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 a plurality (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.