What should we do about immigration policy? It's a question many are asking, and some useful perspective comes from an article in Foreign Affairs by British-born, California-based historian Gregory Clark, unhelpfully titled, "The American Dream Is an Illusion."
The dream to which Clark refers is the idea, promoted by Emma Lazarus's poem at the Statue of Liberty, that this is "a country of opportunity for all, a country that invites in the world's tired, its poor and its huddled masses."
The problem, says Clark, is that upward mobility is something of a myth, in America and elsewhere. In his recent book, "The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility," he shows that advantages that some families have over others — in social position, genetic endowment, traditions of literacy and numeracy — tend to be passed on, not inevitably from parent to child, but persistently and to a considerable extent to descendants for seven and 10 generations.
Clark charts the prevalence of last names in high-status occupations and positions over generations. After the 1066 Conquest, Englishmen with Norman surnames appeared disproportionately to population at Oxford and Cambridge in 1170 and in Parliament in 1259. They continue to do so, to a lesser extent, today.
He finds the same phenomenon in Sweden, Chile, Japan, China and (especially) caste-bound India. Upward and downward mobility exist, but usually at a glacial pace.
An exception, as he notes, is America in the period from 1892, when the Ellis Island immigration station opened, until mass immigration was ended by World War I in 1914 and restrictive legislation in 1924. Ellis Islanders and their descendants rose rapidly up the educational and economic ladder.
The opening of Ellis Island coincided with a shift of immigration from Northwestern Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe. These people were not just seeking economic opportunity. Rather, as I argued in my 2013 book, "Shaping Our Nation," they were second-caste residents of multi-ethnic states — Jews from the Czarist and Austro-Hungarian empires, Poles from those nations and Germany, Czechs and Slovaks, Slovenes and Serbs from Austria-Hungary and the Balkans, Southern Italians from a recently unified northern-dominated Kingdom of Italy.
For these second-caste citizens, America's prime attraction was the principle of equal citizenship. As George Washington told the elders of the Touro Synagogue, toleration in America was not a favor from the majority, but a recognition that "all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship."
As Clark notes, there was a lot of upward mobility among these groups — most spectacularly among Jews, but also among Italians, Poles and other minorities who exceeded national income averages by the 1950s. It was matched during these years also by the cumulative but slower upward mobility of Irish Catholics who arrived between the 1840s and 1890s.
The Ellis Islanders, blocked from upward mobility at home, brought to America advantages of genetic endowment and cultural tradition — nature and nurture — which enabled them to move upward unusually rapidly.
Asian immigrants seem to be moving upward similarly today. But not the group the Census Bureau calls Hispanics. In my 2001 book, "The New Americans," I predicted that Hispanics would move upward, much as Italians had a century before. That was overoptimistic. There has been little or no upward mobility among third- and fourth-generation Hispanics.
Why the difference? One reason is that current Hispanic immigrants seem to be characterized by economic need rather than second-class status. Immigrants from Mexico and illegal immigrants (mostly from Mexico) are particularly downscale.
The second reason is that the America that welcomes them is no longer a nation with equal citizenship for all, but a nation that shunts them into a special supposedly privileged but also stigmatized minority group. Anomalously, racial quotas and preferences benefit those never discriminated against in the United States.
Some preferences have hurt more than helped. Steering mortgages to non-creditworthy Hispanics produced foreclosures and personal tragedies — and a financial crisis. As author Michael Gonzalez notes, Hispanic advancement has been minimal in California with its high welfare spending and taxes. Hispanics have done better in low-welfare, low-tax, high-economic-growth Texas.
There's an obvious lesson here for immigration policy. Immigration can promote social mobility, but not always. The United States got high-skill immigrants in the Ellis Island period largely by happenstance. Today, Canada and Australia profit from upward mobility because their immigration laws admit only those with high skills. If we want similar results, we should follow their lead.