Lambert here: Note that the “Age of Mass Migration” is not today, but the period between 1850 and 1915.
By Marco Tabellini, Postdoctoral fellow, Harvard Business School. Originally published at VoxEU.
Recent waves of immigration in the US and Europe have triggered debate around the economic and political impact. This column uses evidence from migration of Europeans to the US in the first half of the 20th century to show that large cultural differences can incite anti-immigrant sentiment despite their positive economic impact. Therefore, policymakers should give due attention to cultural assimilation and cohesion policies.
The recent immigration waves to Europe and the US have fuelled an intense political debate. Proposals to introduce or tighten immigration restrictions are becoming increasingly common, and support for populist right-wing parties has been on the rise in several Western democracies (Dustmann et al. 2019, Halla et al. 2017). Yet, in spite of the rising importance of immigration in the political arena, neither the causes nor the consequences of anti-immigration sentiments are fully understood.
First, despite the evidence on voting, the link between support for anti-immigration parties and the actual policies implemented in response to immigration has not been systematically investigated. Since we ultimately care about the actions and reforms undertaken by political actors, it is crucial to understand which policies, if any, are affected by immigration – and why. Will legislation regulating the immigration regime be introduced? Will redistribution and taxation be changed to prevent immigrants from having access to public goods?
Second, evidence on the causes of anti-immigration sentiments is mixed, and two main hypotheses have been proposed. The first explanation is economic in nature. It argues that political discontent emerges from the negative effect of immigration on natives’ employment and wages.1 While this idea is consistent with findings in Borjas (2003) and Dustmann et al. (2017) among others, it is in contrast with results in Card (2001, 2005), Foged and Peri (2016), and Ottaviano and Peri (2012), who document that immigrants have a negligible, or even positive, impact on natives’ earnings.
The second hypothesis is that natives’ backlash has cultural roots. Both today and in the past, a recurring theme in the rhetoric of anti-immigration politicians is that immigrants’ cultural diversity is an obstacle to social cohesion and a menace to the values of hosting communities (Abramitzky and Boustan 2017). Historical and anecdotal accounts present many examples of cultural opposition to immigration (Higham 1955), but there is scant systematic evidence on the extent to which culture directly triggers political backlash and policy change.
In a recent paper (Tabellini 2019), I study in a unified framework the political and economic effects of immigration across US cities between 1910 and 1930, a period when the massive inflow of European immigrants was abruptly interrupted by two major shocks: WWI and the Immigration Acts (1921 and 1924). Between 1850 and 1915, during the Age of Mass Migration, more than 30 million people moved from Europe to the US (Abramitzky and Boustan 2017), and the share of immigrants in the US population was even higher than it is today (Figure 1). Also at that time, anti-immigration sentiments were widespread, and the introduction of immigration restrictions was advocated on both economic and cultural grounds.
Figure 1 Immigrants as a percentage of US population
Source: adapted from Tabellini (2019).
This setting offers three main advantages. First, by jointly analysing economic and political outcomes, I can test the relationship between economic insecurity and natives’ political reactions, and shed light on the causes of natives’ backlash. Second, since cities were independent fiscal units and because the US went through a major change in its (immigration) policy regime, I not only study the impact of immigration on voting, but I also measure its effects on actual policies – both at the local and at the national level. Finally, in contrast with more recent immigration episodes where migrants often come from culturally homogeneous groups, at the beginning of the 20th century there existed wide variation in immigrants’ cultural background (e.g. in terms of language or religion). Exploiting such variation, I can assess how the political effects of immigration varied with cultural distance between immigrants and natives.
To causally isolate the impact of immigration, I predict the number of European immigrants in each decade between 1910 and 1930 by relying on the national shocks to immigration triggered by WWI and the Immigration Acts. These events were exogenous to local political and economic conditions across US cities, but affected migration flows from different sending regions to different degrees.2 Since immigrants tend to cluster along ethnic lines (Card 2001), the differential effect of these shocks across European countries generated significant variation in the number as well as in the mix of immigrants received by US cities over time.
