Ellis Island immigrants weren’t special — today’s newcomers succeed just as quickly

How the work of amateur genealogists quietly forced us to rethink all our assumptions about which immigrants thrive

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Since the Civil War, two towering waves of immigrants have defined American demographics. The first came from Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s: the Ellis Island era. The second, which continues today, started in 1965 with sweeping changes in immigration law that welcomed people from around the globe, particularly Latin America and Asia.

In American mythology, the (largely White) huddled masses of the Ellis Island era teemed to our shores, tamed the prairies, powered the Industrial Revolution and became the heroes of the American success story. Today’s (largely non-White) immigrants are portrayed somewhat less charitably, often as people who came without marketable skills, looking for a handout.

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Now, thousands of genealogists, toiling anonymously, have shattered that myth and upended our perception of American immigrants. No spoilers, but the data shows that the current wave of immigrants is succeeding and assimilating at virtually the same rate as immigrants did a century ago.

“The Mexicans today are just as upwardly 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 look at American immigrants during a 14-year effort to follow Americans across generations by linking together their records in one of humanity’s greatest data troves: old decennial census files.

Seventy-two years after each census, the government releases every sheet of data collected by enumerators in a single, magnificent data dump. But for decades, that was more or less the end of it. Piles of magnificent data dumps sat slowly decaying in government warehouses and data centers.

It took pioneering researchers such as Northwestern University’s Joseph Ferrie years of tedious searching to link even a couple thousand people across multiple censuses in the 678 million records now available.

Enter the genealogists. Boustan and Abramitzky realized that, line by line, granduncle by granduncle, folks at genealogy sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch, many of them devoted amateurs, had quietly built the Taj Mahal of economic data: digital copies of early censuses.

To access that data, all the economists had to do was break into the Taj Mahal.

There were some early setbacks. When they wrote a program to automatically download hundreds of thousands of records from Ancestry, Abramitzky said, they got a call from an inquisitive corporate lawyer. The company had noticed their activity and surmised that either they had an improbably huge family tree or they were trying to raid the company’s data and launch a competitor. (An Ancestry spokesperson said the company has no knowledge of this interaction.)

But Abramitzky’s enthusiasm for immigration research is highly infectious. Within minutes, the corporate lawyer was entranced by their findings and firing off questions about how generations of Italians and other nationalities had moved up 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 at IPUMS at the University of Minnesota would make much of that historical census data freely available to scholars online. Today, hundreds of millions of records at IPUMS can be credited to genealogy sources such as Ancestry — a for-profit Utah organization that was purchased in 2020 for $4.7 billion by private-equity behemoth Blackstone — and FamilySearch, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that relies heavily on volunteer efforts to decipher old records.

Ancestry alone has more than 30 billion records in its database, including contributions from its almost 3.8 million subscribers. Using the genealogy data, the economists could soon follow generations of immigrants from the Ellis Island era as they assimilated (or didn’t) and prospered (or didn’t).

“Our work would not be possible if not for the volunteers that digitized this data,” Abramitzky said.

As we speak, more than 150,000 FamilySearch volunteers are racing to digitize 151 million records from the 1950 Census, newly released in April. With the help of Ancestry’s AI-powered handwriting-recognition algorithms, which are double-checked by volunteers on slick FamilySearch phone and web apps, they have turned vetting census data into a friendly high-score competition.

One those volunteers, Laurel Peregrino, 66, has already reviewed more than 51,000 names and entered additional demographic data for more than 2,000 families, most in California and Texas — two of the many states in which she lived before settling down around Philadelphia. An avid genealogist, Peregrino has dug through her family history for a quarter-century and made half a dozen trips to the National Archives in D.C. to dive deep on subjects such as her grandfather’s 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

“I like feeling like I’m giving back and helping other people to find records of importance 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 that have grown up around past generations and revealed some surprising truths. On the whole, immigrants struggle, fail, succeed and assimilate at similar rates. And the ones who assimilate fastest and whose children improve their lot the most are often the ones who faced the most contempt upon arrival.

The data reveals there was nothing particularly special about Ellis Island immigrants. Most of them struggled their entire lives to make it in America and never caught up with their native-born peers. Many others abandoned the American experiment entirely and returned home where, Boustan said, they “were able to take what they learned or saved in America and apply it to success on European shores.”

In fact, while Ellis Island immigrants were better off upon arrival than today’s immigrants, thanks largely to the prosperity of their source countries, the economic progress they made during their lifetimes was strikingly similar.

Because their data follows immigrants across generations, the researchers were able to write the surprising sequel to immigrants’ early struggles: Their children thrived in America, rising up the economic ladder faster than their native-born peers. And the same is true of immigrants today.

“Children of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic today are just as likely to move up from their parents’ circumstances as were children of poor Swedes and Finns a hundred years ago,” the economists write in their new book, “Streets of Gold.”

According to Boustan and Abramitzky, the secret weapon deployed by immigrant parents wasn’t education. It wasn’t a demanding parenting style like the one described in Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” either.

It was geographic mobility.

Immigrant kids tended to outperform their peers from similar economic backgrounds because, unencumbered by deep hometown roots, their parents were willing to move to where the jobs were. If you compare immigrants to similar native kids born in the same place, they succeed at similar rates. It’s just that immigrant kids are much more likely to have grown up in one of those high-opportunity places.

“Immigrants are living in locations that provide upward mobility for everyone,” Boustan said.

Given the limitations of census data, cultural assimilation is harder to measure. But Abramitzky, himself an immigrant from Israel, noticed something about his own family. When he was new to the United States, he gave his first son a typical Israeli name, Roee. Friends and teachers struggled to pronounce it. For each subsequent kid, Abramitzky and his spouse tried harder to find names that fit 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 pick less-foreign names for their children. That correlates closely with other measures of assimilation, such as intermarriage and proficiency in English.

By the time Ellis Island-era immigrants had been in the United States for 20 years, they already had closed half the “foreign name gap” with native residents. For today’s immigrants, birth records from California — one of the biggest modern name databases available — show an identical pattern.

Moreover, the lower a group’s economic status upon arrival, the faster they assimilate: Today’s Mexicans, like the Portuguese of the Ellis Island era, have been among the fastest to adopt American names.

Like their Ellis Island predecessors, today’s immigrants have sparked a nativist backlash. But in that backlash, they have had to face an unfair opponent: impossibly high expectations built on rose-tinted memories of their predecessors.

In reality, today’s immigrants — and their children — are building the American Dream with every bit 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 have more on where the genealogical-data revolution is headed in a future column. But we’d love to hear your data suggestions in the meantime. We have numbers on insect eggs and Italian immigrants to Argentina, but what data sets are we missing? What questions do we need to answer? Maybe you’re curious about which countries take in the most refugees, or how many tankers are still carrying Russian oil. Just ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send a button and ID recognizing you as an official agent of the Department of Data. The button for today’s column will go to our friend Marion Harrell in Maryland, who helped inspire it.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the number of Ancestry subscribers. The company has nearly 3.8 million members, not 3.8 billion. The article has been corrected.

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