Grade 9-12


Updated: September 27 2016,

This lesson helps students better understand immigration, a major issue in the 2016 presidential election. Students learn how to evaluate economic and non-economic factors of immigration by assuming the roles of people who are affected–some positively and some negatively–by the migration of skilled and unskilled workers. They analyze the economic causes and effects of migration in relation to several important public policy issues, including the impact of immigration on wages in the United States and of emigration on developing nations.


Workers’ decisions to immigrate to other countries, and the effects of migration in countries that experience net inflows or outflows of workers, often depend on the level of education and training of those workers.

Immigration by large numbers of workers with low levels of education and training may decrease wages for unskilled workers, increasing public expenditures for programs that assist low-income families. The United States and other developed nations also experience immigration of highly educated and skilled workers. When those workers come from poorer, developing countries that raises questions related to the issue of “brain drain.” With both types of immigration, native-born workers can face increased competition in labor markets.

According to traditional economic theory, international trade in goods and services increases overall levels of production, consumption, and the standard of living, but hurts some groups who face increased competition from foreign producers, at least in the short run. The same general pattern holds true for the immigration of both skilled and unskilled workers, while many native workers benefit from immigration, some are hurt, at least in the short run.  

Learning Objectives

  • Explore the economic incentives and non-economic factors such as armed conflicts, persecution, and reuniting families that lead to migration.
  • Describe the difference between skilled and unskilled workers.
  • Compare and contrast the effects of immigration by skilled and unskilled workers.
  • Analyze the overall economic effects of immigration and emigration on national economies.
  • Define and discuss the causes and effects of “brain drain.”
  • Illustrate the impact of immigration on wages using a supply and demand diagram in an    optional extension activity.

Resource List

  • Slides 1-8 (ppt) or (pdf)
  • Activity 1: Migration and My Story: Part I, Instructions and Interview Information Form (one copy per student); Part II, Role Cards: one or two copies of 27 role cards, cut apart, to give one role card to each student
  • Activity 2:  Point-Based Immigration System Group Assignment, one copy for each group of three to four students.


  1. Ask students if they or anyone they know were born in a different country.
    (It is very likely that at least one of the students, or a student’s parent, or someone the students know was born in another country. Even if that is not the case, point out that for the vast majority of families living in the United States today, their ancestors came to this country from other parts of the world.)
  2. Explain that the United States is often described as a nation of immigrants, or as a melting pot, salad bowl, or some other image representing a mix of people from different backgrounds and many nations. That is not true in many other countries, and in fact the United States has the largest migrant population of any nation in the world, with over 41 million people who were born in other countries. That represents over 13 percent of the U.S. population.

    Define immigration as a person entering a nation different from their native country, to live and possibly work in the new nation permanently, or at least for a long period of time. Define emigration as a person leaving their native country to take up residence in another country.

  3. Ask students why people immigrate to the United States.
    (Answers may include higher wages, political or religious freedom, reuniting with family members who immigrated earlier, or other reasons.)
  4. Display Slide 1, which shows the number of people who became legal, permanent residents of the United States in 2013, categorized by their class of admission. Note that for many categories there are legal limits on the annual number of immigrants allowed to become permanent residents in the United States. The categories in the table indicate some of the different reasons immigrants are allowed into the United States. But point out that while some immigrants may be allowed to enter the country for “family” reasons, there may well still be an economic motivation for their migration.

    Provide the official definitions for some of the terms used in the table: An immediate relative is a spouse, parent, or minor child. Family-sponsored immigration uses a wider definition of family than immediate relatives, including the adult children of citizens, spouses and children of permanent residents, and the brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens. The diversity program is also referred to as the lottery, because those who receive permanent resident status under this program are chosen at random from all eligible applicants. Asylees are refugees already in the United States. Refugees are people living outside their native countries who are unable to return to those countries because of persecution, or fear of future persecution.

