Immigration Choice

Houston booster and blogger Tory Gattis has a theory of what he calls opportunity urbanism, i.e. a focus on upward mobility as the primary goal of urban policy. Responding to a post of his on The Urbanophile, in which the comment thread veered to a comparison of Houston and Vancouver, I noted that the US is actually much less upwardly mobile than Canada (follow links to studies here, e.g. this, with the father-son income elasticity on PDF-page 34), and that the Joel Kotkin report about opportunity urbanism that Tory contributed to does not, in fact, bring up any upward mobility facts arguing that Houston is at all better than the rest of the US.

The response, from both Tory and Aaron, was a series of platitudes that immigrants choose to come to the US, so it must have a lot of upward mobility: “Houston is revealed preference in action,” “America is still the brightest beacon for immigrants all over the world,” “given the huge preference for the US that international migrants show, it’s tough to believe they are all so dumb about their future prospects,” “America is such the promised land that millions risk everything to come here illegally.”

The first step in failing to combat any social problem is failing to recognize one exists. The US loves to congratulate itself about its acceptance of immigrants and to compare itself favorably with Europe’s racism; somehow, the facts that hate crimes happen on both sides of the border and that in the last few years Al Qaida has successfully recruited American-born Muslims do not count. Even the lack of visas for unskilled workers in the US, and the stingy visas for skilled ones, turn into an America-is-great argument, which is exceptionally inconsistent from someone who, on issues of domestic migration, trumpets Houston’s lack of zoning and blasts the restrictions on development on the coasts (which can be thought of as immigration restrictions, only space is auctioned by market pricing and not by quotas for immigrants). To reiterate what I said last year, good policy for integration is to treat immigrants as people rather than as either a problem or a solution to a problem.

As for what international migrants prefer, what they (we) consider when choosing where to move to is not just what the intergenerational income coefficient is. Although I did know the US was much less socially mobile than most European countries even before applying to grad school there, I had enough other reasons to want to move there. With the caveat that what I know comes from direct experience, which definitely skews toward white and Chinese professionals entering via the student route, here is a laundry list of factors that matter:

– Where we speak the language. The entire Anglosphere is a top destination for intercontinental migration, just as France is a top destination for West Africans. Observe this table of immigrant population by OECD country. A key clue that language matters is the difference between the various Scandinavian countries, which are quite similar to each other. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have very similar languages, arguably just dialects of one language, and on top of that, Finns learn Swedish in school (Finland is the top source of immigrants to Sweden). Finland has a different language, which at least locally is considered very difficult to learn; it also has a much lower foreign-born percentage than the others.

– Where our skills match up with the local business clusters. The US happens to be strong in academics and fields that come out of it, like biotech, and those tend to be very porous to international migration everywhere.

– How easily we can elbow our way into the local social networks. This is not the same as domestic mobility. For example, my experience with Ivy social networks is uniformly positive; even when I’m the only non-American in the room, which is frequently the case at the gaming groups I’m involved in, I’m treated like a human being and not like a freakshow. It’s very easy to assimilate to the educated New York subculture if one wants to. But this is not true for domestic migrants: my It’s Complicated, a Kansan Harvard student of middle-middle-class background, does not feel as welcome in this subculture as I do, and tells me that at Harvard people treat her like a Real American, i.e. not a real Bostonian or New Yorker. The correlation between social mobility for immigrants and social mobility for the native-born is far from perfect.

– The presence of a preexisting community of immigrants from the same culture (not terribly relevant to me, but critical to others). This favors large cities and traditional gateways, like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Miami. I’ve read a few case studies and stories of Brazilians in the Boston area; once the first few come in, news of their success spreads to their hometown, and more people come in to the same area. One good reference is God Needs No Passport; there are others I no longer remember. Likewise, Turks prefer Germany, and former Yugoslavians prefer Germany or the rest of Germanic Europe.

– What’s nearby. The US has a lot of immigration, but a huge fraction of it is Mexicans (right on the border), Puerto Ricans (can come in without restriction), Central Americans (close and can speak the language as many other immigrants), and non-Hispanic Anglophone Caribbeans. Likewise, in Germany the top sources of immigrants, excluding intra-first world migration, are Turkey, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, and Russia.

– Perceptions of opportunity and wealth, which aren’t exactly the same as opportunity and wealth. The US of the imaginations of Israelis and Singaporeans is not the same as the real US. For example, until I started hanging out in American political forums in 2002, I had no idea the US didn’t have universal health care. It somewhat blurs issues like social network porousness, but those issues have a real impact on whether one can get a job, and this information is somewhat more easily available to outsiders.

– Perceptions of how welcoming the society is. The US, Canada, and Australia are more welcoming than Europe (at least if you’ve gotten a visa – in many categories it’s easier to get into the EU than into the US), and successfully pretend to be even more welcoming than they are. Many year ago, a Pakistani-Canadian commenter expressed the Canadian attitude with the saying “Other people are racist; our minorities really are lazy.”

