Highly skilled temporary and permanent immigrants in the United States now outnumber lower-skilled ones, marking a dramatic shift in the foreign-born workforce that could have profound political and economic implications in the national debate over immigration.
This shift in America's immigration population, based on census data, is summarised in a report released on Thursday by the Brookings Institution.
It found that 30% of the country's working-age immigrants, regardless of legal status, have at least a bachelor's degree, while 28% lack a high school diploma.
Workers from Mexico and Central America tend to be lower skilled, while India, China and the Philippines send many more highly skilled workers than lower-skilled one, said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at Brookings who co-wrote the study.
The shift had been in the works for the past three decades, a period that has seen a dramatic increase in the population born outside the US. But in 2007 the percentage of highly skilled workers overtook that of lower-skilled workers.
The trend reflects a fundamental change in the structure and demands of the US economy, which in the past decades transformed from an economy driven by manufacturing to one driven by information and technology.
The report also offers a new perspective on the national immigration discourse, which tends to fixate on low-skilled, and often illegal, workers.
The study based its findings on the 2009 American Community Survey, administered by the Census Bureau, as well as data from the bureau's Current Population Survey that date from 1980.
As the number of working-age immigrants in the US has swelled, from 14.6 million in 1994 to 29.7 million in 2010, the numbers of highly skilled and lower-skilled immigrants have risen, but the highly skilled sector has risen faster, according to the report.
Among the causes are the recent rise in the number of international students and of temporary H-1B visas, for which a bachelor's degree is usually required, the report said.
The shift accelerated in the past decade, with nearly a third of working-age new arrivals in the 2000s coming with college degrees, the report said.
In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content please visit www.washingtonpost.com