Panel Paper: Call Me By Your Name: Immigration Restriction Laws and Child Naming in the Early Twentieth Century U.S.

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Court 3 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Dafeng Xu, University of Minnesota

Researchers point out that names are signals of cultural identity. As the reflection of cultural transmission, child naming is equivalently---if not more---important for immigrants. Having unique patterns of children's given names signals ethnic maintenance, while giving more localized names to children signals cultural assimilation.

In this paper, I investigate the effects of immigration restriction laws on child naming in the early twentieth century U.S. The U.S. passed immigration restriction laws in the 1920s, which severely limited new immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Although immigration restriction laws did not directly target old immigrants who had settled down in the U.S., the old immigrants might still have behavioral responses to immigration restriction laws, which were passed in a social environment of anti-immigration populism.

In the empirical analysis, I calculate name foreignness among second-generation immigrants by cohort in the 1930 full-count U.S. census data, and use difference-in-differences models to investigate differences in patterns of child naming between more and less restricted groups, before and after the passage of immigration restriction laws.

The main results of this paper suggest that immigration restriction laws led to the particular decline in name foreignness among immigrant children whose parents came from more restricted countries, while such trends in child naming were generally insignificant prior to the passage of immigration laws. Names of both males and females were affected. This indicates the consequences of “forced assimilation”: immigrant parents gave less-foreign first names to their children as responses to immigration restriction laws, even if they (and especially their native-born children) had settled down in the U.S. and were not directly restricted. I find that the main results are robust to changes to samples and specifications, and I also rule out other possible mechanisms, such as parents’ assimilation and selection on migration.

This paper has important policy implications from several perspectives. First, it adds to the literature on the effects of immigration restriction laws in the early twentieth century U.S., and provides evidence that immigration restriction laws had negative impacts on cultural diversity, reflected by names, through “forced assimilation” among affected immigrants.

Related to this point, another policy relevant question is: was the change in child naming a "good" result for the society? Prior to the passage of immigration restriction laws, the gap in child naming was partially erased between second-generation immigrants and natives, suggesting that immigrant families started to assimilate, but still maintained own cultural identity at a moderate degree. This paper shows that child naming---as a proxy for cultural transmission---was affected by immigration restriction laws, signaling the possible decline in cultural diversity.

Finally, as many economists and sociologists find empirical evidence that cultural diversity among immigrants is positively associated with economic growth and natives’ labor market outcomes, this paper also adds to the literature of labor market analyses.