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Stepping Beyond the Rice Fields

The Economics of Immigration--Winning Essay

September 1, 2007


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Jordan Wong

Stepping Beyond the Rice Fields

This is an excerpt from a letter my parents presented to me on my 18th birthday: "When I went to visit Taishan, China for the first time in 1983, our little white van navigated the dirt roads on the outskirts of the city and pulled into the small village where your Grandfather "Ye-Ye," and all previous generations of Wongs in our line, were born. ... I remember standing and looking off into the distance, with the Stone Flower mountain on the horizon and the rice fields waving in the wind like a billowing flag, and thinking that if not for a big step of faith taken by generations past, it would have been us living in those stone buildings and working those rice fields."

These words reveal a history I never knew. Family, friends, the comforts of home and familiar surroundings all became a distant memory for them when they immigrated to the United States—an idea that is quite hard for me to understand. Yet, without their sacrifices, I would be living a far different life than I am today; I could be cutting bamboo, planting rice with my feet submerged in knee-high water or laboring long hours tending pigs. Yes, immigration may involve a very personal inspiration for me, but my support for immigration goes far beyond my own experiences. Immigration is essential to the American economy because it contributes to the overall growth of the nation's wealth, it successfully exhibits the economic capitalist model that our nation has come to possess and, above all, it promotes success for the immigrants' and the natives' descendents alike.

To begin, immigration in its totality increases the total output of the economy. By welcoming foreigners from various countries with open arms, the United States is initiating the correct action in promoting its economic growth. When these new people enter the daily workings of American society, they contribute positively to both employment and consumption. "Immigrants are consumers, too, creating demand for goods and services and the jobs they produce" (Broder, 2006). Immigration critics argue that "the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1 percent" (Krugman, 2006). However, this critic seems only to contradict himself. The mere fact that incomes are actually increasing despite the large increase in immigrants seems to support immigration all the more. The large pay raise immigrants receive, as compared to typical wages in their home countries, wholly satisfies them financially, and the rest of the general population can rest easily due to steady if not increasing income.

Immigration not only increases the general population's wealth, but it also fits in line with our capitalist system. One of the key arguments made by immigration critics is the decreasing wages of a particular class of our economy. The economic statistic that "immigrants who arrived from 1980 to 2000 had reduced the wages of high school dropouts in the United States by 8.2 percent" (Porter, 2006) is a key idea that critics use to support their anti-immigration views. However, when these critics focus on this minuscule setback affecting a select group, despite the financial stability or successes of the country's vast majority of people, they illustrate ignorance to the American economy's main goal: to make gains, in economic prosperity and proficiency as a whole. Even the textbook Economics—Principles and Policy states that "the American solution is to let markets work to promote efficiency" (Baumol and Blinder, 2006). The American perspective isn't to promote economic equality, but rather to produce the maximum amount of wealth, regardless of how this wealth affects a specific class of people. "America has always thrived on dynamic transformations that produce winners as well as losers. Such transformations stimulate growth" (Lowenstein, 2006). Thus, when critics begin to focus on a select group of people, such as high school dropouts ["the number of people without any college education, including high school dropouts, has fallen sharply" (Porter, 2006)], they ignore the big-picture American economic goal of efficiency—a goal that immigration wholeheartedly follows.

Finally, immigration encourages future success from the descendents of both immigrants and the native-born. Many times, both the critic and the supporter of immigration become overly analytical about the economic circumstances that would arise from the present levels of immigration. What all immigration analysts need to consider is how the generations to come will be affected by foreigners entering this nation. The current information about future outcomes, though limited, wholly supports immigration. One major factor that will contribute to our future generations' success is education. "The children of today's immigrants will have much better access to education and the labor market than those of a century ago. ... It almost certainly will be the case that tomorrow's third generation will have better outcomes than today's third generation" (Altman, 2006). And as these future generations rise up to acquire skills that their parents could only dream about, they will rise higher on the economic pyramid. This in turn will create more demand for employees in low-paying jobs, which gives opportunity for yet further immigrants to enter the country. And the cycle continues to the contentment of all.

No one can argue that immigrants weren't the ones to form the 13 colonies and eventually transform them into a powerhouse country. Even now, "almost 60 million people—more than one fifth of the total population of the United States—are immigrants or the children of immigrants" (Hirschman, 2006). If this country were to deny immigration, it would signify a direct attack on the very idea that allowed this nation to become so great. With the help of immigration, the nation as a whole has enjoyed economic growth incomparable to any other nation. The economic efficiency model that this country follows parallels the goals of immigration. And, finally, the future promises great things for both the immigrant and the citizen.

"We need to remember that we carry a little bit of those dusty Chinese villages, a little bit of those work clothes, that big smile, and the hope of a better life for ourselves and our descendents, wherever we go and whatever we do."

This final charge given by my parents is something that I hope to always remember in my life. The sacrifices that my grandparents made have inspired me to work hard and fulfill their dreams. I can only hope that I will play a part in the dreams of future generations, wherever they may come from.


Altman, Daniel. 2006. "Immigration Math: It's a Long Story." New York Times, June 18.

Baumol, William, and Alan Blinder. 2006. Economics—Principles and Policy. 10th ed. Mason, Ohio: Thomson Higher Education.

Broder, John. 2006. "Immigrants and the Economics of Hard Work." New York Times, April 2.

Hirschman, Charles. 2006. "The Impact of Immigration on American Society: Looking Backward to the Future." Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Border Battles, The U.S. Immigration Debates.

Krugman, Paul. 2006. "North of the Border." New York Times, March 27.

Lowenstein, Roger. 2006. "The Immigration Equation." New York Times, July 9.

Porter, Eduardo. 2006. "Cost of Illegal Immigration May be Less Than Meets the Eye." New York Times, April 16.

2006-2007 Student Essay Contest

This spring the Minneapolis Fed held its 19th Annual Student Essay Contest, which is open to high school juniors and seniors in the Ninth Federal Reserve District. Over 300 essays were received from schools throughout the district. Submissions were divided into two categories: standard and advanced economics classes. "Stepping Beyond the Rice Fields," this year's winning essay, and other top essays are available online.

Fifteen finalists in each division received a $100 U.S. savings bond. In addition, first- and second-place winners from both divisions were selected, and they received additional savings bonds. A paid summer internship at the Minneapolis Fed was awarded to the overall winner, Jordan Wong of Burnsville Senior High School in Burnsville, Minn.

The Economics of Immigration

Is immigration good or bad for the U.S. economy?
It is often said that America is a nation of immigrants. Generations of people from other nations have moved to the United States seeking opportunity and liberty, and they have helped make this country the wealthiest in history. However, immigration has also been controversial since the first waves of foreigners arrived. Critics periodically claim that too much immigration is bad for the country legally, culturally or economically. Recently, controversy over immigration has flared again, from the formation of vigilante squads along the U.S.-Mexican border to nationwide protests over immigrant rights to congressional debates about "guest worker" programs.

While recognizing that it oversimplifies matters to cast immigration as simply good or bad, the essay contest asked students to pick one side of the debate and defend it. Essays were judged on the student's application of economic analysis to immigration as a controversial issue involving trade-offs in the face of scarcity.

              Essay Contest Results | Essay Contest Topics