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U.S. Immigration: Rhetoric and Reality

IPR experts' findings illuminate how the two can differ, with some counterintuitive results

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I think quantitative work is really important because it allows us to paint a more complete, holistic picture of the history of immigration.”

Elisa Jácome
IPR economist

girl waves flag at naturalization ceremony 

The daughter of an immigrant holds a flag at her mother's naturalization ceremony in 2019.

Even before the United States was founded, Benjamin Franklin worried about the number of Germans “swarming” into the colony of Pennsylvania in 1751, accusing them of “herding together [to] establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours.” More than two centuries later, we hear echoes of this same rhetoric, such as in the 2016 presidential campaign when then-candidate Donald Trump exhorted, “This is a country where we speak English!”

In comparing the two, one has to wonder: Have opinions about immigration changed at all over the course of American history—and how does such rhetoric stack up to reality?

Using the latest quantitative methods paired with archival and historical data, IPR faculty experts are examining key aspects of immigrants’ integration into American society, uncovering some unexpected answers to these century-old questions.

Do More Immigrants Bring Crime?

Nearly half of Americans polled in June thought immigrants to the U.S. are making crime worse—and this belief is not new.

Elisa Jácome, an IPR economist, and her colleagues delved into 150 years of census records to ask, were immigrants ever more likely to commit crimes than those born in the U.S.? Are today’s immigrants more likely to be criminals than those in the past? To find out, she and her colleagues analyzed incarceration rates over time.

They established that between 1870 and 2020, incarceration rates for immigrants were lower than for U.S.-born men. Since 1960, the gap between the two groups has widened. Today, immigrants are 60% less likely to be incarcerated than all U.S.-born men, and 30% less likely to be incarcerated than White U.S.-born men.

The verdict: Immigrants are not more crime-prone than their U.S.-born counterparts. And first-generation immigrants are doing better overall—not just in terms of incarceration rates—than are U.S.-born men, especially among those with lower levels of education. Overall, immigrant men are more likely to be working than U.S.-born men with similar education backgrounds, Jácome explains. They are also more likely to be married and to be living with children.

Previous economic studies have shown that structural changes like globalization and technological change have had more negative effects on less-educated U.S.-born men.

“It appears that immigrants might have found a way to remain relatively shielded from or to better withstand these shocks,” she said.

What makes immigrants different? Jácome says that’s next on her research agenda, but that some possible explanations are that they possess certain positive traits, like ambition or grit, or that they are more mobile and relocate more readily for work.

Do Immigrants Hurt the Economy?

That immigrants take jobs from U.S.-born people is a well-known, persistent, and seemingly logical opinion. Those who endorse it believe that if jobs are scarce, immigrants will take whatever employment is available at lower wages.

Members of Congress have expressed this view since the 1880s when mass immigration to the U.S. began, as computational linguist and IPR associate Rob Voigt and his fellow researchers find in a recent study. The speaker’s political party and the immigrant group’s home country have changed over time, but the concern about immigrant labor has continued across the last 140 years.

Chinese immigrants were framed as threatening in the 19th century; today, Mexican immigrants are the people categorized by words like “crime,” “labor,” and “legality,” once applied to the Chinese.

Voigt and his colleagues’ research shows that since World War II, overall political speech about immigration has become more positive than in the past. However, he points out, Mexican immigrants today, like the Chinese over a century ago, are special targets and specially contentious.

“There are political actors who can make use of the idea that all of our problems can be blamed on this one group,” Voigt said. “Mexican immigration contemporarily fills a similar kind of social role” as the Chinese did from 1880–1920.

But does the rhetoric reflect today’s reality?

Strategy professor and IPR associate Benjamin Jones and his colleagues studied immigrants as both employees and as entrepreneurs. They examined how often immigrants started companies between 2005 and 2010, the number of jobs the firms created, and then compared them to firms created by U.S.-born entrepreneurs. Results indicate that immigrants are far more likely to start companies and that they create more jobs than they take.

“Ironically, the result is exactly the opposite of the usual narrative. It seems like immigrants actually improve the economic outcomes for native-born workers, ” Jones told Kellogg Insight.

Jácome takes a longer view of immigrant economic activity in the U.S., examining the economic success of immigrants and their children over the last 140 years. She and her colleagues compare the earnings of the sons of immigrants, or the second generation, to the earnings of sons of U.S.-born men.

But do such data live up to the oft-told “immigrant story,” as Jácome says, of parents coming to the U.S. to offer their children a brighter future?

Jácome says that to have a comprehensive understanding of immigrant assimilation, it is important to also uncover the success of the children of immigrants. She and her colleagues find that the second generation of immigrants, from nearly every country, whose parents started in the bottom of the income distribution when they arrived in the U.S. are more likely to move up the socioeconomic ladder than the children of U.S.-born people.

