Upward and downward mobility exist, but…

“Ellis Island can teach us about which policy best promotes upward mobility.”  Good column from Michael Barone – A Path Forward on Immigration:  Upward and downward mobility exist, but typically at a glacial pace.  An exception 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 and 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 lots 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. This is especially so among immigrants from Mexico and illegal immigrants (also mostly from Mexico).

The second reason is that the America that welcomes them today 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-skilled 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.

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