relative to that of natives, and immigrants experience faster wage growth than natives.17

The basic problem with the optimistic interpretation of the cross-sectional data is that it draws inferences about how earnings of different cohorts of immigrant workers evolve over time from a single snapshot of the immigrant population (Borjas, 1985). But we already know that newly arrived immigrants are inherently different from those who migrated 20 years ago. If so, the situation of an immigrant worker who is 40 years old in 1990 cannot be used to predict the economic situation 20 years hence of an immigrant worker who is 20 years old in 1990. Because the relative labor market quality of newly arriving immigrant cohorts has been declining, a cross-sectional comparison of immigrants by age will tend to paint far too optimistic a rate at which immigrants will be able to assimilate.

Table 5.12 follows wage growth of specific cohorts of male immigrants and male natives across U.S. censuses.18 To illustrate the way to read these tables, consider those immigrants who arrived when they were between 25 and 34 years old in the late 1960s. These immigrants are first compared with natives in the same age groups in 1970. Then 10 years later, the wages of this same immigrant cohort are compared with those of natives who are now 10 years older (35 to 44 in 1980), and 20 years later to natives aged 45 to 54 years in 1990. A similar comparison for women is presented in Table 5.13. These data are stratified by schooling levels in the appendix to this chapter.

Let us start with male immigrants who arrived between 1965 and 1969 and who were relatively young at the time of arrival (that is, aged 25 to 34 years at the time of the 1970 census). These immigrants earned 11.2 percent less than native men in 1970, but only 3.1 percent less by 1990. Over a 20 year period, therefore, the wage of this immigrant cohort relative to that of native men increased by 8 percentage points. Once schooling levels are controlled, wage convergence is almost total for this immigrant cohort (see Appendix A: Table 5.A1).

A similar pattern of wage growth is experienced by other male immigrant cohorts who arrived at younger ages. For instance, examine the immigrant cohort that entered the United States between 1975 and 1979 and who were around age 30 at the time of arrival. These immigrants earned 21.8 percent less than natives


By itself, even this optimistic view would not explain why immigrants appear eventually to earn more than the native-born. After all, why would immigrants accumulate more human capital than natives? That immigrants not only catch up but eventually overtake natives was instead interpreted in terms of how selective immigrants were to begin with. On the selection argument, immigrants were seen as more able, more highly motivated (Chiswick, 1978:900), and harder workers than natives (Carliner, 1980:89). This assumption was often justified by arguing that only the most driven and most able persons have the ambition and wherewithal to pack up, move, and start life anew in a foreign country.


The important caveat to this methodology involves possible emigration from an original cohort. This issue is explored below.

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