Take all of the above with a grain of salt. Not that the numbers I bring up are wrong, but my thinking of which numbers are relevant comes from a specific set of experiences, and what someone whose primary social network is Mexican immigrants to California may have a different idea of what’s important. We’re all very confident about our knowledge about things that there’s nobody around to correct us (and I’m saying this very self-consciously).

That said, I do know these issues a lot better than the average native-born American. To me, the question of where to live was nontrivial. For political reasons, circa the height of the Iraq War, I wanted to go to Canada, but I also knew that the US had better grad schools, and now to the extent that I have control over where I live, my social network is Northeastern.

The most troubling part of the entire exchange above was the invocation of “Revealed preference.” Ordinarily, this is a matter of technical questions about people’s mode choice in real-world situation, and is great at predicting how people will behave if the transportation network changes (e.g. a new transit line is built). It’s an awful way of trying to divine, based on migration flows, whether a country offers more opportunities to people who were born poor in it. Too many intervening variables, too many things most native-born people don’t really see. For that matter, even narrowly, with transportation, it doesn’t answer the question of “What people want?” because it’s much broader than the question of how many people will actually ride a new rail link assuming no change in broader transportation and urban policy.

There’s a serious problem with a discourse about anyone who is not part of the discourse. Transit managers’ discourse about riders is at least tempered by the need to build projects that meet ridership projections. With more social and demographic questions, this is not true, because Americans can bully their way into telling themselves they are doing better than immigrants think they are; if the literature on the subject suggests otherwise, they can abuse terminology and cry “Revealed preference.”


  1. Shane Phillips

    Very interesting post. I appreciate your (perhaps not unique, but uncommon) insight.

    In my opinion the biggest issue by far is what’s nearby, as we see with the Mexico-U.S. border. The vast majority of Mexicans living abroad are in the U.S., and one can imagine this being especially true of the poorer Mexicans who migrate here because they are less likely to be able to afford to travel anywhere else. Likewise, I just read that there are about 5 times as many African migrants in Europe as in the U.S.

    Of course, shared language and existing social/support networks are conflated with the question of where they decide to go. Once you cross that border though, whether it’s into the U.S., Spain, Germany, Italy, or elsewhere you’re in a country with VASTLY better economic prospects, and the value in further optimizing your opportunities by traveling even further afield becomes much smaller.

  2. Miles Bader (@snogglethorpe)

    My experience with the immigration systems in the U.K. and Japan is that the rules sound scary, but in practice things are actually somewhat forgiving and work reasonably well for applicants as long as you go with the flow.

    Based on the experience of friends who’ve migrated to the U.S. though, it’s pretty clear that the U.S. immigration system is every bit as capricious and demeaning in practice as it sounds.

    [All of the above is for the “technically skilled”; I imagine things are worse for the lesser-skilled.]

  3. Eric

    1) All Americans except the small minority of “Native Americans” are descended from immigrants. When an American or a foreigner knows that immigrants have done well in the past (as many certainly have), that creates an expectation that it will be so in the future as well.

    2) The correlation between social mobility for immigrants and social mobility for the native-born is far from perfect.

    That’s a key point. The many immigrants I knew growing up in a midwestern US city have in most cases done extremely well for themselves since then. At the same time, large populations of natives have clearly not done well.

    3) Based on the experience of friends who’ve migrated to the U.S. though, it’s pretty clear that the U.S. immigration system is every bit as capricious and demeaning in practice as it sounds.

    Yeah, any US citizen who has had to deal with the INS agrees that it’s about the nastiest government agency around. I’m not sure you should judge the society by the bureaucrats though.

  4. Eric

    By the way, as for the studies that show the US has more income inequality and less mobility – I wonder if they account for the size of the US. Clearly most families in Mississippi will never reach the income level of an average family in Connecticut, but perhaps the more relevant comparison is to other families in Mississippi. For comparison, studies of the Netherlands compare people to other people in the Netherlands, but not to people in Portugal or Greece.

    • Alon Levy

      I do not know the income mobility numbers across the EU, as opposed to individual countries. My uneducated guess is that they’re look favorable, because over the past few decades, there has been convergence between peripheral countries (Ireland, Spain, Greece, to some extent Portugal, and more recently the new Eastern European members); those countries have all gotten pummeled in the last four years, but before then they posted impressive growth rates.

      However, there are EU-wide inequality statistics. The Gini is 0.32, which is about the same as the average Gini of a European country. Likewise, in the US, the Gini of the average state or metro area is around 0.45, vs. a national Gini of 0.47. Neither the EU nor the US has the vast income gaps between rich and poor states/countries that the world has.

  5. jim

    I think it’s true that in Ivy circles certain immigrants, those from favoured countries, are more socially acceptable than Middle Americans. Bers used to tell me that my (British) accent gave me a leg up. Herve Jaquet taught at Columbia for decades but was careful never to lose his broken English. It may well be that Israelis are also in this group.

    By contrast, in my graduate student cohort there was a woman from Arkansas. She never became comfortable in New York and eventually dropped out.