  5. Explain that it is difficult for people from other countries to become permanent residents of the United States, or many other developed nations, such as Canada and countries in western Europe. To immigrate to the United States, you must be related to a U.S. citizen or resident, or be one of a limited number of immigrants allowed for other reasons. Ask students why immigration to the United States is limited and so difficult. (Students may answer to protect jobs or keep wages high, or for national security reasons. Others may say to protect American culture.) Reinforce that there are many reasons, but that loss of jobs or lower wages concerns many kinds of workers and their families.
  6. Ask students which of the following people should be allowed to immigrate to the United States: a doctor, a computer programmer, a construction worker, or an agricultural worker.
    (Answers will vary. Some students will say none, some will say all. Some will say the doctor and the computer programmer.) Ask students who say they would admit the doctor or computer programmer why they would allow immigration for workers with these occupations. (Doctors and computer programmers are well educated, with skills that allow them to find jobs that pay well.)
  7. Tell students that most countries have adopted immigration policies that are at least partly based on workers’ occupation or skill level. A skilled worker “is any worker who has special skill, training, knowledge, and (usually acquired) ability in their work.” In many contexts, and as used in this lesson, the definition implies education beyond high school. Define unskilled workers as workers with no special knowledge or ability.
  8. Display Slide 2, which shows the number of temporary worker visas issued by the United States in 2016, and the number of actual admissions in 2013 based on the admission class. Explain that these visas allow workers to enter the United States and work for a limited period of time, but not to establish permanent residence. These visas may allow workers to work in the United States for more than one year but generally no more than 3 years. The visas may be extended, but not indefinitely (up to 6 years in total for the H1-B visa, for example). Admissions are higher than the cap limits because visa-holders can enter the country more than once in a year, and frequently do.
  9. Stress the difference between permanent residence status for immigrants, shown in Slide 1, and the Temporary Worker Visas shown in Slide 2. Explain that the H1-B visa is for highly paid workers, including many with advanced levels of education (college professors or engineers, for example). The H2 visa (H-2A for agricultural workers and H2-B for nonagricultural workers) is for workers in U.S. industries or occupations facing shortages of workers, either year round or in certain seasons of the year (such as construction and agriculture). Like the permanent workers shown in Slide 1, the numbers of these temporary workers allowed into the United States are limited by law. (Note: U.S. immigration policies and related information can be found at the website for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,
  10. Tell students that although family reunifications and other reasons for migration are important, in this lesson you will be focusing on economic reasons. Ask students to identify again the key economic reasons people migrate to the U.S. (Higher wages, benefits, public services, etc–in general terms a higher standard of living.)
  11. Ask students why some immigrants–such as doctors–earn high salaries in the United States while others–such as agricultural workers–earn very low wages. (Doctors have extensive education and specialized skills, so they earn more than workers with less education and fewer skills, whether they were born in the United States or some other country.)
  12. Tell students that immigrants bring with them different amounts of human capital. Define human capital as the knowledge or skills acquired by workers through education or on-the-job training and experience. Tell students that the loss of any worker represents a loss of resources to a country, but if a worker has a high amount of human capital (is skilled), this represents a particularly large loss to the worker’s home country, and a large gain to the host country.
  13. Explain that immigration and emigration are increasingly important in today’s global economy. Many people are affected by migration, including those who migrate and other workers in countries that experience net inflows or outflows of workers due to immigration or emigration. At the heart of the economic impacts of migration is the effect migration has on the wages of workers. Immigrants move to seek higher wages, but workers in countries that experience immigration do not like competing with immigrant workers because their wages are lower than they would be without the immigration. Migration also affects tax revenues and public expenditures in countries that experience significant levels of immigration or emigration. And of course illegal immigration is a controversial issue in many countries, for both economic and national security reasons.
  14. Give each student a role card from Activity 1. There are 27 role cards, so in larger classes duplicate two copies of some of the cards, as necessary, and let two students represent the same kind of worker. Each card contains a brief description of someone who is affected by migration in a particular way. Tell students that they will act out that role in the following activity.
  15. Distribute copies of the instructions and interview sheet from Activity 1. Explain that in the activity, in addition to taking their assigned roles in talking with other students, each student is also expected to interview five other students whose cards are different from theirs. When students are interviewed, they should describe who they are and how migration has affected their lives. If the person being interviewed is a migrant, the reasons for their migration should be investigated. Explain that not every card for migrants provides detailed statements on the person’s reasons for migrating. In those cases, students should be prepared to improvise a story to explain why they migrated, with the explanation related to employment opportunities in the country they left, or the country they entered, or both.
  16. Tell the class that each time an interview is conducted the interviewer should record the card # and the home country of the person being interviewed in the first column of the Interview Information Form. Summarize the most important statements made by the person being interviewed relating to the effects labor migration has had on their lives in the middle column of the Interview Information Form. There are five rows on the form, with one row for each person who is interviewed.
  17. Immediately after completing each interview, the interviewer should write Yes or No in the third column of the Interview Information Form, to indicate whether they believe the person they just interviewed would support or oppose laws, regulations, and other public policies that would make it easier for people to migrate to the United States.
  18. Tell students they will have about 20 minutes to do the interviews. Remind them that during this time other students will be interviewing them, too. Conduct Activity 1.
  19. Based on what they learned from their interviews, ask students to discuss who gains and who loses from immigration. Either before the discussion begins or as it unfolds, provide definitions of the following terms:

    • Host country–the nation in which an immigrant resides.
    • Home, source, or native country–the nation from which an immigrant came.
    • Remittances–money sent by migrants to individuals in their home countries. This idea is mentioned on cards #9 and #14. Remittances are an important form of financial transfer payments in many developing countries.
    • Returnees–immigrants who return to their home country, a process also known as reverse migration. Returnees are mentioned on card #13.