I begin my analysis by studying the political effects of immigration, which are summarized in Figure 2. Here, I plot the relationship between 1910-1920 immigration across US cities (x-axis) and the probability that a member of the House representing the cities in my sample voted in favour of the 1924 National Origins Act (y-axis) – the bill that eventually shut down European immigration to the US, and regulated the American immigration policy until 1965. There is a positive and statistically significant relationship between immigration and support for anti-immigrant legislation. These effects are also quantitatively large – a 5 percentage point increase in immigration is associated with a 10 percentage point higher probability of voting in favour of the National Origins Act.
Figure 2 Immigration and support for National Origins Act
Source: adapted from Tabellini (2019).
The political effects of immigration were felt also at the local level, as cities cut public goods provision and taxes in response to immigrant arrivals. The reduction in tax revenues was entirely driven by declining tax rates, while the fall in public spending was concentrated in categories where either inter-ethnic interactions are likely to be more salient (e.g. education), or poorer immigrants would get larger implicit transfers (e.g. sewerage, garbage collection). These ﬁndings suggest that immigrants were perceived as a ﬁscal burden, and that immigration reduced natives’ demand for redistribution.
After establishing that immigration triggered widespread, hostile political reactions, I investigate the potential causes for natives’ backlash. I start from the ﬁrst, and perhaps most obvious possibility – that immigrants might have increased labour market competition, lowering wages and raising unemployment among native workers. However, in contrast with this idea, I ﬁnd that immigration had a positive and large eﬀect on natives’ employment. My estimates suggest that a 5 percentage point increase in immigration raised natives’ employment by 1.4 percentage points or, by 1.6%, relative to its 1910 level. Immigration also increased ﬁrms’ investment, and induced natives to move away from occupations that were more exposed to immigrants’ competition and to specialise in better paying jobs which, because of discrimination and language barriers, immigrants did not have access to.3
Even though immigration had, on average, positive effects on natives’ employment and occupational standing, it is possible that economic losses were concentrated on some speciﬁc groups who were able to mobilise and demand political protection. Although I cannot entirely rule out this interpretation, I provide evidence against it. First, I document that even in occupations that were highly exposed to immigrants’ competition, natives were not more likely to be unemployed. Second, I show that in the sector most exposed to immigration (i.e. manufacturing), there was no signiﬁcant reduction in wages. Since manufacturing wages at the time were not reported separately for immigrant and native workers, and new immigrants were closer substitutes for previously arrived migrants than for natives, these ﬁndings can be interpreted as a lower bound for the negative eﬀect (if any) of immigration on natives’ earnings.
In the last part of the paper, I seek to reconcile the seemingly contrasting economic and the political effects of immigration. I show that natives’ political reactions were increasing in the cultural distance between immigrants and natives, suggesting that backlash had, at least in part, non-economic foundations. I proxy for cultural diversity using both religion and linguistic distance. The use of religion, in particular, is motivated by the historical evidence that, at that time, nativism often resulted in anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism (Higham 1955). I find that, while immigrants from Protestant and non-Protestant countries had similar eﬀects on natives’ employment, they triggered very diﬀerent political reactions. Only Catholic and Jewish, but not Protestant, immigrants induced cities to limit redistribution, favoured the election of more conservative legislators, and increased support for the 1924 National Origins Act.
The findings in my paper may be specific to the conditions prevailing in US cities in the early 20th century, but they could be relevant for the design of policies aimed at dealing with the economic and political effects of immigration today. My results suggest that when cultural differences between immigrants and natives are large, opposition to immigration can arise even if immigrants are on average economically beneficial and do not create economic losers among natives. Thus, favouring the cultural assimilation of immigrants and reducing the (actual or perceived) distance between immigrants and natives may be at least as important as addressing the potential economic effects of immigration.
