WASHINGTON — For the first time, the influx of Asians moving to the U.S. has surpassed that of Hispanics, reflecting a slowdown in illegal immigration while American employers increase their demand for high-skilled workers.
An expansive study by the Pew Research Center details what it describes as "the rise of Asian-Americans," a highly diverse and fast-growing group making up roughly 5 percent of the U.S. population. Mostly foreign-born and naturalized citizens, their numbers have been boosted by increases in visas granted to specialized workers and to wealthy investors as the U.S. economy becomes driven less by manufacturing and more by technology.
"Too often the policy debates on immigration fixate on just one part — illegal immigration," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California-Riverside and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "U.S. immigration is more diverse and broader than that, with policy that needs to focus also on high-skilled workers."
"With net migration from Mexico now at zero, the role of Asian-Americans has become more important," he said.
About 430,000 Asians, or 36 percent of all new immigrants, arrived in the U.S. in 2010, according to the latest census data. That's compared to about 370,000, or 31 percent, who were Hispanic.
The Pew analysis, released Tuesday, said the tipping point for Asian immigrants likely occurred during 2009 as illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico sharply declined due to increased immigration enforcement and a dwindling supply of low-wage work in the weak U.S. economy. Many Mexicans already in the U.S. have also been heading back to their country, putting recent net migration at a standstill.
As recently as 2007, about 390,000 of new immigrants to the U.S. were Asian, compared to 540,000 who were Hispanic.
The shift to increased Asian immigration, particularly of people from India, China and South Korea, coincides with changes in U.S. immigration policy dating to the 1990s that began to favor wealthy and educated workers. The policy, still in place but subject to caps that have created waiting lists, fast tracks visas for foreigners willing to invest at least half a million dollars in U.S. businesses or for workers in high-tech and other specialized fields who have at least a bachelor's degree.
International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities also are now most likely to come from Asian countries, roughly 6 in 10, and some of them are able to live and work in the U.S. after graduation. Asian students, both foreign born and U.S. born, earned 45 percent of all engineering Ph.D.s in 2010, as well as 38 percent of doctorates in math and computer sciences and 33 percent of doctorates in the physical sciences.
Several bills pending in Congress that are backed by U.S. businesses seek to address some of the visa backlogs, through measures such as eliminating per-country limits on employment-based visas or encouraging investment in the sluggish U.S. real estate market. They have stalled amid broader public debate over immigration reform that has focused largely on lower-skilled, undocumented workers.
In recent years, more than 60 percent of Asian immigrants ages 25 to 64 have graduated from college, double the share for new arrivals from other continents.
As a whole, the share of higher-skilled immigrants in the U.S. holding at least a bachelor's degree now outpaces those lacking a high-school diploma, 30 percent to 28 percent.
"Like immigrants throughout American history, the new arrivals from Asia are strivers," said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and co-author of the report. "What's distinctive about them is their educational credentials. These aren't the tired, poor, huddled masses of Emma Lazarus's famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty. They are the highly skilled workforce of the 21st century."
The findings are part of Pew's broad portrait of Asian-Americans, immigrants or U.S.-born children of immigrants who come mostly from China, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Now tied with Hispanics as the fastest-growing U.S. group, the nation's 15.1 million Asian-Americans are slowly becoming visible as founders of startups in Silicon Valley, owners of ethnic eateries, grocery stores and other small businesses in cities across the U.S., as well as candidates for political office and a key bloc of voters in states such as California, Nevada and Virginia, according to experts.
Projected to make up 1 in 10 residents by midcentury, Asian-Americans as a whole tend to be more satisfied than the general public with their lives and the direction of the country. They lean Democratic, prefer a big government that provides more services and place more value on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success.
The Pew study also revealed wide variations among Asian subgroups in poverty, employment and education, which sometimes belied their typecast as a "model minority." For instance:
—Poverty: As a whole, Asian-Americans had a poverty rate in 2010 of 11.9 percent, lower than the 12.8 percent for the general U.S. population. By country of origin, however, Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese were more likely than the average American to live in poverty, at rates of 14 percent or more.
—Education: The share of Asian-Americans who hold at least a bachelor's degree surpasses the national average, 49 percent to 28 percent. Vietnamese, however, fell below the national average at 26 percent. People from India were most likely to have a college degree, at 70 percent.
—Unemployment: Asian-Americans ages 25 and older were somewhat less likely to be unemployed than the national average for the first quarter of 2012 — 6 percent compared to 7.4 percent for all U.S. workers. But in long-term unemployment, Asian-Americans fared much worse, with median duration of unemployment at 28 weeks, second only to African-Americans at 31 weeks. The national average was 22 weeks.
—Illegal immigration: While immigrants from Asia often obtain visas and arrive legally, many also sneak across the U.S. border or become undocumented residents after overstaying their visas. Up to 15 percent of Asian immigrants in the U.S. are here illegally, compared to 45 percent of Hispanic immigrants.
The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a coalition of 30 Asian-American national groups, called the Pew study an "important conversation starter." But the group expressed concern that the report focused too much on "one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism" about Asian-Americans at the expense of individual subgroups including Cambodians and Bangladeshis, who suffer low rates of educational attainment. Millions of Asian-Americans also are uninsured, and poverty has increased significantly in their communities in recent years, the group said.
"The Pew study could lead some to draw conclusions that reflect inaccurate stereotypes about Asian-Americans being a community with high levels of achievement and few challenges," said Deepa Iyer, who chairs the national council. "The community is not monolithic."
The Pew survey is based on an analysis of census data as well as interviews with 3,511 Asian adults living in the U.S., conducted by cell phone or landline from Jan. 3 to March 27. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points for all respondents, higher for subgroups.