Immigrant Integration Gets Weird

Brief Notes on Three New Studies

Longtime readers know I’m very interested in immigrant integration. Well, today we got not one, not two, but three new working papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research discussing immigrant integration. I’m not going to dig into the weeds on these papers’ methods because I know I’m one of the few who would care about that, but the headline findings were interesting enough to merit some discussion. So, we’ve got three papers:

  1. A paper about immigrant cultural assimilation in 19th century America
  2. A paper about refugee economic integration in Germany in recent years
  3. A paper about immigrant entrepreneurship

Taken together, these papers present a very interesting sketch of immigrant integration that in some ways supports, and in other ways undermines, the standard model.

What’s The Standard Model?

There are plenty of models for immigrant integration. But the most typical model goes something like this: immigrants integrate into society by interacting with natives in various ways that encourage immigrants and natives to adopt uniform social or cultural practices. The more likely a given immigrant is to interact with natives, the more likely is it that that native integrates well, ceteris paribus. Integration, rather than assimilation solely, also provides that natives may change to be like immigrants too, though this change is generally assumed to be vastly smaller than changes immigrants make.

Usually, then, we suppose that immigrants who are embedded in immigrant-only social networks, like in immigrant enclaves, are less likely to integrate successfully. Likewise, immigrants who seem particularly foreign or exotic may also be less likely to integrate successfully, as they may have a harder time connecting with natives.

With that basic model sketched out, let’s see what these papers say.

The Most Foreign People Assimilate Fastest?

Amazingly to me, it turns out that, of immigrants who arrived 1850–1913, it’s likely that those from the most “foreign” places (i.e. smallest pre-existing populations in the US) integrated very quickly, while those from the least foreign places (especially England, Ireland, and Scotland) in some cases became less assimilated.

The measure here is naming. So a person is “assimilated” if they abandon French, or Russian, or Polish names, and adopt “American” names, i.e. names very common to the native-born population prior to immigration. It is of course possible a person could assimilate in many ways but still have a Finnish name, or that a person with an “American” name could be an unassimilated Czech. And, of course, this paper isn’t peer-reviewed yet.

But nonetheless, this chart is fairly compelling:

For every year in the US by parents, they named their kids much more American names on average. The unit here is an index of the American-ness of names. And, curiously, Scottish people got less American the longer they stayed in the United States.

Here’s the annual chart for all immigrants:

For the record, the gap between the average native F-score and the average foreign F-score is about 20 points, so that means that the children of immigrants born to parents who’ve been in the U.S. for 40 years have only marginally more foreign names than Americans generally.

But of course, many readers will object: all of these countries are European countries, Christian countries, so even the “most foreign” groups here aren’t nearly as foreign as Asians or Muslims today.

And that argument has some truth to it. Immigrants speaking non-Indo-European languages may be unlike those listed here. Notably, the one group that isn’t Indo-European there are the Finns, with a pretty low assimilation rate despite being quite ethnically distinct. The Welsh, occupying a different branch of the Indo-European tree and marginally less likely to speak English than many Irish and Scots, also integrate slower. Russians, speaking a Slavic language on another branch of the Indo-European tree, also integrated slower.

Meanwhile, the Romance and Germanic branches of the Indo-European family tree are killin’ it, conditional on (1) very high english-speaking groups integrate less and (2) groups with large diasporas before immigration integrate less.

So Scotland, England, and Ireland show less assimilation: possibly because their existing English-proficiency shielded them from the assimilationist pressure of language-learning, enabling them to resist acculturation. Likewise, there were large existing Scottish, English, and Irish populations in the U.S. by 1850, so these immigrants may have found groups who could help them maintain their local culture, i.e. resist assimilation. Among the Germanics, the lowest assimilation is among the Germans, who are widely regarded as being one of the best assimilated groups: it may be that assimilation proceeded slower because large German populations already existed, and Germans spoke more English before arrival than Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians.

In other words, the ideal community for integration is a group with (1) moderate linguistic difference and (2) a small local population.

To be clear: this paper’s core finding was actually just to show that assimilation occurred fairly extensively, increased with years in-country, and, in a sidenote, that kids who were given American names tended to have higher earners and education in the future, and were more likely to marry natives. In other words, cultural assimilation was a reasonable predictor of future successful economic integration. Kids named Mario were poorer and less educated 20 years later than kids named Wayne, even when you control for household demographics, perhaps reflecting more successful embedding of the family into mainstream American life.

