The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Norway was once the kind of country Trump might’ve spit on. Now its people don’t even want to come here.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott explains how Trump’s “shithole countries” comment is the latest example of his history of demeaning statements on nonwhite immigrants. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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After telling lawmakers in an Oval Office meeting Thursday he doesn’t want more immigration from “shithole countries,” President Trump said the United States should bring in more people from countries such as Norway instead. 

In the history of international migration to the United States, it was a deeply ironic statement. (Many have also called it racist, because Trump used the vulgarity to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African nations.)

About a century ago, a wave of European migration drew many Norwegians to the United States. At the time, they faced challenges assimilating and catching up with native-born Americans.

But now that the president wants Norwegians to come on over? They’re probably too successful to bother.

Norway may have been on Trump's mind because of his recent meeting with the country's prime minister, who would have reason to boast of her country's economic success. Norway has ranked at the top of the U.N.’s Human Development Index for all of this century. By all measures, it has a high quality of life.

But, interestingly enough, that’s a relatively recent development.

For the vast majority of their shared history, including the period in the mid- to late 1800s and early 1900s that comprised the biggest wave of immigration from what is now Norway to the United States, Norway might have been on the president’s so-called manure pile.

European immigrants of that time fueled many of the same fears about immigration we see today, and politicians fought to close the nation’s borders back then as successive waves of migrants from different European countries faced hostility upon arrival in the United States.

Today, those immigrants are idealized as a fast-assimilating group that came over with nothing but the shirts on their backs, and handed their children the American Dream. Some place them in sharp contrast to what they see as the insular communities of present-day immigrants such as those called out by the president. But it only appears that those migrants assimilated quickly because past economists only looked at a moment in time, instead of following individuals throughout their lives.

"[There's a misconception that] in the past these European migrants were just really scrappy, they just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps really quickly,” Princeton economist Leah Boustan said. “But that was just sort of a data illusion.”

Norwegians, the very group Trump held up as ideal immigrants, epitomize this effect.

Until the postwar era, Norway’s per capita gross domestic product — that is, the amount of economic activity generated per person — was about half that of the United States, according to the Maddison Project Database, which compiles and adjusts historical economic data. For much of that time, Norway’s GDP consistently ranked in the bottom half of European countries in the data set.

During that time of intense immigration, researchers have found, Norwegians were far from the model they might appear to be today. For decades after their arrival, they lagged behind other groups.

In a 2014 paper that first came to my attention in a series of tweets from Cato Institute analyst Alex Nowrasteh, Boustan and her colleagues, economists Ran Abramitzky of Stanford University and Katherine Eriksson (now of the University of California at Davis) used recently available data to combine census data and genealogical records for immigrants from 16 European countries and regions from 1900 to 1920.

In this way, they were able to correct for the “data illusions” that had distorted previous research. A single census could show that immigrants who had been here 30 years earn as much as natives, while those here fewer than five earn only half as much. This might lead an economist to think that it takes 30 years for an immigrant to assimilate. In fact, it's much more likely that the immigrants of 30 years prior tended to be from higher-earning professions and the recent immigrants were from lower-earning ones, which would distort the sample.

They found that Norwegians, based on their mostly rural, low-income occupations such as farming, fishing and logging, arrived in the United States with the lowest earning potential of any national group. Even after 30 years in the country, the authors found, Norwegians had failed to find higher-paying work and close the gap with either native earners or most other European immigrants.

By that same measure, even second-generation Norwegian Americans (black bars) had failed to assimilate and move into higher-paying occupations than their immigrant parents.

That's not a critique of people from Norway, or of farmers and lumberjacks in general. Instead, it's evidence that assimilation is a difficult and gradual process. It takes generations, perhaps a long as a century, to catch up to the native population. Boustan said that, on the whole, the immigrants of today look to be on a path similar to that followed by Norwegians and others in their study.

And in the current era, Norwegian Americans are doing well. But perhaps not as well as those in Norway, with a boost from their careful stewardship of natural wealth such as North Sea crude and hydropower, enjoy high levels of income and health status, and other scores of quality of life.

Remember how their GDP, adjusted for population, used to be half that of the United States? Now the chart has almost flipped.

Norwegians have it so well today that, the president’s entreaties aside, they don’t even bother coming to America any more. Based on the most recent detailed numbers available from the Census Bureau, which has enough data to track migrants from more than 100 countries, the 25,300 Norwegian-born people living in the U.S. are the third smallest group it can measure, in raw-number terms.

Many countries above it on the list are smaller in terms of population. The only two below it on the list are Latvia, which has about one-third of Norway’s population of 5.3 million, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which is nearly 50 times smaller.

According to a tweet from Statistics Norway (via Reuters), just 502 Norwegians moved to the United States in 2016, down 59 from the year before. An entire generation of Norwegians have, through their immigration decisions, made it clear where they prefer to live.