    Summary of activity cards showing those helped or hurt by migration:

    People helped (card numbers are shown in parentheses):

    • Immigrant workers, both skilled (#1, #3, #15) and unskilled (#4, #5, #20)
    • Family, employers, workers, and others in home country who benefit in some way from those who emigrate (#9, #11, #12, #13, #14)
    • Employers of immigrant workers in host countries (#6, #10, #23)
    • Consumers of goods produced in host countries by immigrant workers (#18)
    • Businesses in host countries that benefit from expanded production and sales due to immigration (#21, #22)
    • Native workers whose work is helped or created by the addition of immigrants, both skilled and unskilled (#2, #25, #26)

    People harmed (card numbers are shown in parentheses):

    • Native-born workers in host countries who compete for jobs with immigrant workers (#7, #16, #17, #24, #27)
    • People in home countries of emigrants who are harmed by the departure of workers, especially skilled workers (#8)
    • Governments in host countries that must provide extra services for growing populations (#19)
  20. Again based on their interviews in the activity, ask students to discuss the main reasons that immigration is restricted in the United States. (Lower wages for some native-born workers is the most frequent economic issue mentioned in actual surveys, but costs of government services and security or cultural issues may also be mentioned. Remind students that this activity focuses on economic issues.)
  21. Explain that the effect of immigration on wages is debated among economists. Display Slide 3, which shows estimates of how immigration affected U.S. wages during the 1980s and 1990s. Explain that the percentages shown are estimates of how much lower wages in the United States were with the immigration that occurred in this period than they would have been if no immigration at all had been allowed. That does not mean that wages actually decreased for all of these groups–the estimates suggest that wages would have been this much higher if the supply of labor in these occupations had not been increased by immigration.
  22. Display Slide 4, which provides more recent insights into the wage debate. Explain the following points:

    • If immigrant workers are not perfect substitutes for native workers, then the impact on native workers is lessened. The intuition behind this depends on the level of competition native workers pose for native workers. In many cases, immigrant workers do not compete for the exact same jobs or have the exact same set of skills as native workers, and so do not compete as directly for jobs. In fact, new immigrants may provide more competition for existing immigrants as opposed to native workers.
    • If immigrant workers act as complements to (i.e, work with) native workers, then the availability of immigrants increases the productivity of native workers, allowing them to earn higher wages.
    • If the increased availability of labor attracts capital to an area, that the resulting growth can also push wages higher.

    Some economists argue once these effects are taken into account, the overall negative effect shown by other estimates disappears.

