How quickly did 30 million migrants to the US assimilate culturally?

Immigrants are the easiest targets in any political campaign. Most leaders use this to come to limelight.

But what about immigrants themselves? Do they assimilate in the different culture or maintain their own identity? If they maintain their own, then obviously they invite even more attacks.

Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan try and understand this question of cultural assimilation. They look at mass migration of 30 million Europeans to US during 1850-1913.

In recent work with our co-author Katherine Eriksson, we study the cultural assimilation of immigrants during the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1913), during which 30 million migrants moved from Europe to the US (Abramitzky et al. 2016). We trace out a ‘cultural assimilation profile’ with time spent in the US, using changes in the foreignness of names that immigrant parents selected for their children as a measure of cultural adaptation. Children’s names offer an attractive measure of the assimilation process, both because names carry cultural content5 and because naming is a pure choice for immigrant parents, unconstrained by financial limitations or by discrimination on the part of natives.6 In particular, we measure the relative probability that each first name was held by a foreigner versus a native in the 1920 Census, and use this to construct a Foreignness Index, a measure between zero (name only held by natives) and one (name only held by foreigners).7

By this measure, we find that recent immigrants gave their children more foreign names than did long-standing immigrants, which we take to be evidence of cultural assimilation with time spent in the US.

Contrary to Senator Lodge’s fears, immigrants appear to have rapidly assimilated during the Age of Mass Migration. Despite arriving with a distinct set of cultural practices (proxied here by name choices), immigrants closed half of their cultural gap with natives after 20 years in the US. By 1930, more than two-thirds of immigrants had applied for US citizenship and almost all reported some ability to speak English. A third of first-generation immigrants who arrived in the US before marrying and more than half of second-generation immigrants married spouses from different origins.

Yet immigrants did not completely adopt the practices of US natives within a generation. Despite the fact that children with less foreign names earned more, some immigrant parents still chose to endow their children with culturally specific names, highlighting the value that some immigrants placed on maintaining their cultural identity.

Given that it takes time for immigrants to adapt to US culture and that immigrants place some value on maintaining their cultural identity, there will always be an opportunity for anti-immigration politicians to criticize immigrants for their distinctiveness.

Some research. These historic migration forces and institutions matter so much to whatever we see.

I checked the paper for what are foreign names and native names. The list looks like this:

Most foreign                                    Most neutral                                       Most native
A. Male names
Vito                                                                  Orlando                                                               Gaylord
Mario                                                            Benjiman                                                                 Doyle
Hyman                                                           Murray                                                                     Clay
Pasquale                                                         Otto                                                                           Lowell
Isidor                                                             Theodor                                                                    Dale
Nick                                                              Herman                                                                   Wayne

B. Female names
Sonia                                                                Margaret                                                               Bethany
Antoinette                                                         Deborah                                                             Merlene
Concetta                                                             Helene                                                                Garnet
Johanna                                                             Kathleen                                                              Arlyce
Molly                                                                    Beatrice                                                              Joellen
Carmela                                                                 Fay                                                                       Opal

Hmm. Fascinating.

What is in a name? Lots!

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