“Historically, immigrants tended to go to areas in the U.S. that had more opportunities,” Jácome explained. “It's unclear whether they were going there to maximize their own opportunities or whether they were choosing locations that would be good for their children.”

Due to data limitations, Jácome and her colleagues are unsure if more recent immigrants’ children are succeeding because of their willingness to locate where the economic opportunity beckons. But she believes that choice of location is still key.

Do Immigrants Fail to Assimilate?

Today, as well as throughout U.S. history, critics and members of the public have descried the failure, or even refusal, of immigrants to assimilate into American culture. Certain groups come under special suspicion. In the late 19th century, it was the Chinese. In the early 21st century, it is Mexicans. Muslims and people from the Middle East and North Africa, two groups often erroneously lumped together, are also viewed as different and possibly dangerous.

According to research by IPR political scientist Tabitha Bonilla, immigrants—who otherwise would be considered assimilated when judged by markers such as how well they speak English or their education—are seen as permanent outsiders due to their religion or race. Bonilla and her co-author conclude that Muslims are seen as a “monolithic group” whatever their ethnic origins, and all may be seen with suspicion and discriminated against as such.

What do we know about immigrant assimilation? One measure is how well they come to speak English. In new research, Voigt and his colleagues examine how much and how well immigrants and refugees in the early 20th century spoke their new language.

Using recorded oral history interviews of Ellis Island immigrants who arrived between 1893 and 1957, the researchers analyzed their vocabulary in English, syntax, how fast they spoke, and their “accentedness,” or the accuracy and fluency of their speech. They also determined, through painstaking hand-coding, who was a refugee fleeing violence or persecution and who was an immigrant coming for economic reasons or because they had family in the U.S.

They find that refugees fleeing persecution attained higher levels of English by the end of their lives than immigrants who arrived for economic reasons or to join family. This suggests that refugees are especially motivated to learn English as they cannot return to their homeland. The researchers note the level of assimilation as measured by how well they came to speak English had nothing to do with government refugee assistance policies—as they did not exist at the time. Rather, the U.S. culture the refugees entered at the time enabled their assimilation.

 “Even in this period where there is not official government support for folks as refugees,” Voigt said, that refugees could learn English as well as they did shows that “day-to-day social conditions” helped to enable assimilation.

Quantitative Methods and Immigration Studies

Understanding the reality of immigration’s effects on the U.S. and the effects of the U.S. on immigrants and refugees increasingly relies on collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data. IPR scholars are pushing the boundaries of quantitative analysis in their studies of these topics.

Both Jácome and Voigt deploy large datasets in their studies of immigration and see quantitative methods as key to their work, but they are not the only IPR faculty doing so.

IPR associate Joseph Ferrie, an economic historian, pioneered work on immigrant economic life using longitudinal data from censuses, passenger ship records, tax lists, and city directories. His overview of immigration in American economic history details how immigration changed the U.S., and the U.S. changed immigrants, from the 1600s to the present day.

IPR sociologist Julia Behrman is charting new quantitative data availability, measurements, and investigations of immigration to the U.S. and other countries, as well as immigration policies. Her work points to how scholarship can inform policy by identifying the intended and unintended effects of immigration policies and enforcement.

Using data from waves of the General Social Survey conducted 2006–18, Behrman finds that Hispanic immigrants living in states with the most punitive limitations on immigration report a larger ideal family size than the non-Hispanic White residents of those states. Her analysis suggests that these results may be largely driven by undocumented immigrants. The threat of harsh immigration policies and the vulnerability immigrants feel in response are possible causes of the higher ideal family size—which may differ from the actual number of children in a family.

“Quantitative analysis allows us to compare ideal family sizes of respondents living in very different immigration policy contexts,” Behrman said. “At the same time, use of nationally representative data allows for generalizability, thus providing a fuller understanding of how representative the trends we see are.“

In his work, Voigt says, he is using such computational methods to understand how small-scale and personal attitudes and decision making, as well as interactions between people, might become larger patterns that researchers can measure.

People have strong feelings and stubborn attitudes about immigration, and quantitative analysis can cut through that, Jácome said.

“In my work with these co-authors, the goal has been to understand how patterns have changed over time, in particular, because there is this sort of nostalgia for the old immigrant groups in the U.S. and this notion that immigrants today are very different,” Jácome said. “I think quantitative work is really important because it allows us to paint a more complete, holistic picture of the history of immigration.”

Julia Behrman is assistant professor of sociology and an IPR fellow. Tabitha Bonilla is associate professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow. Joseph Ferrie is professor of economics and an IPR associate. Elisa Jácome is assistant professor of economics and an IPR fellow. Benjamin Jones is Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship and an IPR associate. Rob Voigt is assistant professor of linguistics and an IPR associate.

Photo credit: iStock

Published: November 28, 2023.