My “gut feel” is that this is too clinical and that “cui bono” from perceptions that “immigration is a problem” should be explored intently.
I suspect that a side-effect of greater ethnic and cultural diversity within a national polity is that it makes it easier for those with an interest in so doing to obscure the reasons that “things are not better than they are”, which in turn can reduce or distract from popular interest in “social democracy”. It is hard to not think that this is happening before our eyes in US at the present time. This might help to account for the apparent paralysis of the rulers in dealing with the “immigration problem.” It’s too useful a thing to solve because having it at the forefront of public awareness distracts from other problems. (I console myself that at least it’s not a war, though perhaps we are brewing up one of those, too)
An ex-patriat sibling recently expressed wonderment that US, which is substantially European in its population’s ancestry, is so far behind Europe in terms of social insurance and “universal concrete material benefits”. This might be part of the explanation.
I suspect that Howard Zinn would agree; something about incentivizing half the population to keep the other half under control. Other’s have characterizing it as “kicking side-ways and down rather than up.”
broad sections of the u.s. left are doubling down on this “open borders are a moral imperative”notion and i feel it is a political loser in the arena of competitive elections we are forced to go thru in western democracies.it says a nation state does’nt have the right to control it’s own borders which will get you killed on election day 7 out of 10 times.
The US GDP reportedly grew from about $33 billion per year in 2010 to $89 billion in 2020. This is more than 10% annual compounded growth – a decade of growth not seen in the US except for (you guessed it) the worldwide war period of 1940-1950.
IF the author is inferring that immigrants added to economic growth during that period, and IF the author is concluding that immigration always and everywhere adds to native employment, THEN one must wonder if the author has cherry-picked his data.
In other words, the impact of immigration on native economic outcomes, and presumably on native economic attitudes towards immigrants, is not something to which a PhD in economics should be applying the usual “All Else Equal” phony econometric model of human conduct.
the extraordinary 10%+ compounded annual US GDP growth was from 19-10 to 19-20 (not 2010 to 2020), the decade apparently used by the author to form his argument…
The decade of World War I when the hard pressed Entente allies turned to the US for everything and in very great quantities, especially food, fuel and everything militaries need to wage war. hmmmmm
This study’s result strikes me intuitively as very plausible. If current US immigration were from, say, Canada or Ireland, I greatly doubt that the people who now denounce immigration would be so upset. At least the ones I know would not.
My grandmother immigrated to Canada around 1920 from Slovakia, and my mom told me that if you weren’t an English immigrant-well, you weren’t anything. She said complete strangers would slander her based on her last name and nothing else in the late 30’s-early 40’s. She got called a bohunk all the time.
Edmonton is still called Edmonhuck – including the offsprings of Ukranians..
If I may offer a more prosaic view, the in group natives have leaders and policy makers whose interest is in keeping the borders closed and defending those borders. The leaders desire to create a like-mindedness among the natives and to implore and provide incentives to solidify the leaders authority and provide actors (police/military) to defend the border. Like-mindedness is uncertain therefore people use phylogenetic markers (skin color/facial features) and behaviors (language/dress/religion) as a proxy for the state of mind of other people.
To be effective leaders use propaganda and force to create and establish a homogeneity of mind, build a coalition, and a nation. In looking at immigrants, leaders likely look at immigrants as having abandoned their own nation. This behavior would raise the expectation that persons who have left a nation once would likely do so again and thus be a threat to the leaders ability to maintain a coalition and defend the border.
At the local level and beyond the immediate border, once the immigrant has established themselves they are likely going to ‘go along to get along’ and become a net positive for the community. Many times leaders in a situation where the attempt is to expand borders(Lincoln/Polk/Netanyahu) are more that willing accept immigrants to provide the force to maintain the newly colonized territory or put them in uniform to move the border.
