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  • April 8, 2020

Time to adjust

A day without immigrants in May 2017.

Master Steve Rapport

The United States may be a nation of immigrants, but Americans have been passionately divided at times over how quickly its newest citizens shed their old customs in favor of New World conventions.

These debates are nothing new, but there is a sense among some critics that immigrants assimilated more quickly generations ago. 

New research suggests those perceptions aren’t true. In the March issue of the American Economic Review: Insights, authors Ran Abramitzky, Leah Boustan, and Katherine Eriksson provide a novel first quantitative comparison of immigrant cultural assimilation in the past and present.

The authors started by creating a “foreignness index” of first names. Then, using historical data from the 1920 US Census, they examined whether immigrant mothers who’d lived in America for longer chose more American-sounding names as a measure of cultural assimilation. They also compared the rate of assimilation during a period of mass migration in 1920 to modern trends in California using California birth certificate records for 1989-2015.

Indeed, they found that immigrant mothers gave their children fewer foreign-sounding names as they spent more time in the US, and this was the case in both past and present. However, the effects varied based on the mother’s country of origin.




Figure 2 from Abramitzky et al. (2020)


The figure above shows how spending additional years in America affects the names that immigrant parents choose for their children by country of origin. In the past (top panel), Western European countries like England and Denmark (at the far right of the horizontal axis) gave kids less foreign-sounding names, but the names they chose didn't change much as they spent more time in the US. Meanwhile, countries like Portugal, Russia, and Finland, which gave very foreign-sounding names to their children when they first arrived in the US, assimilated quickly thereafter. Today, Mexican immigrants give their kids the most foreign-sounding names, but shift away from their native conventions most rapidly. Meanwhile, immigrants from China and the Philippines give their children American-sounding names from the start. 

The findings suggest that immigrants’ identification with US culture grows stronger with time, and that fears that immigrants cannot or will not fit into American society are misplaced. What’s more, some of the same groups that are most often accused of slow assimilation (like native Spanish speakers) assimilate most rapidly by this measure.