Risk and Reward, the Economics of Immigration

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Blog Hero: Economics of Immigration

Risk and Reward, the Economics of Immigration

In 2018 controversy and rage around immigration—illegal and otherwise—seemed to dominate the news cycle. As I took off over the Atlantic today, leaving behind the coastline and eastern border of the United States, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own family’s story.

In 1910 my great grandfather Onorato Cecconi left a small village north of Florence, Italy, called San Quirico, in search of the American dream. He was a younger son in a large family of flour millers who for several hundred years had milled chestnut flour on the gentle slopes between Florence and Bologna. Neither rich nor poor, he alone, out of all his siblings, sold everything he had to immigrate. He left from a port in Genoa on the Western coast of Northern Italy. He knew that the likelihood of returning was slim to none, so he prepared to leave everything he knew and loved. Unfortunately, he was forced to leave something else. His precious baby daughter Bianca had a skin rash (likely the eczema we all share) and the doctor deemed her ineligible to travel.

He left his daughter. He handed her over to his sister-in-law, and he and his pregnant wife and two older children walked up the gang plank and left—forever. How could he do that? How could anyone do that?

Like many immigrants, Onorato was not lazy, stupid, unskilled, or thoughtless. He was betting everything that he cared about on the new life he wanted to build in this great country. He based that decision on the thousands of Italians who were fleeing Italy and a disastrous economy to mine coal in the Western edges of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania. He dreamed of a new start with hope the next generation might be better off, that they might “write their own ticket.” Immigrants now flooding into this country are motivated by the same dream. The vast majority are fleeing poverty and corruption that has left the economy and security within their native countries in shambles. They are lured to the U.S. with the understanding that if they can just cross the border, even if that means wading through snake-ridden tunnels or dropping their baby from a 20-foot wall into the arms of a stranger, they and their progeny will have a chance at a better future.

I studied economics. Most people make rational decisions, even when they do not seem rational to those who can’t possibly understand the motivations. The culprit in the loss of life at our southern borders—both immigrant and law enforcement—is based purely on terrible policy and not the ridiculous name calling related to President Trump’s wall. Both parties are to blame. This has been a political football for far longer than 24 months and lies squarely at the feet of a Congress and Senate who have not addressed the policy disaster they created. We incentivize people to break our laws and then when they do we fight about it. 

When Onorato left Italy, he knew the rules, the risks, and the process. We had a policy that worked. It was harsh; Onorato understood that. But it was clear, and it was fair. 

About a decade ago I started doing research on my family, before we took our first trip back to San Quirico. In a digital record from Ellis Island, I found a record dated 1927. There she was, Bianca Cecconi, aged 18. She made it! Immigrants were required by law to have a U.S. citizen receive them in order to enter the country. And in cursive writing I saw his name—Onorato Cecconi. He had come to New York to collect his baby. I can only imagine what that reunion was like. I don’t have a picture of Bianca. She married soon after her arrival in western Pennsylvania and died of appendicitis after giving birth to little girls. Her mother, who had not raised her, became mother to those abandoned toddlers, raising them as her own. 

On a beautiful spring afternoon, my father and I stood in the town square in San Quirico gazing up at a church steeple, the church where Onorato and Ersilia had married. I said, “Dad, do you think he had regrets about leaving such a beautiful place?” My father paused thoughtfully and said, “Maybe, but because he did, I—and now you—have been blessed with so much opportunity. We should thank him for that sacrifice.” We did and we do.

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