John FitzGerald: Our challenge is to repeat the US success story

Immigrants to Ireland from a non-English-speaking country typically experience some disadvantage

When the speaker of the US house of representatives, Nancy Pelosi, addressed the Dáil in April, she confessed that she had no Irish ancestors ... but she did have Irish grandchildren. This highlighted the dramatic change in the ebb and flow of people between Ireland and the United States over the last 200 years.

Between 1820 and 1920, about six million people emigrated from Ireland to the US. As restrictions were imposed on US immigration from the 1920s onward, the numbers of Irish settling there fell off dramatically. Nonetheless, over the subsequent 70 years there was a continuing, if limited, outflow across the Atlantic.

With the advent of the Celtic Tiger, this process was reversed, with a shift to net emigration from the US to Ireland, albeit on a much smaller scale. Between 1996 and 2002 the number of US-born people living in Ireland increased from 19,000 to 28,000. Over the course of the 2000s there was net immigration from the US of 17,000.

While the economic crisis saw a temporary reversal of this process, in the last two years there has again been a small net inflow from the US.


Emigration from Ireland

The past history of mass emigration from Ireland to America means that there is today a huge number of people in the US with Irish ancestry. While the early Irish emigrants faced major challenges when they moved to the US, many of their descendants went on to positions of considerable prominence as presidents, supreme court judges, or in business.

Successful integration into the US of descendants of immigrants was not just an Irish phenomenon; in most cases, irrespective of national origins, the second generation has prospered in the US. A recent study by Stanford’s Ran Abramitzky and his colleagues provides a detailed picture of how the children of immigrants have fared in the US labour market over the last 150 years since the abolition of slavery.

The researchers used the US censuses of 1880, 1910 and 1940, along with other data sources for 1980 and 2010.

In what was a massive exercise in processing of “big data”, they have matched the sons of immigrants in one census to their fathers in the census 30 years earlier. An example of the scale of the project is that they have matched 350,000 immigrant fathers in the 1880 census to sons in the 1910 census, and analysed even bigger numbers of father/son pairs for 1910/1940.

Ireland’s share

In 1880 immigrants from Germany were the largest group followed by the Irish. However, by 1910, Ireland’s share, though still large, had fallen.

The authors’ analysis concludes that “both historically and today, children of immigrants at the bottom of the income distribution have higher rates of upward mobility than children of the US-born”. This finding holds true over the whole period from 1880.

Second-generation immigrants consistently perform better in terms of income than children of comparable Americans. The researchers found children of immigrants held a continued advantage, no matter what countries their fathers had come from. This evidence contradicts the perception or prejudice that immigrants of certain countries of origin are not able to integrate into the US economy.

The authors look at the factors that explain this “success rate” for children of immigrants. Not surprisingly, the results show that immigrants who spoke English, such as those from Ireland, enjoyed an advantage. They also show that the immigrant advantage was not because of superior education. If anything, children of immigrants had a poorer education than children of comparable Americans.

A key factor in the upward mobility of the children of immigrants was that those moving to the US tended to gravitate to the most attractive labour markets, whereas Americans were much less likely to move internally within the US, even where there were better opportunities in another state. However where immigrants lived in ghettoes, their children were less likely to be successful.

Acquiring fluency

Immigrants to Ireland from an English-speaking country do at least as well as native-born Irish in the labour market. Those who come from other countries typically experience some disadvantage, which tends to diminish over time, suggesting that acquiring fluency in English plays a role. However, the disadvantage is particularly marked for immigrants from Africa. So race discrimination could be a factor.

Because substantial immigration into Ireland is a relatively recent phenomenon, it is too early to know how successful economically their children will become. Our challenge is to repeat the US success story, ensure second-generation migrants do well, and overcome the challenges their parents may have experienced in finding good jobs.