Immigrant Assimilation

Tim Hatton and I have a new paper out, looking at how immigrants assimilate. While economists have tended to view immigrant assimilation as an individualistic process, sociologists look at what happens to ‘communities’. So we take a leaf from the sociologists’ book, and look at whether a given immigrant’s chances in the US labour market are improved if their ethnic group has a longer history in America.

Immigrants Assimilate as Communities, Not Just as Individuals 
There is a large econometric literature that examines the economic assimilation of immigrants in the United States and elsewhere. On the whole immigrants are seen as atomistic individuals assimilating in a largely anonymous labour market, a view that runs counter to the spirit of the equally large literature on ethnic groups. Here we argue that immigrants assimilate as communities, not just as individuals. The longer the immigrant community has been established the better adjusted it is to the host society and the more the host society comes to accept that ethnic group. Thus economic outcomes for immigrants should depend not just on their own characteristics, but also on the legacy of past immigration from the same country. In this paper we test this hypothesis using data from a 5 percent sample of the 1980, 1990 and 2000 US censuses. We find that history matters in immigrant assimilation: the stronger is the tradition of immigration from a given source country, the better the economic outcomes for new immigrants from that source.

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13 Responses to Immigrant Assimilation

  1. Patrick says:

    Nice to see economics producing intuitive and common-sense results!

    Is there a policy lesson – should we devote greater resources to ‘new’ immigrant communities than generally? Should we try and encourage to some degree the formation of ethnic enclaves (or ‘critical masses’ of community groups if ‘enclaves’ isn’t your favourite word)?

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Patrick, it’s hard to think of any clear policies that flow from this paper, but it should make policymakers more sanguine that immigrant groups who don’t presently ‘fit in’ may do so in the future (as they get used to us, and vice-versa).

  3. conrad says:

    I guess you could look at the flip-side, in that some groups are initially fairly neutral and turn up with high expectations but later ‘fit out’ (typically the second generation). It would be interesting to know what the factors responsible for these groups are, as it could save a lot of future problems.

  4. slim says:

    Good work, Andrew and Tim.

    The sad thing is that it takes work like this to demonstrate what has been bleeding obvious to anyone with a glimmer of understanding of the history of immigration in Australia and the US over the last 200 years.

    Unfortunately, there is never a shortage of unscrupulous politicians eager to exploit xenophobic fear and ignorance. Our present PM is a master of the art.

  5. Patrick says:

    Well, slim-witted, how you do your reconcile that with his peerless performance in minimising xenophobia in Australia whilst overseeing the highest immigration levels any of us have known?

    Living in Europe really opened my eyes – whereas 8 years ago I would have agreed with you, now I know that Howard’s treatment of One Nation was not only politically superb but one of the best things he has done to Australia. Look at the percentage of the vote gained by One Nation at its peak, and look at the far-right xenophobic vote in France, Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Belgium, and indeed every ‘western’ European country I have looked at.

  6. Patrick says:

    I am a bit ambivalent about including Britain with Europe on cultural/social questions like this.

    But I think it weakly supports my point anyway – years of nonsense tip-toeing around the fact that many people feel uncomfortable about immigration and are suspicious of foreigners resulted in, amongst other things, hundreds of young british citizens eager to blow themselves up because they are too stupid to kill anyone any other way.

    Also note their recent (last four years) focus on less and better controlled immigration.

  7. conrad says:


    I think One nation vs. some of the European far right parties is not a fair comparison. One Nation was a new party, lead by someone that wasn’t very bright and wasn’t very charismatic either. In addition, some places in Europe have had very little experience of “good” immigration (i.e., groups that are hard to think of things to complain about but easy to think of good things to say about). The fact that One Nation wasn’t able to do as well as the European nationalist parties is really no surprise. I think a better comparison is with Canada or the US, where they have had a similar sort of immigration profile to Australia (i.e., many positive experiences). I don’t see the far right prospering in either of those countries.

  8. Patrick says:

    Perhaps. You may be right.

    But my strong retrospective impression is that we faced a fairly significant turning point back then and that we took a good path.

    The source of my ambivalence about Britain is arguably a broader weakness in my argument – to wit, that part of the appeal of the far-right in Europe is that they are only party that dares be ‘populist’ without being overtly socialist (until recently, in any case), whereas in the ‘anglo west’ political parties of all stripes long ago accepted that popular policies were the price of power.

    But at the same time, I think a part of the equation is muttering stupid platitudes to multiculturalism without having the commonsense to say, ‘whoa, some of these guys are nutjobs and we don’t want them here‘, and ‘we have some things here fundamentally right and if you don’t like them you can get right back where you came from‘.

  9. Sacha says:

    Patrick, I have to agree that there is something in the fact that many western european countries do have some right wing/migrant sceptical parties while the UK and many other western countries don’t (excluding the tiny BNP). I wonder if electoral systems play some part in this – in “anglo” systems, you generally have a small number of major parties which have a wide range of policies while in PR systems parties can be more boutique?

  10. cba says:


    Looks like a very interesting paper (I just skimmed). As Patrick notes, the qualitative results are very intuitive. I’m curious that you and your co-author don’t talk about the quantitative results in your abstract, introduction and conclusion. To me quantifying these effects seems just as important from an economic point of view as asserting their existence.

    Assuming an equivalent way to state your main finding is that assimilation (as measured by earnings) is positively related to the historic share of the migrant group and negatively related to the current share, then providing numbers for the strength of those relationships seems like an obvious take away for readers.

    I’ll give it a more thorough read at some point. cheers

  11. Patrick says:

    Contentiously, Sacha, I think political immaturity is principally responsible. Excluding India, Australia is the ‘youngest’ of the major Anglo countries and yet, even India and Australia draw on some centuries of essentially continuous legal, political and, critically, democratic tradition.

    OTOH the Europeans (except one or two scandinaves) are all still working their constitutional and basic legal orders out – with as much failure as success in the first category.

  12. Sacha says:

    My comment was just a short thought – Patrick, in what sense are Europeans still working their constitutional and basic legal orders out? Do you mean recently communist states and Spain?

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