Almost half of the foreign-born who moved to the U.S. in the past decade were college-educated, a level of education greatly exceeding immigrants from previous decades, as the arrival of highly skilled workers supplanted workers in fields like construction that shrunk after the Great Recession.
New figures released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau show that 47% of the foreign-born population who arrived in the U.S. from 2010 to 2019 had a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 36% of native-born Americans and 31% of the foreign-born population who entered the country in or before 2009.
A number of "push and pull" factors, some decades in the making, were responsible. What resulted were drops in immigration from Latin America and increases in Asian immigrants who tended to be better educated, experts said.
The changes in immigration had nothing to do with policies from the administration of President Donald Trump, which has attempted to discourage migration across the southern border and often portrayed immigrants as burdens on the U.S. health, safety and welfare systems, demographers said.
"These data do not comport with statements by the Trump administration, which have never been based on facts, but on an apparent desire to scapegoat immigrants as the cause of America's woes," said Cynthia Feliciano, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "Even if we were considering the period prior to 2009, when the educational profile of immigrants was not skewed so highly, the notion that immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy is just not supported by the evidence."
Immigration from Latin American has been declining for more than a decade, and in the past several years it has even reversed itself with regard to Mexicans, who up until a dozen years ago were the greatest source of new immigrants in the U.S. In the past several years, more Mexicans living in the U.S. went back than came north across the border. Plummeting fertility rates in Mexico starting two decades ago shrunk the number of young job-seekers who would have headed north to the U.S., and the Great Recession a dozen years ago and its aftermath caused the disappearance of jobs in some industries like construction that were attractive to workers with little formal education, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside.
"The big thing you see, up through 2008, Mexico was the largest-sending country to the U.S., followed by China and India," Ramakrishnan said. "What you see is a crossover around 2007 to 2009. You see this crossover, where you have China and India as the largest source countries."
He added, "It's as much a story about the massive decline in migration from Mexico and central America, as it is a story about increased Asian migration."
Drawing the Asian workers to the U.S. was a demand for highly-educated employees in tech fields that could not be filled with U.S. workers since there was a shortage of U.S. workers with those skills. At the same time in the past decade, many highly-educated workers from Asia who had been in the U.S. for some time were bringing over family members, who also tended to be highly-educated, said Manuel Pastor, director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.
Trump has long criticized "chain migration," a pejorative term used by anti-immigrant activists to describe a policy that allows legal U.S. residents to sponsor family members to immigrate to the U.S. It's the most common form of legal immigration.
"The administration's push was, 'We need to favor skilled immigrants,'" Pastor said. "We are getting skilled immigrants if we stick to family policy. We have highly educated folks from family policy."
It's a "snowball effect," said Richard Wright, a professor in the Department of Geography at Dartmouth.
"We have 50-plus years of arrivals from Asia," Wright said. "A lot of them are arriving with formal skills and they are able to sponsor family members who are also educated."