Migrant Self-Selection: Anthropometric Evidence from the Mass Migration of Italians to the United States, 1907–1925 (with Ariell Zimran)

Posted on November 5, 2014


[A]lthough drawn from classes low in the economic scale, the new immigrants as a rule are the strongest, the most enterprising, and the best of their class . . . .
(The Dillingham Commission, US Congress)

Are migrants positively or negatively self-selected from within their populations of origin? Here is my
joint paper on this question with Ariell Zimarn (Journal of Development Economics, 2018).


We study this fundamental and persistent question of the economics of migration using data on one of the largest flows of free migration ever—that of Italians to the United States between 1907 and 1925.

We exploit never-before-used stature data in the Ellis Island arrival records—from which we transcribed the heights and other personal information of a random sample of 50,000 Italian passengers—combined with Italian province-birth cohort height distributions and our own geo-matching of millions of Italian passengers to their places of origin in order to construct a novel data set for our analysis. Relying on the well-established relationship between population average stature and living standards, we quantify migrant self-selection by comparing the heights of migrants to the height distributions of their respective birth cohorts in their provinces of origin.

ImmigrantCountsOur analysis reveals opposite patterns of self-selection across and within Italian provinces. Italian migrants were shorter, on average, than all Italians of the same birth cohort, suggesting negative self-selection on the national level. However, when compared only to the distribution of stature in their own provinces of origin, we find that Italian passengers were, on average, taller, indicating positive self-selection on the local level. Moreover, we find that the degree of self-selection from a province and birth cohort was decreasing in its average stature, suggesting that less-developed province-cohorts, where
liquidity constraints to migration were more likely to bind, provided relatively higher quality migrants.

The findings of this research demonstrate the importance of distinguishing between self-selection from a country as a whole and self-selection from within a particular sub-national region. Comparisons of migrants to their national-level origins, which are the norm in the literature on migrant self-selection, may fail to capture a significant portion of the self-selection occurring within a group of potential migrants from a particular sub-national region.

Posted in: Migration, Research