However, in this age of increased global population and mostly fixed borders a large problem of immigration is in the imaginations of leaders obsessed with the maintenance of their own power. This with the like-mindedness of their coalition is in controlling a border which is representation and proxy for shared interest and the elusive human quantity, control.
“My estimates suggest that a 5 percentage point increase in immigration raised natives’ employment by 1.4 percentage points” … “immigration also increased ﬁrms’ investment” … and the natives moved to ” better paying jobs.”
Immigration is a true panacea for healing an ailing economy. Just imagine how a 50% increase in immigration might drive full employment, with better paying jobs for the natives, and increasing firms’ internal investment. We could grow the GDP right off the chart.
Growing GDP is a given by adding new people. Growing GDP per person is another thing. Where do we land on that?
I think we land on that by misconstruing a simple reductio ad absurdum.
And reconsider your assertion growing GDP is a given by adding new people. While it is reasonable to expect that in aggregate the added new people add productivity without impact on the existing production but it is a little sloppy to leave that assumption implicit in your assertion. The issue of “GDP per person is another thing” indeed and don’t forget to consider which people actually receive the added GDP, whether the statistic “per person” increases or not.
“Just imagine how a 50% increase in immigration might drive full employment, with better paying jobs for the natives, and increasing firms’ internal investment. We could grow the GDP right off the chart.”
Yeah, carpenters and material supply companies building high rises everywhere to house the overflowing high fertility demographic. Once the buildings are built? Then we’d see the higher taxes to pay for increased infrastructure, classrooms, medical care and welfare for all the natives who no longer can find a livable wage job, or aren’t hired because they have no Spanish or Chinese language skills.
Geese, I just realized you post was satire.
“Note that the “Age of Mass Migration” is not today, but the period between 1850 and 1915”
A. These immigrants, were needed then as the frontier was only declared closed by congress in 1890. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontier_Thesis
IOW, there was plenty of land, water, natural resources and a need for Industrial Revolution skilled and unskilled immigrants, who were vetted at Ellis Island from 1892 up till 1954 for diseases, criminality, imbecility and sent back home if so.
B. The author’s statement:
“a recurring theme in the rhetoric of anti-immigration politicians is that immigrants’ cultural diversity is an obstacle to social cohesion and a menace to the values of hosting communities…”
It is today, but not in the past.
if one looks at the strong ethnic communities of mostly Christians from Europe all over America of Germans, Irish, Poles, Russian,Italians, and English, who usually had a parish based society and could enjoy plentiful blue collar, (a term originally applied to Navy sailors), employment.
These parish based communities were deliberately destroyed by the federal government’s insertion of housing projects in the middle of such communities in the 1950s, which were then usually filled by nonwhite outsiders, causing white self preservation and flight to the suburbs. See E.Edward Jones, Slaughter of the Cities.
Since L.B.J.s Great Society Program, ca. 1965, large numbers of non-European immigrants are certainly “diverse”, a synonym for “divisive”?, enough to enable that statement. Ted Kennedy’s “Family reunification” immigrant policies, designed to protect the Irish in Boston, morphed into today’s Latin American and Asian chain migration.
The Irish were already favored by the 1924 immigration act as were other northern europeans with a large existing base in the U.S at the time. The Kennedys were under pressure from Italians who formed a large democratic voting ethnic group in Massachusetts who had family members who were locked out by the 1924 act.
By “nonwhite outsiders”, you mean the native population of blacks, descendants of people who had been here since at least the 1700’s?
I was a state/county prosecutor in Silicon Valley from 1983-2017 and saw several waves of immigration/migration. I also volunteered for the last five of those years as a judge Pro Tem in the Small Claims Court.
What constantly struck me was the neoliberal article of faith that American laws and cultural norms are some sort of “natural laws of free markets” and that immigrants were expected to automatically adhere to traffic laws and sexual mores (for example) that were completely alien to them.
