User’s Guide to the NAS Report, 1: Assimilation

It is well known that immigrants have an economic disadvantage when they first enter the United States. Many are not fluent in English; they are not familiar with how the US labor market works; and on and on. So it is not surprising that, at first, they earn far less than natives. Over time, the immigrants learn the language, acquire new skills, and begin to “catch up” or assimilate to the native norm.

Economic assimilation is obviously an important component of any assessment of the impact of immigration. And despite all the hype claiming that immigrants today are assimilating just as well as earlier waves did (including another NAS report focusing specifically on assimilation and released just one year ago; here’s that report and the media spin), the new NAS report gives a far more realistic and measured assessment of the situation.

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The Slowdown in Immigrant Assimilation

The second paper of mine that got published in the past few weeks deals with trends in the economic assimilation of immigrants–the rate at which their earnings catch up with those of native workers. The initial draft of this paper was written quite a while ago, but it was presented at a conference and it took years for that issue of the journal to come out.

My initial interest in immigration research decades ago was sparked by the question: What does it mean to say that immigrants who arrived in the country a long time ago do better than immigrants who have just arrived? The conventional interpretation was that this difference in economic outcomes represented assimilation.

I thought that perhaps something else might be at work. This idea led to my 1985 Journal of Labor Economics paper that examined how cross-section measures of assimilation were contaminated by cohort differences in wage levels. In other words, the average immigrant in some immigrant waves was more productive than the average immigrant in other waves, even at the time of arrival. The wage difference between new and old immigrants might say little about assimilation, but might instead represent a difference in productivity between the two waves.

My new paper returns to this question and documents that there are also cohort differences in the rate of wage growth. The earnings of some waves grow faster than the earnings of other waves. How important are these differences?

Immigrant Assimilation

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