done now, what sort of immigration policy would we need if we actually want to assemble iPhones in Silicon Valley, if we want to go into that kind of manufacturing, and what would be the protection of those workers? Just throw that out there.

Leah Boustan (17:24):
What’s really fascinating is that labor market institutions, whether we have strong unions, whether we have labor law, has changed a lot over the century, but the economic research on whether immigrants and their arrival harm US-born workers, do they take away jobs? Do they cut wages? Has actually been very consistent in the answer being no over the 20th century.

Leah Boustan (17:53):
So Ran and I are economic historians. We work quite a bit on the early 20th century and some of our colleagues have worked on more recent episodes, and the underlying environment’s quite different across those periods. But yet when economists analyze whether immigrant arrivals harm wages of US-born workers, the answer is usually no.

Robert Scheer (18:20):
Can I just… [inaudible 00:18:23] one point about that. One argument might be, well, we don’t do that kind of manufacturing anymore. And in the ’20s, as you say, people went into everything, from the garment industry to the automobile and steel plants and what have you. And now when you look at the manufacturing flow for the world economy, it’s tending to be of course, more in China, but elsewhere, India, Vietnam, what have you.

Robert Scheer (18:54):
And so, the question is, have we really had an improvement of worker conditions or have we simply eliminated a whole sector of work?

Ran Abramitzky (19:06):
So I’ll just say one thing on this, that you are right exactly, that in the past immigrants, maybe they tended to work… in fact, they tended to work in jobs more related to what the US one were working in. But today immigrants tend to hold jobs that have few available US-born workers. So either very highly educated positions in tech and science or work that requires little education, like picking crops by hand or washing dishes or taking care of the elderly, and the US-born workers don’t tend to work in these jobs. So there should be even less fear that immigrants will crowd out the US-born today relative to the past.

Ran Abramitzky (19:52):
I should say though that, just to acknowledge your important point about that immigrants today might be in a limbo kind of the undocumented immigrants, that they don’t have the right to ask for anything because they are worried about deportation and so on. And in fact, the DACA, for example, deferred action was this executive order that tried to allow them to work and to defer their deportation in every couple of years it’s being renewed. And the frustrating part is that this only happens in executive presidential orders rather than by legislation.

Ran Abramitzky (20:34):
But this, by the way, might explain in part, why immigrants are less likely than the US-born to be arrested and incarcerated on almost all manners of offenses, not just they worry about the jail time, but also about being deported. So that might be in part, explained by the fact that they don’t have really much, many rights.

Robert Scheer (21:00):
The good thing about your book, let me just stipulate so we don’t have a false disagreement, it happens to be true, your analysis, however you got there, whether it was big data or small data. I think the record has been pretty consistent that immigrants of every kind have made America. Come on, it’s not just folklore. Those Chinese workers built the railroad, they dug the gold, they did everything. And so did the Irish workers, whether they were documented or undocumented.

Robert Scheer (21:34):
So that’s just a reality that prejudice, racism, chauvinism denied. Okay. But the bigger question really is, and as economists, I know you’re fully aware of it, where does globalization fit into protected labor markets, for example Maybe it’s better that manufacturing be done elsewhere after all. There’s a very large population in India or China, and that maybe would be happier making Elon Musk’s cars, which is where he seems to be shifting.

Robert Scheer (22:13):
Then the real problem is not whether these jobs disappear here, but whether having a job is the way you pay your rent and get medical and so forth. It seems to me, globalization would favor the movement of people as rational, right? Let them go where there is work and where they can be taken care of. The problem that the protectionists raise, who’s going to pay your rent? Who’s going to pay for your schools? And if that were socially guaranteed, maybe using a Scandinavian model or something, then it’d be less of an issue.

Robert Scheer (22:51):
And ironically, it used to be the Republicans and the free market people who favored relatively open borders, and it was the Democrats who opposed to them. Is that not what your research would show?

Leah Boustan (23:04):
Yeah, there’s been a big polarization in political attitudes towards immigration that’s been widening over the past 10, 20 years. So it used to be that the two parties were actually very much in lockstep in their attitudes, up through World War II and into the early Cold War. So as far back as we can go in the data to the late 19th century, the two parties were very much in lockstep. And I should mention that this data comes from the Congressional record. We do have a full text of every speech that’s ever been given in the House or the Senate.

Leah Boustan (23:44):
And so Ran and I are working with some linguists at Stanford to try to analyze what’s really an enormous Corpus of text, and try to figure out what speeches are related to immigration and what speeches that are related to immigration are either pro or anti? And really, the partisan divide that we see on immigration that in the past few years where we associate the Republican party with being anti-immigration is a very new phenomenon historically.

Leah Boustan (24:15):
And I do see the irony as you’re pointing out, that it used to be that the Republican party was the party of markets and free trade, and maybe that would then lead to business leaders who were interested in allowing immigrants to come in and serve as a workforce. And that portion of the Republican party has been dissipating or minimizing. And so we see the polarization by party that is now part of our political reality.