I met constant push-back from political “leaders” whenever I suggested producing educational and cultural competency materials for immigrants. It is absolute bedlam in Silicon Valley as a result, creating a fertile environment for all manner of charlatans and flim-flam artists.
The age of consent in some Latin American countries is 12, in other 16. How dare we impose our cultural mores on migrants simply trying to better themselves and feed their children.
A traditional quinceanera is a girl’s coming out part at 15. The purpose is to announce that she’s ready.
“51 percent of Hispanic teens get pregnant before age 20, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.”
Yes, that’s the effect of our foreign policy and coups we sponsored, I know…
“Like France, many other countries, increased the age of consent to 13 in the 19th century. Nations, such as Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons, that adopted or mirrored the Napoleonic code likewise initially set the age of consent at 10-12 years and then raised it to between 13 and 16 years in the second half of the 19th century. In 1875, England raised the age to 13 years; an act of sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 13 was a felony. In the U.S., each state determined its own criminal law and age of consent ranged from 10 to 12 years of age. U.S. laws did not change in the wake of England’s shift. Nor did Anglo-American law apply to boys.”
“By 1920, when the influence of reform campaigns that established a new link between the age of consent and prostitution had run its course, most had revised their age upward, to 14 or 15 in European nations, and 16 in the Anglo-American world.”
Careful there, Cal, you are advocating Progressive Reformer policies!
Most of the commentariat here don’t seem to advocate anything like open borders.
I think I know who wants cheap labor, both by immigration and offshoring, and it isn’t the working class, whatever political affiliation.
Remember which admin did the amnesty program?
Immigrants from Asia and Latin America might have more conservative cultural norms than the average white person in Northern California. It’s hard to know what is meant by cultural competency? Most of my life experience is based in New York City. People routinely jay walk in New York. I visited Denmark and was shocked to find pedestrians routinely obeyed traffic lights, even late at night. I’ve known many immigrants and one thing I’ve noticed. The children of immigrants don’t find it that hard to assimilate into American society. Very few third generation Americans even speak the language of their grandparents.
I would like to read more about this, David, any suggestions?
I’m not aware of academic work or news reporting on this issue. Immigrants’ assimilation problems aren’t really on the scale of Trump’s “rapists and murderers” trope — they manifest themselves in things like landlord-tenant disputes and truancy/graduation rates. The Vietnamese diaspora were incarcerated at an alarming rate during the 1980’s; their assimilated children hardly at all today.
Immigrant issues such as insurance fraud and wage theft aren’t considered particularly sexy topics by academics or the media. The “paternalistic racist” attitude remains on both the Left and the Right that simply shopping at Target is all that it takes to shed a childhood spent in the Killing Fields or as an Untouchable.
Let me say up front, my apologies for possibly being insulting especially to Mr. Marco Tabellini as I believe that he is sincere.
That being said:
1) Lies, damn lies, and statistics.
2) The American economy was very large, very diverse, growing very rapidly and generally had a labor shortage through 1910 to 1929.
3) The American economy is very large, becoming less diverse, and almost all the growth is in the FIRE sector of the economy with all the skills, capacity, and capabilities outside of that sector being eradicated in all the other sectors of the economy with there being a high unemployment and underemployment rate; this process began in the 1970s.
4) Since the national economy of the 20 years of this and the last century being very, very with one generally having a labor shortage and a growing economy while the other one does not, making any conclusions that increasing immigration today is beneficial seems unwise. Making comparisons about the social issues without looking at the strengths of the two economies as well as the extreme racism of the early 20th century, as in the Black Nadir was probably about 1920, compared to today. The differences in trade policy, taxes, government were also very different.
5) I have barely described the extremely different situations of the two period of time or the short comings of the paper.
