Do Immigrants Assimilate?

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“In the past,” writes one pair of economists,

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 content and because naming is a pure choice for immigrant parents, unconstrained by financial limitations or by discrimination on the part of natives. 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).

By this measure, we find that recent immigrants gave their children more foreign names than did long-standing immigrants, which we take to be evidence of cultural assimilation with time spent in the US.

This change in names yielded benefits for the children of immigrants:

We link over a million children of immigrants across historical Censuses from their childhood families in 1920 into adulthood in 1940, and find that children with less foreign names completed more years of schooling, earned more and were less likely to be unemployed. Children with less foreign names were also less likely to marry a spouse who was born abroad or who had a very foreign name herself.

To summarize,

Despite arriving with a distinct set of cultural practices (proxied here by name choices), immigrants closed half of their cultural gap with natives after 20 years in the US. By 1930, more than two-thirds of immigrants had applied for US citizenship and almost all reported some ability to speak English. A third of first-generation immigrants who arrived in the US before marrying and more than half of second-generation immigrants married spouses from different origins.

I’m really not all that worried about cultural diversity. But for those who are, looks like you don’t have much to fear from immigrants.