Ran Abramitzky (24:45):
And one thing I want to add is a broader point to how immigrants built America. So that is one point that is not controversial. Everybody, both Republicans, Democrats, when they speak about immigrants in the past, they talk about them as ones who built America. Even Trump said at some point, “Why don’t Norwegians come here more often like they did in the past?” And so on. And the point is that what our research shows is that if you think that the Ellis Island immigrants were good, you should think that today’s immigrants are good too because we find remarkable similarities in everything we can look at between whether it’s like how this first generation of immigrants are doing, the children of immigrants, cultural assimilation. Anyway, we can look at, we find that the immigrants today are remarkably similar than past immigrants.

Ran Abramitzky (25:42):
So if you take the long view for immigration policy and you judge immigrants not just by how they do when they first arrive to the country, but you also let time pass and you look at how the children of immigrants are doing, then you get a more positive picture of immigrants and their contributions.

Robert Scheer (26:01):
Yeah. As long as you can make some progress towards legalization, but if you have a permanent underclass of people who are undocumented, I guess it wouldn’t be a perm, but if their flow continues, then it does have an impact on the society. It may not show up in your data because your data is basically dealing with what we legally and openly know. The fact is we have a pretty serious underground economy, certainly not just in a few states now. You’ve certainly had it in agriculture, a very important sector of the American economy, and you’ve had it in child raising, healthcare as you point out, the service industry. One could argue that California could not exist, certainly not in its current form without the exploitation of undocumented labor.

Robert Scheer (27:03):
So really, the optimism of your book is based on the notion that we will make progress towards giving legal status to people who are here without proper documentation, or maybe Trump was right in just totally seal the border. I don’t think it’s possible, but those would seem to me to be the two alternatives, either welcoming or totally prohibitive.

Leah Boustan (27:31):
Right. We were compelled to write this book because we think we’re really at a political stalemate right now. We were just talking about the polarization by party in attitudes towards immigration. But as Ron pointed out earlier, according to Gallup opinion polls, around 75% of Americans think that immigration is good for the country. So this is yet another one of those issues where there’s strong public consensus, and yet there’s not much action in Washington.

Leah Boustan (27:58):
So at the end of the book, we talk about an earlier episode in which politicians really change the narrative, change the way that Americans viewed immigrants. And we think that this could happen again, and we hope that Streets of Gold, our book does contribute. And so what we’re referring to here is right after World War II with President Truman, just as the Cold War is beginning, there was a lot of anti-American propaganda on the part of the Soviets to say America claims that there are such meritocratic society and that the market system works, but actually, America is racist and it’s racist in two ways.

Leah Boustan (28:38):
One, it has Jim Crow laws in the south, and two, it has racist immigration policy. And at the time, the way that immigration policy worked, if you were Italian or Polish, you had hardly any hope of getting into the US. The quotas were set so that there was very small numbers of immigrants allowed from Southern and Eastern Europe. But if you were British or German or Irish, you essentially could come in. The quotas were set in that way.

Leah Boustan (29:05):
And so Truman took a look at this and said, “You know what? We need to change our immigration system, essentially to counter the propaganda and to stand up to the Soviets. So how are we going to do that? Given that Americans don’t seem to like immigrants very much?” Which is very much what we see in the political speeches of the time.

Leah Boustan (29:28):
And so Truman partnered with an academic, Oscar Hanlin, who was a historian at Harvard, and others to say, “Let’s rewrite the history of how immigrants have contributed to building America.” So this idea that we all share today that immigrants built the country, well, in a way that this was a concerted effort to remind us of that fact. And the efforts were then continued by presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and eventually immigration policy changed.

Leah Boustan (30:01):
So not only was the amount of immigrants under the quota raised so that legally more immigrants could answer, but also, it was no longer the case that the entry quotas were set on a country by country basis. And we think that there is a lot of scope for reimagining immigration policy, and lately the democratic party has been really playing defense, I would say. There are claims made, “Well, there’s a crisis on the Southern border.” And then the Democrats will stand up and say, “Oh no, no. We aren’t letting people in, we’re not open borders, but there isn’t really much of a strong offense to say, “What should our immigration policy look like?”

Robert Scheer (30:45):
Well, that’s a good point to end this. I must say that you cannot have a discussion now about immigration without reading this book, Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigration Success, PublicAffairs. And I’m saying that because we keep talking about science and using science, you need data, you need analysis. And most of the discussion about immigration has dealt with mythology and convenient to self-serving politically oriented mythology.

Robert Scheer (31:19):
And I think it continues today. I think it’s probably going to turn out that the Biden administration is not a very much better, if better at all, than the Trump administration. Yes. You’ll have few fewer horrible photo opportunities of children separated from their parents because we’re paying less attention to it now. But the fact is irrational immigration policy has been convenient for a lot of political people, economic interest, and so forth. I’ll leave my little editorial there, but the Streets of Gold cuts through that political can’t.

Robert Scheer (31:53):
So I want to thank our authors for being here, and while I’m at it, let me thank Christopher Ho on KCRW for posting these podcasts, our Executive Producer, Joshua Scheer for producing the show, and now being honored or being a finalist for the Los Angeles Press Clubs in four categories for these audios, Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the intro and being the editor, and the JKW Foundation for providing some funding. And see you next week within another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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