Pausing Immigration Will Not Boost Assimilation

One of the more interesting arguments in favor of further restricting lower-skilled immigration comes from the prolific pen of Reihan Salam.  His piece is worth reading in its entirety, especially his emphasis on the importance of the melting-pot metaphor, a far better approach to the ideal of assimilation than the salad bowl or other concepts.  Salam understates the amount of “togetherness” Americans feel and the degree to which immigrants and their descendants rapidly adopt American identity, as well as exaggerating the benefits of such togetherness.  But my disagreement lies elsewhere.

The big take away from Salam’s piece is that a constant flow of lower-skilled immigrants into the United States slows the economic and cultural assimilation of that immigrant group.  As a result, further restricting low-skilled immigration would aid in the assimilation of current immigrants who are settled here.  As he wrote, “the melting and fusing of different ethnic groups is essential to building a more cohesive and human society, and that slowing down immigration would help this process along.”

His conclusion rests on two points. 

The first is that new immigrants economically compete with immigrants who came before them and little with lower skilled natives.  That’s true (here is some work on that issue).  Salam’s concern is that additional lower skilled immigrants will lower the wages of already settled immigrants, preventing them from rising.  How would increasing the wages for lower skilled occupations incentivize those workers to climb the skills ladder after closing immigration?  No idea.

Salam’s second point is that turning off lower-skilled immigration will more quickly assimilate those immigrants of the same ethnic group who are already here.  Salam’s point here is less sound as it confuses stocks and flows.  Salam relies upon the 1920s immigration restrictions and the subsequent assimilation of those immigrant ethnic groups that followed.  He cites a quick comment by sociologist Mary C. Waters:

In the absence of appreciable numbers of new arrivals successive generations of acculturated Americans, not unassimilated greenhorns, became the majority among the new ethnics. Today most Italian Americans or Polish Americans are second, third, and fourth generation. They did not cease being Italian or Polish and become just plain ‘Americans.’ But their ethnicity became less intense and increasingly intermittent, voluntary, even recreational. If some still enjoyed ethnic holidays or special foods, their ethnicity rarely determined their occupation or residence. As more and more of the later generations of white ethnics intermarried, their ethnic identity became even more attenuated, and individuals felt increasingly free to choose whether to identify with their mother’s or father’s or grandmother’s or grandfather’s ethnic origins. As a result the vast majority of Italian Americans live in neighborhoods that are not predominantly Italian American. As fewer new immigrants from Italy arrived, the nation’s Little Italys gradually shrank and evolved into places visited by suburbanites in search of restaurants or other ethnic stores.

Waters’ quote is not about the pace of assimilation for the immigrants who were already here, merely how assimilated the stock of ethnics from those countries appeared to be after the flow was stopped.  That is a very different point from the one that Salam is trying to make.  Of course the stock of ethnics appeared to be more American when their flow was halted by immigration restrictions – stopping the flow will make the stock in the United States more American in their cultural affinities.  Assimilation will have appeared to improve if there is no more immigration because there are no new people to assimilate.  But that is very different from claiming that the cut off in immigration flows caused that assimilation to occur.  Cutting off immigration in the 1920s is not responsible for the rapid subsequent assimilation of those already settled immigrants and their descendants.

Some of Waters’ comments are similar to those made by Princeton sociologist Doug Massey.  In this paper, Massey wrote:

Moreover, because the social and economic forces that produce assimilation operate slowly, while those promoting immigration work quickly, the rate at which ethnic culture is augmented by new arrivals from abroad will tend to exceed the rate at which new ethnic culture is created through generational succession, social mobility, and intermarriage in the United States.  As a result, the character of ethnicity will be determined relatively more by immigrants and relatively less by later generations, shifting the balance of ethnic identity toward the language, culture, and ways of life of the sending society.

Massey’s argument is that the total stock of ethnics from a particular country will be less Americanized if there is continual immigration, which is undoubtedly true.  Massey’s argument is not that continual waves of immigration stunt the assimilation of the American-born second-generation from the same ethnic group.  Massey then goes on to argue that the post-war economic boom pushed up many second and third-generation Americans.  That economic boom did not result from immigration restrictions.

Fortunately, we have additional evidence on the pace of assimilation for the immigrant ethnic groups of the early 20th century.  If immigration restrictions boosted assimilation, we should see an increase in the success of the second-generation after those restrictions were put in place.  That did not occur.  Immigrants continued to assimilate after the immigration restrictions just as they had before.

How the assimilation of immigrants and their descendants progressed before and after the enactment of immigration restrictions is an empirical question.  Fortunately there is a lot of research on the topic. 

Joel Perlmann’s Italians Then, Mexicans Now measures the progress of Italian immigrants and their descendants by birth cohort.  He tracked the assimilation progress of American-born children of Italian immigrants by the period of years in which they were born.  Through that method, he could compare the progress of the second-generation born from 1891-1895 to the second-generation born from 1921-1925.  Tracking by generation and year of birth created a better comparison than lumping together all second-generation immigrants of various ages and decades of birth.  Perlmann found no increase in the rate of assimilation after Italian immigration was largely closed off in the mid-1920s – assimilation continued after immigration restrictions just as it had before because the addition of new immigrants did not slow down the process.  Perlmann found an almost identical pattern for the children of Mexican immigrant using his same methods – the only real lag being with income because the economy put a higher premium on education post-1965 than during the early 20th century.

One way to approach the question is to examine the pace of assimilation prior to the 1920s immigration restrictions and comparing that to the rate of assimilation after the laws were enacted.  Abramitzky, Boustan, Eriksson found rapid economic assimilation prior to the immigration restrictions of the 1920s.  They didn’t extend their analysis after that point, but we all know what happened.  On the civic and cultural front, Jacob Vigdor also found rapid assimilation both before and after the immigration restrictions of the 1920s.

Learning English, becoming accustomed to American norms and habits, and integrating is a long and sometimes arduous process.  However, immigrants and their descendants today are becoming American just as rapidly as those a century ago.  The difference is that we are in the middle of this wave of immigrant and assimilation, which makes it appear messy from our perspective, whereas we can look to the past and see a straight line of “Americanization.”  To many Americans from a century ago, assimilation was not occurring. 

The immigration restrictions of the 1920s and the assimilation subsidies of the American Movement do not appear to have impacted that assimilation trend.  There is little evidence to support the notion that closing off lower-skilled immigration today will boost the rate of assimilation, which is already high, going forward.  Those claiming that the immigration restrictions of the 1920s increased the rate of assimilation have all of their work ahead of them.