  6. Andre Lot

    I think that high-skilled immigration to US (and to Canada, Australia and some European countries for that matter) are subject to a strong selection bias, in the sense it presents big challenges for immigrants on itself. Skilled immigrants (contrary to illegal ones jumping the Rio Grande trafficked by a coyote) usually have something to lose by staying back home, and those less determined to work hard or face the realities of living abroad probably have “second best” options in their home countries.

    All of almost all of these high-skilled immigrants (from graduate students to medical professionals and specialized engineers) already have a good language command and by the mere fact of being more educated they are likely to have an easier time integrating into the circle of their cohort once in US. They will move to where his/her job or education are, regardless of local support networks, that might otherwise develop if there is a sufficient number of them to create a market for things like specialized import food stores.

    I also think people exaggerate regional internal (domestic) migration issues, especially for high-skilled Americans: the overwhelming majority of them will somehow fit in, and will not be noticed, whereas those who don’t adjust to their new realities (personal, professional) can always blame that on the thousand(s) mile distance. Then, again, I think the comparison with foreign high-skilled immigrants is not a proper one, as the personal commitment and professional/personal life risks and barriers involved in moving from Amarillo, TX to Berkeley, CA are much lower than moving from Austria, South Korea or China to anywhere in US.

    So my two cents is that when you control for this self-selection bias, you could explain why a higher share of high-skilled immigrants end up moving up on the socioeconomic ladder than “middle Americans”.

    I’d also point of a secondary, yet relevant financial factor: depending on the field they are going to work in, young foreign professional have a much lower student loan debt (or zero debt), which is a tremendous up-start when someone is on the very beginning of his post-education career and makes crucial decisions with lifelong repercussions. An Indian software engineer arriving in US with negligible debt to pay and lots of sunken costs involved in the immigration decision has more leeway to take risks on uncertain projects than an American professional with US$ 150.000 in debt accrued for college + graduate school.

  7. Andre Lot

    Now a quick(er) note on the transit paragraph: defining “who is your constituency” is probably the most daunting task of a transit agency engaged in any outreach.

    As in most US metro areas transit is associated with a certain demographic on the lower echelons of the social ladder, there is always potential for what I call the [b]Bus Rider Union[/b] effect, by which groups that are heavily dependent on transit try to hijack transit policy to achieve unrelated goals. The aforementioned Los Angele’s B.R.U. advocates “running more buses instead of building rail in Los Angeles, because rail gentrifies its corridors and displace the poorest transit users from their homes”).

    Illegal immigrants are a captive market for transit given they can’t in most states, obtain a driver’s license and, depending on the level of immigration enforcement in the area, driving a car is the easiest way to have routine encounters with law enforcement that many illegals will try to avoid.

  8. e behrman

    Correction to a minor error (but one which, since i know the principal very well, leaps out at me): “[your] it’s complicated” gets on splendidly with “real” new yorkers and bostonians; indeed, is close friends and relations with many such. The social difficulties (with a minority, it should be said).are due to class, not geography. In other words Harvard has a significant minority of stuck up rich kids. (Kansas also has some, so the variables are isolated on either side.)

  9. Heikki Salko

    As a Finn I have to say that your point about the language differences in the Nordic (not Scandinavian, which is a slightly different thing) countries doesn’t really hold up.

    Finns must learn Swedish in school because it’s our second national language. Most students aren’t exactly motivated to do so, since the Fennoswedes comprise about 7% of the population and most of them speak excellent Finnish as a matter of necessity. They’re also widely considered to be stuck-up elitists. There are statistics to somewhat support that notion, although it was much more true a century ago.

    A lack of both motivation and real usage leads to most people’s Swedish skills being quite poor. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter, since going to Scandinavia, English is a much more widely used communication language these days anyway. That holds true even among native speakers of the Scandinavian languages as they still have enough differences that there’s a very real risk of misunderstanding.

    The Finnish immigrants in Sweden (and I believe a few in Norway) mostly moved there in the 1960s, hoping to find a job. Many of them did and stayed there. Now their children are also boosting the numbers, but actual immigration between the countries has basically halted. There are also a number of ‘Finnish’ people in northern Sweden who have lived in the area for centuries regardless of political borders.

    On the contrary, the Nordics do make a good example of how a pre-existing community attracts new immigrants from the same culture. In the southern Swedish city of Malmö there’s an entire district which is problematically full of middle-eastern immigrants. ‘Problematically,’ because they’re pretty much running the area themselves under Sharia law and there have been reports of such things as assaults on firefighters who have come to save a burning building.

    Here in Finland, especially in the Helsinki region, there is a relatively large Somali community which has grown from zero during the last twenty years or so. The first Somalis actually came from the Soviet Union, where they had gone to study or work before the fall of communism. As such, they were relatively high-skilled and got a warm welcome. Since then, their families and friends from Somalia have followed and now there’s a large number of Somali children born in Finland but not quite integrated in the local society anyway. Needless to say, authorities are slightly worried about the development, especially considering past examples from elsewhere in Europe.

    The fall of communism has also caused an increase in the number of Estonian and Russian immigrants in Finland. Still, many of them come here simply for the larger salaries and return home regularly so I’m not sure how they are (or perhaps should be) counted in statistics.

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