The striking finding that more exotic groups assimilated faster seems more tenuous, and may rest on a fairly small range of variation among the immigrant groups. Some of the most foreign groups had the least rapid rate of integration, like the Finns. This raises questions about whether these findings can be extrapolated to include, for example, people speaking Sino-Tibetan languages, Niger-Congo languages, Afroasiatic languages, or Austronesian languages.

Somebody should really try and get Census to let them do this study using more recent censuses.

Giving People Community Makes Them Poor?

There’s a constant balancing-act facing refugee programs: we want these refugees to have support networks and to feel at home, but we also want them to make a new home and integrate to their new societies. Unlike other immigrants, refugees have made explicit, strong commitments to leave their home, acknowledge its failure to provide for them, and make a totally new kind of life. From a policy perspective, they are a group often viewed as more politically acceptable to compel with pro-assimilation policies.

The new study on refugees in Germany finds that refugees who are settled in communities of co-ethnics tend to have lower long-run ethnic performance. More specifically, settling a refugee in an area with many co-ethnics does boost their chance of getting a job right away. But over time, refugees settled in areas where they have fewer natural friends among co-ethnics tend to invest more in human capital (i.e. school and licensure), get better wages, and ultimately have higher long-run standards of living.

This is really important. It suggests that the same dynamics that can draw in immigrants (a large known local population of co-ethnics) also rapidly plugs them into jobs, but those jobs tend to be sub-par versus what the same immigrant could get elsewhere if they searched longer, and that the community of co-ethnics serves to discourage continuing investment in education and licensure. To be clear, this is not a claim that immigrants actively discourage education! Or even passively! Rather, the relative ease of staying in a family-network job with co-ethnics where you feel familiar may itself discourage human capital investment. To counteract this effect, immigrants would have to develop aggressive promotion of education as a cultural norm. If you find yourself jumping to an explanation for the historic rise of Asian Tiger Mom-ing in the U.S., that’s where I jumped too. Now it might be a totally fanciful explanation. But it is interesting to think about.

Broadly speaking, then, we should keep in mind that policies which tend to force immigrants outside of immigrant enclaves may cause short-term harm and discomfort to those immigrants, but yield long-run benefits.

Of course, there are caveats. First of all, these are refugees being studied. Their incentive to make a new life is very high. Their ability to emigrate is very low. So dumped in a place with no friends and family, they may dump energy into school because they have to make something work, and that’s the only option. Economic migrants put in the same situation might just leave.

Plus, refugees get extra support, counseling, and help integrating than many other migrants don’t get. That may help them to seize upon long-run beneficial opportunities other migrants couldn’t, explaining why other immigrants don’t get out of their enclaves and mimic the observed refugee performance.

Finally, Germany is unlike the U.S. in one key way: education is free or close to it! So a person who wants to get it can get it. In the United States, education is less affordable. This may suggest that U.S. refugees put in a similar situation would not integrate as well. But then again, many U.S. refugees probably could qualify for one form of financial assistance or another.

Immigrants Start Lots of Businesses

No caveats here, just another paper in the long list of papers suggesting that immigrants start a disproportionate share of businesses.


If the paper on 19th century immigration is to be believed, then the standard model showing more-similar immigrants assimilate faster may need to be tweaked. It’s possible that existing similarity or familiarity with a culture reduces likelihood of assimilation, as you’re better equipped to resist its pressures, and maintaining your home culture is less “costly.” On the other hand, there are some caveats to that paper, raising some doubts about whether it can be applied to modern immigrants.

At the same time, a straightforward application of the standard model to refugee location is confirmed in the second paper, as immigrants more separated from co-ethnics integrated better and were more prosperous. Of course, this study was of refugees in Germany, who are very likely not representative of all immigrants, so we shouldn’t immediately jump to implement locality-tied visas everywhere.

But whatever the policy apparatus we have, it appears that immigrants continue to represent an outsized share of business founders and new employers in the United States. Regardless of culture assimilation, it does seem the U.S. is still reaping large economic benefits from these startup immigrants.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School with an MA in International Trade and Investment Policy, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, Africa, and faith. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research. More’s the pity.