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US immigration back to pre–Great Recession levels, with Asians leading

More college graduates among new immigrants, reflecting the growing demand for qualified workers in the US

LOS ANGELES — Immigration rates to the U.S. have rebounded to their pre-recession levels and the country’s percentage of foreign-born now is at its highest in more than a century, when boatloads of eastern and southern Europeans arrived at Ellis Island.

But the face of immigration is dramatically different than it was just a decade ago, when the bulk of the influx came from Mexico and Central America. Asians now far outnumber the number of immigrants from Latin America.

The shift evidenced in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey released last week shows a wave of immigrants who are more educated, reflecting the growing demand for qualified high-tech and health workers in the U.S.

More than 1 million immigrants arrived here from 2013 to 2014, double the previous years and the largest number since 2006, the year before the Great Recession officially started.

About 42 million or 13.3 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born.

“This is like early 2000s levels,” said Brookings Institute demographer William Frey. “We haven’t had that in a long time.”

More than 19 million of the foreign-born in the U.S. are Hispanic and about 11 million are Asian.

But from 2013 to 2014, 526,000 or about half of the 1 million-plus immigrants to the U.S. were Asian, outpacing the inflow of 368,000 Latinos.

There are big increases for all education levels but the largest ones are for immigrants with college and graduate degrees.

California showed the biggest upticks in Hispanics, Asians and foreign-born college graduates.

“Now there are substantially more Asians than Latin Americans, which is very consistent with our economy,” said Hans Johnson, senior research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization. “The recovery of the U.S. and California economy is in large part what’s attracted large flows in immigration.”

Mexico used to be the leading country of origin. The influx from south of the border has dipped and now China and India are the leading sources of immigrants to California.

“It’s a very different kind of immigration flow,” Johnson said. “The economy is telling us that often, employers have to find highly skilled workers outside of California and outside the United States.”

About half of working-age Asian adults already have college degrees when they arrive in California, he said, compared to 14 percent of recent immigrants from Latin America.

Nationally, the biggest Asian countries of origin are India (171,000), China (136,000) and Philippines (82,000). Among Latin American countries, Mexico sent the largest numbers (129,000), El Salvador (63,000), and Honduras (54,000).

That is not likely to change the national debate over immigration, which centers on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — most of them from Latin America.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 1.5 million Asians are here illegally — about 285,000 each from China and India. But more than half of the undocumented or about 6 million are from Mexico.

Educated immigrants are more likely to enter the U.S. on an H1B visa, a non-immigrant status designed to allow U.S. employers to hire foreign professionals.

“India and China are still significant senders of illegal immigrants,” said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington, DC-based research institute that advocates for controlled immigration. “It’s a smaller share but it’s not trivial.”

Immigration from Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East grew the most since 2010. Even though the influx from Mexico has slowed, immigration from other Latin American countries, such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Guatemala is growing, he said.

The population of Mexican-born had declined from 2000 to 2012. It picked up in 2013 and grew much faster again in 2014.

“It’s really up a lot,” said Camarota, who analyzed the data. “If you have two or three years of more Asians than Hispanic, it doesn’t change the immigration population very much. But it certainly means that if it keeps up, it will.”

Frey’s analysis of the Census numbers show that California, Texas and New York gained the most Asian immigrants. Top destination states for Latino immigrants are California, Florida and New York.

“For the last few years, immigration didn’t go down much for college grads, high-skilled workers but it was down for less-skilled folks,” Frey said. “There are big increases for all categories but the bigger increases are for immigrants with some college.”

Less educated immigrants headed for Texas, Florida, and Virginia. College graduates were more likely to go to California, New York, and Washington, D.C., suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

“It’s important to put the facts out there so that people realize that when they’re talking about immigration, that more commonly than not in California and the U.S., they’re often talking about college graduates,” Johnson said. “The face of immigration is changing. … They’re not all locating in the traditional Chinatowns of Los Angeles and San Francisco.”


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