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DISCRETE CHOICE

Central Americans migrate to the US today for similar reasons as Jews in the 19th century

The Statue of Liberty seen from the sky.
Reuters/Adrees Latif
Life, liberty…
By Dan Kopf
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This article part of the series called Discrete Choice, in which we ask economists about the most important research they have read recently.

Economist: Michael Clemens, Center for Global Development

Why you should listen to him: Clemens is a leading thinker on the impact of international migration. His influential book Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk argues that the financial benefits of migration are criminally overlooked by policymakers.

Recommended research: Were Jews Political Refugees or Economic Migrants? Assessing the Persecution Theory of Jewish Emigration (pdf) by Leah Boustan, and Pogroms, Networks, and Migration (pdf) by Yannay Spritzer.

What the papers say: From 1881 to 1914, about 1.5 million Jews living in the Russian empire emigrated to the United States. Both studies consider whether they went primarily to flee persecution or to seek economic opportunity. Boustan’s research finds that economic conditions in the US and Russia best predict the immigration of the Jews, but that religious violence also had a influence, albeit a smaller one. Using data from Ellis Island, Spritzer shows that the first Jews to migrate from Russia generally did not come from places impacted by violence, but that later religious attacks did spur many Jews to emigrate.

Why Clemens thinks this research is important: “​There is a hot debate in America about whether Central American migrants are more like refugees fleeing violence, or more like economic migrants. This is not at all a new debate in US history. When Eastern European Jews began migrating to the US in large numbers in the late 19th century, there were [arguments] about whether they were ‘desirable’ migrants looking for safety, or ‘undesirable’ migrants taking jobs and ostensibly bringing threatening religious and political ideas.

Today, economists Leah Boustan and Yannay Spitzer, working separately, have used data to give the nuanced answer. Those Jewish migrants, who included the great-great-grandparents of Stephen Miller, were a complex mix of refugees and economic migrants. Their movements responded to both security conditions and economic conditions in the places they came from.

Likewise, today’s children migrating from Central American respond to both security conditions and economic conditions in the countries they come from. It is not one or the other, not a simple story, and it never has been.”

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