New Evidence That Immigration Is Good for America

Counties where more immigrants settled a century ago have stronger economies today.
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Racist Irish caricatures in 19th-century America

In the 19th century, Irish immigrants in America were often feared and despised—and, in American newspapers, they were grossly dehumanized through caricature.

Immigration has become the signature issue of the Trump administration, and is likely to be a major focus of the 2020 election. Debates persist over whether an influx of newcomers to the nation represents a boon or a burden.

Well, let's check the historical record. The United States experienced the effects of mass migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of the fears expressed today were heard, and felt, then. So how did that experiment work out a century later?

Quite well, it turns out.

New research reports that U.S. counties that saw more immigration between 1850 and 1920 today enjoy higher average incomes, less poverty, and lower unemployment.

"Our findings suggest that the long-run benefits of immigration can be large, and need not come at high social cost," reports a research team led by Sandra Sequeira of the London School of Economics. "These benefits can be realized quickly, and are highly persistent."

In the Review of Economic Studies, the researchers look at the long-term economic and social effects of the largest immigration wave in American history, one that changed the nation's ethnic make-up. "While prior immigrants were primarily from Western Europe," they write, "the new wave also included large numbers of immigrants from Southern, Northern, and Eastern Europe."

These immigrants did not settle uniformly across the country; upon arrival, they usually traveled by rail to their eventual destinations. "If a county was connected to the railway network during periods of high aggregate immigration to the U.S., [it] tended to receive more immigrants," the researchers note.

Their analysis finds that these counties enjoyed enormous long-term benefits. "Historical immigration resulted in significantly higher incomes, less poverty, less unemployment, more urbanization, and higher educational attainment today," they write.

To cite one specific figure: On average, a county that experienced an average rate of immigration during this period enjoys 13 percent higher per-capita income today than one that did not host any new immigrants.

"Immigrants first contributed to the establishment of more manufacturing facilities, and then to the development of larger facilities," the researchers report. "We also found large positive effects on agricultural productivity and innovation, as measured by patenting rates."

OK, but did that growth come at the cost of a more fractured society? Perhaps, the researchers report, but any fracturing didn't last long.

"We find no evidence that historical immigration affects social cohesion, as measured by social capital (that is, shared norms, trust, and cooperation), voter turnout, or crime rates," they write.

Their findings confirm a longstanding historical narrative that seems to have been forgotten.

"The less-skilled immigrants provided the labor force necessary for industrial development," Sequeira and her colleagues write. "A smaller number of immigrants brought with them knowledge, skills, and know-how that were beneficial for industry and increased productivity in agriculture."

Thanks to that beneficial combination, "immigration led to early industrial development and long-run prosperity, which continues to persist until today."

Something to think about the next time you hear a nativist news commentator rail that increasing legal immigration "would advance the interests of the global elite ahead of our citizens." Such statements reflect a willful ignorance of American history.

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