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Immigrant kids more likely to attain American Dream than U.S.-born peers

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  • Immigrant children in the U.S. are just as likely today to attain success as those a century ago when most immigrants came from Europe. 
  • Children of immigrants achieve higher economic mobility than their U.S.-born peers, new research from Princeton, Stanford and University of California-Davis economists found.
  • The findings suggest that immigrants bring an important economic resource — their children — to the U.S., the researchers said.

Children of immigrants are just as likely today to get ahead in the U.S. as those a century ago, when most immigrants came from Italy, Ireland and other European countries, according to new economic research. Today's immigrant youth are also more likely to achieve the American Dream than their U.S.-born peers, the study found.

The findings come as the Trump administration seeks to restrict immigration, including when immigrants' relatives are allowed into the U.S. and use the visa lottery. President Donald Trump also wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and has proposed new rules such as denying visas to immigrants who can't prove they can pay for health care.

The study tapped a century of Census and economic data to compare three major waves of immigration to the U.S.:

  • The first group of immigrants came from Northern European countries such as Ireland and Germany around 1880, as was the case with Donald Trump's grandfather, Friedrich Trump, who immigrated from Germany in 1885. 
  • The second wave came in the early 20th century when immigrants flowed from Southern and Eastern European countries, such as Italy. 
  • The third wave came to the U.S. around 1980, mostly from poorer countries in Latin America and Asia, which the economists say represent the contemporaries of the "Dreamers" — the undocumented young adults who came to the U.S. as children and are now seeking U.S. citizenship.

The economists then paired the earnings of immigrants with their sons, who were first-generation Americans, to examine economic mobility within the three groups. Overall, children of immigrants tended to have more success getting ahead than children born to U.S. citizens, they found. Notably, later waves of immigrant children have been no less successful than those from Europe.

"No matter when their parents came to the U.S. or what country they came from, children of immigrants have higher rates of upward mobility than their U.S.-born peers," Ran Abramitzky of Stanford University and Leah Boustan of  Princeton University wrote in a blog post. "What's more, their rates of mobility today are strikingly similar to rates of mobility in the past."

Rich or poor didn't matter

That held true whether the immigrants were rich or poor, the researchers also said. 

A century ago, children of Italian immigrants who were in only the 25th percentile of income earners grew up to earn at the 53rd percentile, the study found. By comparison, children of U.S. families at the 25th percentile only rose the 40th percentile. In other words, while both sets of children climbed the ladder, first-generation Italian-Americans saw greater economic gains.

Today, many children of immigrants are also out-earning their U.S.-born peers. Adult children of poor Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese immigrants earn at about the 60th percentile or higher, compared with the 46th percentile for adult children of poor U.S. families, the researchers found.

The secret sauce for success?

That suggests children of immigrants are having more success on one common yardstick for the American Dream — income — than their U.S.-born peers. Why? Two factors could be geography and parental influence.  

Immigrants tend to settle in U.S. regions and cities that offer the best chance for economic progress, the researchers found. A century ago, that meant the Northeast, the upper Midwest and the West, when the mills and factories of bustling industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit offered plenty of work for new arrivals. Today, most foreign-born residents live in Western states or Northeastern cities. 

But immigrants, both then and now, tended to snub one region: The South, according to the study. While the researchers don't explain this gap, it's possible that the region might not have offered the types of jobs that attracted immigrants in previous decades. 

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Immigrants also tend to settle in regions around the country that offer more opportunities to rise, the researchers noted. Southern states today have among the lowest rates of economic mobility in the U.S., according to economist Raj Chetty.

Another factor that may explain why the children of immigrants often enjoy more success: speaking English. While many immigrant dads were stymied from moving up because of language barriers and a lack of professional contacts, for instance, their culturally assimilated offspring were better equipped to acquire the kind of skills, including mastering English, that increase the odds of success.

Some immigrant parents likely had higher skills than they used in their jobs due to a language barrier, the researchers noted. But those skills could be passed onto their children. "What we have in mind here is the classic story of Russian engineers (for example) who end up working as taxi drivers when they arrive in the US,"  Boustan said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "Yet, they may have other abilities or skills that they can pass on to their children, allowing their kids (who are raised in the US and are native English speakers) to rise up the ladder."

"Our research suggests that politicians crafting immigration policy shouldn't be so short-sighted," the researchers said.

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