In American mythology, the (mostly white) huddled crowds of the Ellis Island era flocked to our shores, tamed the prairies, fueled the Industrial Revolution, and became the heroes of America’s success story. Today’s (largely non-white) immigrants are portrayed as somewhat less charitable, often as people who came with no marketable skills and were looking for alms.
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Now thousands of genealogists, working anonymously, have shattered that myth and turned our perception of American immigrants upside down. No spoilers, but the data shows that the current wave of immigrants is thriving, assimilating at practically the same rate as immigrants a century ago.
“Today’s Mexicans are just as upward mobile as the English and Norwegians of the past,” Stanford University economist Ran Abramitzky told us.
With Leah Boustan, now of Princeton University, Abramitzky is helping to change the way we view American immigrants as we’ve spent 14 years striving to track Americans across generations by tying their records together in one of mankind’s greatest data treasures: old ten-year-old census files .
Seventy-two years after each census, the government publishes every sheet of data collected by enumerators in a single, grand repository. But for decades, that was more or less the end. In government warehouses and data centers, mountains of great data storage slowly decayed.
It took pioneering researchers like Northwestern University’s Joseph Ferrie years of painstaking searching to link even a few thousand people across multiple censuses in the 678 million records now available.
Enter the genealogists. Boustan and Abramitzky recognized that people at genealogy sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, many of them dedicated amateurs, line by line, great-uncle by great-uncle, had built the Taj Mahal from economic data: digital copies of early censuses.
All the economists had to do to access this data was break into the Taj Mahal.
There were some early setbacks. As they were writing a program to automatically download hundreds of thousands of recordings from Ancestry, Abramitzky said they got a call from a nosy company lawyer. The company had noticed their activities and suspected that they either had an impossibly large pedigree or were attempting to raid the company’s data and set up a competitor. (An Ancestry spokesman said the company was not aware of this interaction.)
But Abramitzky’s enthusiasm for immigration research is highly contagious. Within minutes, the corporate attorney was mesmerized by her findings and fired questions about how generations of Italians and other nationalities had risen in the New World.
Thus began a long working relationship that quietly transformed economic research.
Within a few years of that phone call, the high data priesthood of IPUMS at the University of Minnesota would make much of this historical census data available to scientists online for free. Today, hundreds of millions of records at IPUMS can be attributed to genealogical sources such as Ancestry — a Utah-based for-profit organization that private equity giant Blackstone bought in 2020 for $4.7 billion — and FamilySearch, a non-profit affiliate of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which relies heavily on the efforts of volunteers to decipher ancient records.
Ancestry alone has more than 30 billion records in its database, including contributions from its nearly 3.8 billion subscribers. Using the genealogical data, economists were soon able to trace generations of Ellis Island-era immigrants as they assimilated (or not) and prospered (or not).
“Without the volunteers who digitized this data, our work would not be possible,” said Abramitzky.
As we speak, more than 150,000 FamilySearch volunteers are racing to digitize 151 million records from the 1950 census that were rereleased in April. Using Ancestry’s AI-powered handwriting recognition algorithms, which are double-checked by volunteers in nifty FamilySearch phone and web apps, they’ve turned census data review into a friendly high-score competition.
One of those volunteers, Laurel Peregrino, 66, has already verified more than 51,000 names and entered additional demographic data for more than 2,000 families, mostly in California and Texas — two of the many states she lived in before settling nearby settled down from Philadelphia. An avid genealogist, Peregrino has spent a quarter of a century trawling through her family history, making a half-dozen trips to the National Archives in DC to delve deep into subjects like her grandfather’s 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“I like the feeling of 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 the genealogists’ data, Boustan and Abramitzky have methodically dismantled the myths surrounding past generations and uncovered some surprising truths. Broadly speaking, immigrants struggle, fail, succeed, and assimilate at similar rates. And those who assimilate fastest, and whose children improve their lot the most, are often those most despised when they arrived.
The data shows that the Ellis Island immigrants were nothing special. Most of them have struggled their entire lives to break into America and have never caught up with their native peers. Many others abandoned the American experiment altogether and returned home, where, Boustan said, they “were able to take what they had learned or saved in America and apply it to success on European shores.”
Although Ellis Island immigrants were better off upon arrival than modern-day immigrants, thanks largely to the prosperity of their countries of origin, the economic progress they made during their lifetime was strikingly similar.
Because their data follows immigrants across generations, the researchers were able to write the surprising continuation of immigrants’ early struggles: their children thrived in America and climbed the economic ladder faster than their native-born peers. And that also applies to immigrants today.
“Children of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic are rising out of their parents’ homes just as well today as 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 of immigrant parents was not education. Nor was it a sophisticated parenting style as described 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 their parents were willing to move to where the jobs were, since they were not burdened by deep hometown roots. If you compare immigrants to similar native children born in the same place, they have similar successes. It’s just that immigrant children are far more likely to have grown up in one of these high opportunity places.
“Immigrants live in places that offer advancement opportunities for all,” Boustan said.
Given the limitations of census data, cultural assimilation is more difficult to measure. But Abramitzky, himself an Israeli immigrant, noticed something about his own family. When he was new to the United States, he gave his first son a typically Israeli name, Roee. Friends and teachers struggled to pronounce it. For each subsequent child, Abramitzky and his wife tried harder to find names that suited their culture but sounded more familiar to American ears—first Ido, and finally Tom.
The economists found the same pattern in the census data. The longer they were here, the more likely immigrant parents were to choose fewer foreign names for their children. This correlates closely with other measures of assimilation such as intermarriage and English proficiency.
By the time Ellis Island-era immigrants had been in the United States for 20 years, they had already closed half the “foreign name gap” with native residents. For modern-day immigrants, California birth records—one of the largest modern databases of names available—show an identical pattern.
Furthermore, the lower the economic status of a group upon arrival, the faster they assimilate: today’s Mexicans, like the Portuguese of the Ellis Island era, are among the fastest to adopt American names.
Like their Ellis Island predecessors, modern-day immigrants have sparked a nativist backlash. But in that backlash they had to face an unfair opponent: impossibly high expectations built on rosy 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 Department of Data, fun facts are serious business. We’ll learn more about where the genealogical data revolution is headed in a future column. In the meantime, however, we would appreciate your data suggestions. We have numbers on insect eggs and Italian immigrants to Argentina, but what records are we missing? What questions do we have to answer? Perhaps you are curious which countries are taking in the most refugees or how many tankers are still transporting Russian oil. Just ask!
If your question inspires a column, we’ll send a button and ID that recognizes you as an official representative of the Department of Data. Today’s column button goes to our friend Marion Harrell in Maryland, who helped inspire her.