Immigrants sing the national anthem during a naturalization ceremony.
Immigrants sing the national anthem during a naturalization ceremony. Bebeto Matthews/AP

Immigrants and diversity have powered the growth of America and its cities going back to the 19th century.

Thanksgiving celebrates the fundamental American ideal of diverse groups coming together as part of a singular nation. But with the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric on immigration, that ideal feels like it is increasingly under threat.

Trump’s anti-immigrant stance not only violates American values; it goes against basic economic logic. It’s well-established that highly skilled and highly educated immigrants make up an outsized share of America’s science and technology workforce, eminent scientists and Nobel Prize winners, and high-tech entrepreneurs. And it’s not just high-skilled immigrants who benefit the American economy, but immigrants of all stripes and from all walks of life.

A new study examining the economic role of immigrants in America since the late 19th century finds that the presence of immigrants is a major factor in the long-term economic prospects of a particular place. The study, by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Viola von Berlepsch of the London School of Economics, compares the proportion of immigrants in U.S. counties in 1880, 1900, and 1910 to the economic performance of each county in 2010, measured as economic output per capita. Even when controlling for demographic factors like income, education, industry, unemployment, labor force participation, gender, race, and other variables that are typically thought to condition economic growth, the presence of immigrants a century ago had a significant effect on the long-term prosperity of a place—but only if the newcomers are integrated with the rest of the population.  

America’s largest wave of foreign immigration took place from the end of the Civil War up until the Great Depression, a period when more than 30 million immigrants came to this country. Their pattern of settlement was quite uneven, however. For instance, my grandparents, all of whom hailed from Southern Italy, settled in Newark right around the turn of the 20th century. As immigrants like them clustered in a relatively small handful of great cities and booming industrial regions, huge swaths of territory were virtually untouched.

Concentration of emigrants in the U.S. (or people who immigrated to the U.S.) in 1910  (Courtesy of Andrés Rodríguez-Pose)

The map above shows the concentration of immigrants in U.S. counties at the turn of the 20th century. Note the dark blue indicating major immigrant clusters in the Northeast corridor, surrounding the Great Lakes and extending into Wisconsin and Minnesota, and along the West Coast and the Mexican border with Texas. You can see the huge span of yellow, indicating minimal immigrant concentrations across much of the lower Midwest and South.

But simply looking at the concentration of immigrants doesn’t show the whole picture. The map below depicts the areas with high levels of “fractionalization,” which is essentially a synonym for integration. This map suggests a somewhat different pattern, with dark blue remaining in the Mid-Atlantic states and much of the Western half of the country, but new hotspots of diversity in parts of the South, particularly Florida. It’s also notable that some areas with high numbers of immigrants, including the Great Lakes and Texas, seem to have relatively lower rates of fractionalization.

Levels of “fractionalization,” or integration in the U.S. in 1910 (Courtesy of Andrés Rodríguez-Pose)

Ultimately, the study finds overwhelming evidence that U.S. counties with a large proportion of well-integrated immigrants a century ago exhibit stronger economic performance today. By contrast, places that were characterized by high degrees of “polarization,” or segregation, a century ago tend to be worse off economically today.

In other words, the collision of different identities and ideas that occurs in diverse communities doesn’t just create a more dynamic economy in the here and now; this sense of openness actually embeds itself in the fabric of places for decades to come.

Of course, there are other reasons why places that attract large numbers of immigrants tend to be more successful over time. Immigrants are typically drawn to places that offer more economic opportunity to begin with: People don’t leave their homes and cross oceans to settle somewhere with limited economic opportunity. The irony is that the places that have historically been hostile to immigrants are less likely to be prosperous precisely because they are closed to the new people and ideas that drive innovation and economic growth. Indeed, for places where economic anxiety has given rise to anti-immigration sentiment, it may actually be a lack of immigrants that stands at the root of their economic distress.

America’s growing anti-immigrant sentiment is not only a threat to innovation and economic growth in the short term but in the long run as well. By contrast, a pro-immigration country like Canada stands to benefit by attracting talent that America turns away, setting itself up for longer-term prosperity.

This Thanksgiving, when America seems to be losing track of its identity as a nation of immigrants, it’s important to remember that immigrants have long powered our economic growth and quality of life.

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