  23. Ask students why the United States allows any immigration if the result may lower wages of native-born workers. (In some cases there were shortages of labor in occupations filled by immigrant workers, as depicted on cards #10 and #23. But even in occupations where there were not shortages, the decrease in wages is not the only effect of immigration. Lower wages also mean that firms’ costs of production fall, which leads firms to increase output and lower prices for the goods and services consumers buy, as noted on card #18. The decrease in wages from immigration may be only a short-run effect, which might be completely or at least partially eliminated in the long run by economic expansion and growth. Some of the positive effects of more employment and production are noted on cards #10, #21 and #22. This expansion increases the demand for labor over time, which increases wage rates and employment of native-born workers.)
  24. Tell students that now you will focus on the migration of unskilled workers. Thinking about the examples in the roleplaying interviews involving unskilled immigrants, ask students to list the advantages and disadvantages of the United States allowing more unskilled immigration. (Advantages include lower wages and perhaps higher profits for firms hiring these workers, as on card #23 and possibly #6. Another advantage is lower prices for consumers who buy goods produced by these firms, as on card #18. Disadvantages may be lower wages or fewer jobs for native unskilled workers, as on cards #7, #17, and #24. Card #24 describes a worker who is close to retirement, who may not have time to acquire skills for another job or occupation. Another disadvantage is increased spending for government services for a larger population, as on card #19.) Point out again that although immigration may lower wages for some workers, in the short run, it also promotes economic growth, which increases future production, consumption, and income, including wages.
  25. Now ask students to focus on the immigration of skilled workers. Explain that because skilled migrants take a large quantity of human capital with them when they leave their home country, the issues of skilled worker migration have become more important with globalization in recent decades. Many countries have become more active in trying to attract skilled workers as immigrants, or in trying to keep skilled workers from emigrating. Ask students to list the advantages and disadvantages of the United States allowing more skilled immigration. (Skilled native workers may face more competition for jobs or lower wages, as depicted on card #27 and Slide 3. But skilled workers also provide valuable services and other benefits to the economy, as shown on card #10. Even the underutilized skilled worker on card #15 is providing a service. Expansion of industries that hire skilled workers may also benefit other businesses, as described on cards #21, #22, and #26.)
  26. Ask students if they believe the benefits of immigration by skilled workers are greater than the benefits of immigration by unskilled workers. (Students will probably note that skilled workers are paid more. They produce more valuable services, and so they increase production, consumption, and income levels more. Also, because skilled workers are usually in occupations featuring more use of technology, a country may find that immigration by skilled workers helps it expand in high-tech industries.)
  27. Contrast the benefits of the immigration of skilled workers with the costs of emigration by skilled workers, particularly from developing countries. In those nations, where skilled workers are already scarce, emigration on a large scale can have a serious impact. Tell students the popular term for skilled workers leaving a country is brain drain. Ask students if any of their roles were examples of brain drain or examples of people adversely affected by brain drain. (Cards #1, #3, and #8)
  28. Ask students if there are any benefits to the source country of having skilled workers emigrate. (Actually, yes. Based on their cards, students may point out that emigrants sometimes provide remittances to their home countries [card #14], that some may eventually return to their home country with even more human capital [card #13], that skilled emigrants may facilitate business relations between the home and host countries [card #11], or that the economic benefits of emigration may inspire more people to invest in education–including some who may not emigrate [card #12].)
  29. Display Slide 5. Summarize the idea of brain drain and review the costs and potential benefits.
  30. Point out again that, despite some potential benefits from emigration of skilled workers, brain drain can be a serious problem in developing countries. Display Slide 6, and explain that in many countries a high proportion of a developing country’s skilled workers, like inventors who take out patents, choose to leave their home countries. Note to the students that the United States has very few citizens who are outside the country when they file for a patent. In other countries, the vast majority of citizens who file patents reside outside the country.
  31. Display Slide 7, which lists countries that have lost a high percentage of physicians to emigration. Ask students why people and political leaders in these countries might be especially concerned about the loss of physicians. (Many developing countries face shortages of doctors, which affects the availability and cost of health care, and the treatment of many diseases that have basically disappeared in many developed nations [card #8].) Ask students if they believe that the potential gains to brain drain might offset the losses. (With skilled workers, the loss to the source country is significant and immediate. However, some students might suggest that over time remittances and business opportunities fostered by emigrants working in other nations may eventually offset the initial losses.)
  32. Ask students to speculate which countries are most likely to experience immigration by skilled workers. (Answers will vary.) Display Slide 8, which shows that the United States has the largest net immigration (in absolute numbers) of skilled workers, defined in this case as workers with more than 12th grade education.
  33. Ask students why the United States and other developed nations attract skilled and unskilled workers from other nations. (Higher wages, more opportunity, greater security.) Ask why wages are so high in the United States, Western Europe, etc. (High wages are based on high levels of labor productivity. Labor productivity is high in nations where technology and capital resources–including both physical capital and human capital from education and training–are highly developed. Stable government policies and public infrastructures–such as roads, schools, and legal systems–are also important.)
  34. Conclude the discussion by noting that some people benefit from migration, but others do not, in both host and home or source countries. That often makes immigration a contentious issue in both kinds of countries, even though the overall effects of immigration are to provide more resources in the economies of the host countries, raising overall levels of production, consumption, and income.


Review the lesson with students using the points below:

  • Many immigrants move to another country to seek higher wages or income. Some also move for other reasons, such as greater political freedom, personal safety, or reuniting families.
  • Native-born workers in host countries compete with immigrant workers in both skilled and unskilled occupations, which can result in wages lower than they would be with no immigration, at least in the short run.  The degree to which wages fall depends on how easily immigrant workers can substitute for native workers. 
  • In part because immigration can lower wages for some workers, the United States restricts the number of immigrants.
  • Businesses in host countries gain from immigration by having a larger supply of workers (skilled and unskilled) and paying lower wages.
  • Consumers in host countries gain from immigration. More output is produced because of lower labor costs, which lowers prices.
  • Developing countries are hurt by brain drain–the loss of skilled workers. Some of these costs are offset by remittances, returnees, and an increase in the number of people who pursue post-secondary education, including some who chose not to emigrate.


Group assessment.  Divide the class into groups of three to four students.  Distribute a copy of Activity 2 to each group.  Explain that the activity involves developing a point-based immigration system for the United States.  While the students complete the assessment, encourage them to think about a wide range of characteristics that might be considered.  (For more information on point-based immigration systems, see BBC, “Immigration points-based systems compared,” October 16, 2014, )

(Answers will vary.  Most answers should contain points for being a skilled worker, a worker in a high-demand occupation regardless of skill or language skills.  Non-economics characteristics may also be used including age, family status and country of origin.  Of course, some immigrants are denied based on health issues or security issues, and the students may decide to mention that in their paragraphs.)