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Asian Immigrants in the Postindustrial Economy

Even before the events of September 11, the cultural and economic incorporation of ethnic minorities and immigrants have been an issue closely studied by academic researchers, politicians, public policymakers, and social commentators. Since that tragic day, the question of what immigrants contribute to American society and whether or not their impact is grounds for liberalizing, maintaining, or restricting their current levels of immigration into the U.S. has been at the forefront of America's war on terrorism.

Different Stripes of the Tiger

Despite its relatively small (but fast growing) size compared to the U.S. as a whole, the Asian American community is directly tied to many of these issues, whether they relate to potential changes in immigration laws and social programs, Asian Indians and Sikhs mistaken for Islamic terrorists, worries about a repeat of the mass internment of suspected domestic enemies, or suspicions about terrorists operating within particular Asian countries.

Information society © Jed & Kaoru Share/Corbis

Rather than being one homogenous category, the history of Asian Americans has evolved so that they now include families who have lived in the U.S. for several generations and have no connections whatsoever with their ancestral lands and languages along with those who just arrived on American shores yesterday, eager to start their new life. Asian Americans can also include those who are of one ethnicity, a mixture of two or more Asian ethnicities, multiracial (Asian in combination with White, Black, Latino, and/or American Indian), or mono-ethnic adoptees who were raised exclusively by non-Asians (mainly Whites).

In other words, there is a tremendous degree of diversity within the Asian American community these days. At the same time, for political, cultural, and demographic purposes, sometimes it's inevitable that all Asian Americans are lumped together. This is especially true if we are to study how they're adapted economically to living in the U.S. or what sociologists call their "economic incorporation" patterns.

Evolution of the U.S. Economy

Social scientists have long discussed how the national economy has "deindustrialized" from one based on manufacturing and production to one centered around technological innovation, information management, and services. The question becomes, how have Asian Americans fared in this postindustrial age? As a group, have they adapted their skills and taken advantage of these new opportunities or have they been left behind in low-wage, low-skill service jobs in the secondary labor market Finally, how do U.S.-born Asian Americans compare to their foreign-born counterparts? Do foreign-born Asians fit the popular image of being relatively uneducated, unskilled, and unable to speak English?

To answer these questions, research was conducted using recently released data from the Census 2000 Supplemental Survey (C2SS). The C2SS was conducted in conjunction with but separate from the larger 2000 census and represents data from a sample of about 700,000 U.S. households. More information about the C2SS can be found at The goal of the research is to (1) compare U.S.- and foreign-born Asians to each other, (2) compare both groups to the majority population (Whites), and (3) to the U.S. population as a whole.

Achievement in the New Millennium

The results below show that among all Asian Americans who were at least 25 years old in 2000, U.S.- and foreign-born Asian Americans had comparable rates of working in an "information-intensive" industry -- those that routinely involve the collection, management, and dissemination of information, knowledge, and/or data and that are at the heart of the contemporary "information society," such as telecommunications, media, financial services, education, etc.

Selected Socioeconomic Characteristics of by Racial/Ethnic Group in the U.S.
  Total U.S.
Asian Americans


College Cegree or Higher 26.8% 28.4% 42.7% 47.9%
Information-Related Industry 25.7% 26.2% 33.1% 24.6%
Professional/Technical Occupation 22.3% 23.2% 30.8% 30.6%
Median Household Income $65,654 $67,898 $87,195 $84,749
Information society © Yang Liu/Corbis

The data also show that U.S.- and foreign-born Asian Americans had similar rates of working in a professional or technical occupation that may be found in different industries but usually include the above-mentioned "information-intensive" duties (i.e., as a financial manager, engineer, computer administrator, accountant, business analyst, lawyer, doctor, scientist, etc.).

However, further comparison shows that foreign-born Asians were more likely to have a college degree or higher than their U.S.-born counterparts (45.9% versus 42.7%). Despite this, U.S.-born Asian Americans had a higher average household income than did foreign-born Asian Americans ($87,195 versus $84,749), interestingly. This disparity may relate to the finding that almost 98% of U.S.-born Asian Americans spoke English "well," "very well" (both as defined by the Census Bureau), or as their only language while the rate was 80% for foreign-born Asian Americans (which itself was slightly higher than that for all immigrants in the U.S., 77.5%).

These results suggest that while there are slight variations in specific measures, there were very few significant socioeconomic differences among all Asian Americans, either immigrant or native-born. At the same time, in comparison to the majority population (non-Hispanic Whites), there were some notable disparities, although perhaps not in the expected direction.

Specifically, the rates for having a college degree or higher for both U.S.- and foreign-born Asian Americans was significantly higher than that for Whites (28.4%), as was the rate of having a professional or technical occupation (23.2%). In addition, both U.S.- and foreign-born Asian Americans had an average household income at least $16,000 higher than that for Whites ($67,898). While it's true that Asian American households tend to have more workers than White households, the bottom line in terms of total income is still illuminating.

Beyond 9-11: Implications for Policy

Overall, the research indicates that contrary to the "fresh off the boat" stereotype of Asian immigrants as unskilled, uneducated, and lacking English skills, foreign-born Asian Americans are in fact excelling in many measures of socioeconomic attainment. In terms of meeting the demands of the postindustrial economy that require advanced job skills, high educational credentials, and the aptitude to do extremely well in "information-intensive" work environments, Asian Americans seem to be keeping pace with Whites and in many respects, are actually outperforming them.

Several reports and stories in recent years seem to support and illustrate this pattern, as entrepreneurs and workers, most notably from India, China, Taiwan, and Korea, have become commonplace in high-tech sectors around the country. While many of these Asian immigrants are H1-B temporary visa holders, social scientists and community leaders point out that many of these short-term workers eventually become legal permanent residents and ultimately U.S. citizens.

Information society © Corbis

There is still conflicting research on the benefits and costs associated with the economic incorporation of immigrants, Asian and otherwise, into American society. In addition, we should be careful not to extrapolate these results to every single Asian American and assume that all Asian Americans are doing well socioeconomically. The image of Asian Americans as the high-achieving "model minority" that all racial/ethnic minorities should emulate is still quite problematic (as is the implication that Asian American no longer experience discrimination), especially when Asian ethnic groups are analyzed individually.

But the economic accomplishments of Asian immigrants, as illustrated by these results from the C2SS and other recent articles, may help to dispel the recurring assertion that they represent a drain on the national economy. In addition, these results may suggest that politicians, policymakers, and other interested observers should reconsider their efforts to limit the entry of such Asian immigrants into the U.S. and their restrict their participation in American society. Rather, in many respects and as this research and other studies demonstrate, Asian Americans as a whole, whether they were born abroad or in the U.S. and whether are temporary workers or full-fledged citizens, continue to attain socioeconomic success and contribute to the strength of America's economy and culture.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Immigrants in the Postindustrial Economy" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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