The reason I want to study political economy instead of economics or even political science is because economics, politics, and a wide range of issues like technology, religion, and society are completely intertwined; modern mainstream economics feels mostly like statistics and lies; trying to strip out immigration, economic growth, ethnicity, and racism then turn them into statistics for comparison of two periods, with very large differences in economics and society, separated by a century is either masturbatory bias confirmation or dressed up neoliberal propaganda masquerading as serious research; even using those few sets of information to study the two periods individually is problematic. There is also the increasing problem in these increasingly nutty times of people being increasingly desperate to believe that what they believe is true and they search for anything that will confirm it.
I have noticed more such papers in the past decade; I don’t if I am merely being more watchful or that it is more common.
Suppose that are the 1910-1920 period, from 1913 to 1917 US export to Europe increased by 175%, then there was mobilization and large public spending for US entering WW I.
Wonder what had the largest effect on employment, investment, better paying jobs, immigration or WW I?
The global population situation is vastly different today than it was in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Global population growth:
Relative percent numbers is one thing but absolute numbers do also matter. E.G. growth percent can be less but absolute number still be higher. A growth by lets say one million do have the same implication on environment, necessary food production and so on even if its an 0.5% or 2.0% increase.
Life has become a struggle for those at the bottom as they compete for scarce resources.
The Government tell them there isn’t the money for the entitlements they used to receive.
Add mass immigration to the mix and you get more people more people competing for those scarce resources.
What was supposed to happen?
The Canadian solution – which enabled me to immigrate – is for the benefit of the host country, not to the benefit of the country the migrant hails from.
I have no problem with that in light of the illegal – because flaunting laws of entering a foreign country as a migrant in most cases relying on criminal gangs to achieve their goal, this way depriving the country of origin of needed funds and funelling them to further criminal activities – migration into Europe.
The point system asesses the skills of the applicant as to education, language skill, background etc. That is of course not denying refugees as determined under UN rules entering the country outside the immigration system.
Unfortunately – although I think intentionally – migrants always are conflated with genuine refugees, and one gets the impression following so called “liberal” media like der Spiegel or Deutsche Welle there is an agenda behind it to muddy the distinction, applying to sentiment: to have immigrants enter to put pressure on the jobs especially of unskilled labour.
The policies of Sweden and Germany especially fail to show successful integration, with only about 15% of the migrants having entered Gemany since 2015 having found jobs.
Very often despite efforts and means provided, migrants choose to ghettoize themselves, likely a result of religious convictions that are always more pronounced in those of lower education especially by those hailing from countries under heavy influence of Islam who find the secular ways of the host countries repelling.
This often results in areas where the migrants congregate to the exclusion of the host popuation, often engaging in criminal activities to sustain themelves at a level above whta the financial help of the host country supplies.
This migrant problem is in especially Germany’s case based on the failed policy not to have an immigration policy, despite the wave of invited and controlled influx of “Gastarbeiter” from Italy to Spain to Turkey.
This left Germany without any system to process and control the million+ illegal migrants entering Europe and making their way from Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey and led to a fast tracking of integration – teaching basic language skills (although very often the participants either do not use the service or do not complete them, thus further alienating themselves from the host population) – and often wihout any mean to gainfully employ them, also basing a heavy finacial burden to house and sutain this population.
I’m watching Beto on Face the Nation talking about if he is president he is going to let any family coming to the border to ask for asylum into the country, “as long as they follow the laws.”
I’m sick of people who make a lot more money than I ever have telling me that the building trades as example have seen increases in income for Citizens because of illegal immigration. They never seem to address the illegal part, only calling it immigration. It is disingenuous and self-serving.
-“Very often despite efforts and means provided, migrants choose to ghettoize themselves, likely a result of religious convictions that are always more pronounced in those of lower education especially by those hailing from countries under heavy influence of Islam who find the secular ways of the host countries repelling.”
-“if one looks at the strong ethnic communities of mostly Christians from Europe all over America of Germans, Irish, Poles, Russian,Italians, and English, who usually had a parish based society and could enjoy plentiful blue collar, (a term originally applied to Navy sailors), employment.”