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Lessons from Historical Immigration Policy

Paper Session

Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018 1:00 PM - 3:00 PM

Pennsylvania Convention Center, 202-A
Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Leah Platt Boustan, Princeton University

Closing Heaven’s Door: Evidence From the 1920s United States Immigration Quota Acts

Philipp Ager
University of Southern Denmark
Casper Worm Hansen
University of Copenhagen


The introduction of immigration quotas in the 1920s fundamentally changed US immigration policy. We exploit this policy change to estimate the economic consequences of immigration restrictions at the county, city, and individual level. The quotas led to a relative decline in population growth in areas with larger pre-existing immigrant communities of affected nationalities. This effect is largely driven by the policy restricted supply of newly arriving immigrants from quota affected nationalities and lower fertility rates of foreign-born women due to declining marriage rates. The more restrictive immigration policy led to significant labor productivity losses in the manufacturing sector of urban counties and cities. Our main finding is that native workers living in areas more exposed to the quota system were pushed into lower-wage occupations, while black workers living in the same areas gained from the quota system.

Adaptation of Native Labor and Capital to Mass Migration: Evidence From the Immigration Act of 1924

Ran Abramitzky
Stanford University
Leah Platt Boustan
Princeton University


During the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1913), the US economy absorbed 30 million immigrants. The foreign-born share of the male labor force in the US reached 23 percent by 1910, and was as high as 50 percent in some metropolitan areas. Immigrant inflows slowed suddenly in the 1920s when the US government imposed strict immigration quotas favoring immigrants from Northern and Western Europe over immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. These swings in national immigration flows differentially affected some local areas more than others depending on the country-of-origin composition of the local immigrant population. We use both the rise and fall of immigrant flows to examine how native-born workers adapted to immigrant-induced changes in labor supply. We focus on two potential margins of adjustment: propensity to finish high school in order to differentiate oneself from immigrant labor and propensity to move out of the local area altogether. We also study how firms adjusted their capital investment in response to changes in immigrant inflows.

Immigration Restrictions as Active Labor Market Policy: Evidence From the Mexican Bracero Exclusion

Michael A. Clemens
Center for Global Development and IZA
Ethan G. Lewis
Dartmouth College
Hannah M. Postel
Center for Global Development


An important class of active labor market policy has received little impact evaluation: immigration barriers intended to raise wages and employment by shrinking labor supply. Theories of endogenous technical advance raise the possibility of limited or even perverse impact. We study a natural policy experiment: the exclusion of almost half a million Mexican 'bracero' farm workers from the United States to improve farm labor market conditions. With novel archival data we measure state-level exposure to exclusion, and model the labor-market effect in the absence of technical change. We reject such an effect and fail to reject a null effect.
Brian Cadena
University of Colorado-Boulder
Jeanne LaFortune
Pontifical Catholic University of Chile
Giovanni Peri
University of California-Davis
JEL Classifications
  • J7 - Labor Discrimination
  • N3 - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy