U.S. Immigration Trends and Policies From Ellis Island to Present Day

Last Updated on February 23, 2023

In August, Envoy CEO Dick Burke spoke with professors Leah Boustan and Ran Abramitizky, authors of Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. The group discussed the authors’ groundbreaking research on the intergenerational progress of immigrants and their decedents throughout American history.

The conversation centered around three myths about U.S. immigration that the authors address in their book. The trio also analyzed how past immigration trends and policies impact today’s debate about the future of immigration in the U.S.

Myth I: Past Immigrants Quickly Rose from Rags to Riches

In their book, Boustan and Abramitizky highlight that – for many Americans – there is a myth that European immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries quickly rose from rags to riches. When asked by Burke about the reality of this myth, Boustan offered the true history of what it was like for new immigrants coming to the U.S. during the Ellis Island era.

“It turns out that myth is wrong in two different ways,” Boustan explained. “Around half of the immigrants who came from Europe during the Ellis Island period actually came from relatively well-off countries, and they already started in the U.S. with a footing that was above the average U.S. born worker.”

Boustan further said that this myth extended to the European immigrants who were from poor countries or from poor families within countries that were better off.

“We find that of the immigrants who started poor around 1900, they move up somewhat…they never catch up to the U.S. born though…so, the pace of upward mobility for those first-generation immigrants – the people who themselves moved from Europe – is really no different than the pace of upward mobility that immigrants experience today.”

Myth II: Today’s Immigrants Are Less Successful and Integrate Slower Than Past Immigrants

In the fog of America’s shared memory, a myth exists that the Europeans who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries integrated more easily into the nation’s culture and were ultimately more successful than today’s immigrants. Boustan debunked that myth, pointing out that immigrant success is best measured intergenerationally.

She cited research showing that second-generation immigrant sons raised in the U.S. in poor families ultimately attain higher adult incomes than poor boys with native-born fathers, and that this has been a historical trend. Second-generation immigrants with families from countries like China, India, Taiwan and Pakistan top the list in terms of income attainment.

These immigrants follow the trend set by their Ellis Island era counterparts. Poor immigrants from countries like Ireland, Yugoslavia and Italy also attained success in the U.S. by the second-generation.
Boustan highlighted that while it’s hard to see in the moment, today’s generation of immigrants will ultimately achieve the same success as the Ellis Island generation.
“Give these kids a generation,” Boustan explained, “If we look back in 50 or 100 years, it looks like children of immigrants are very much on track to contribute just as much as the children of the Ellis Island period.”

Myth III: Immigrants Harm U.S.-Born Workers Through Added Competition for Jobs

The third myth addressed by the authors is perhaps the most circulated in today’s immigration debate.

Boustan said that this myth is false because many immigrants come to the U.S. and start businesses, thus creating jobs for native-born Americans. She also highlighted that every new immigrant is a new consumer in the U.S. economy, which promotes job growth for native-born Americans in service industries and sectors like construction.

Boustan further explained an important – but often overlooked – contribution from immigrants.
“There are a whole set of potential services out there that – if the price is not right – that service might just disappear…oftentimes, you'll hear people say, ‘Well, if immigrants stop coming in, we would just raise the wages in those jobs, and that would attract in U.S. born workers who ordinarily don't like to do those jobs,’” said Boustan. “Not necessarily, sometimes those services would just disappear.”

In further response to this myth, Boustan highlighted the consequences of the U.S. terminating successful immigration initiatives, like the Bracero program.
“When Bracero workers stopped coming into the U.S. from Mexico, many of the agricultural industries in California switched over to mechanized harvesting…so rather than hiring U.S. born workers, [employers] said, ‘Let's hire some machines instead.’”

Using History to Inform Today’s Immigration Policy

To cap off the discussion, Burke and the authors discussed the present-day ramifications of past U.S. immigration policies and trends.

When asked how sentiments about immigration in the U.S. today compared to the past, Boustan cited the library of congressional speeches that the authors compiled as part of their research.
“Almost all of the speeches [were] uniformly negative…from 1880 through to World War II,” Boustan said. “And then there's this period of time, right after World War II, into the beginning of the Cold War, where that radically changes…suddenly, the speeches about immigration become substantially positive…and eventually, we get the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which undoes the closing of the border and actually creates the infrastructure like the foundation of the policies that we have now.”
However, the immigration debate in the U.S. today seems stuck. Abramitzky commented on how U.S. immigration policy should be considered with an intergenerational perspective.

“This shelter view that politicians tend to take as they look at the next election cycle undermines immigrant success…but even if catching up doesn't take place within the first generation, it does by the second generation,” said Abramitzky.

“And when we take a longer-term view from the perspective of a hundred years of U.S. immigration history and looking at the children of immigrants, then immigrants are doing very well…so, if you want, we conclude the book by saying that the American dream today is just as alive as it was a hundred years ago.”

To learn more about Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, check out Envoy’s full conversation with the authors.

Leah Boustan is a Professor of Economics at Princeton University, where she also serves as the Director of the Industrial Relations Section. Ran Abramitizky is the Stanford Federal Credit Union Professor of Economics and the Senior Associate Dean of the Social Sciences at Stanford University.

Content in this publication is not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an Envoy-affiliated attorney or another qualified professional.