At the same time, the number of Asian immigrants has held steady or increased slightly. Pew’s analysis of census data estimated that 430,000 Asian immigrants came to the United States in 2010, making up 36 percent of all new immigrants, compared with 31 percent who were Hispanic.
The reversal is a reminder of how the recession and an uneven recovery have altered not only how people live but, to a degree, who lives in the United States. Demographers and immigration analysts cautioned that the two largest and fastest-growing groups may eventually switch places again when the economy grows robust. But in the meantime, the about-face has the potential to tweak perceptions of immigrants and their role in society.
“If it continues, the face of immigrants in the country will change, and perhaps the reaction to immigration will change,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who has found that India is fueling most of the Asian population growth. “People have different perceptions of Asians than they do of Hispanics. Asians have always been seen as the model minority.”
Most Asian and Hispanic immigrants arrive in the United States with very different backgrounds. Pew estimated that 13 to 15 percent of Asian immigrants over the past decade were undocumented, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic immigrants. More Asian immigrants are admitted with employment visas than those from other countries.
Pew noted that just 16 percent of recent Hispanic adult immigrants have college degrees, compared with 28 percent of all adults in the United States. In contrast, more than two in three adult Asians who have immigrated in recent years either come to the United States to attend college or already have at least a bachelor’s degree, a distinction making them “the most highly educated cohort of immigrants in U.S. history.”
“It’s the way people are,” said My Lan Tran, an ethnic Chinese immigrant from Vietnam who heads the Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce. “It’s always been that way, for 6,000 or 7,000 years. It’s like asking why the moon is yellow. That’s just the way it is.”
The typically high education levels of Asians have often fit U.S. immigration policy goals.
Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographic consultant to the American Immigration Council, said many of the poorest neighborhoods in big cities have Asian doctors who immigrated on the promise that they could stay permanently if they promise to work in an under-served area.
“Asians are the group most likely to arrive explicitly because a hospital could not a find a native-born American to do their intern rounds,” he said. “Maybe now we’ll have the luxury to look at what Asian immigration means, showing how we can use immigration policy as a tool to fill our needs.”
Despite the reversal in positions for new immigrants, Hispanics still far outnumber Asians in the United States. There are already more Hispanics than the 41 million Asians that Pew predicts will live in the United States by 2050, around the time when non-Hispanic whites are predicted to be a minority.
Currently, the nation’s 18 million Asians make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, including multiracial people. More than eight in 10 come from just six countries — China, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.
By comparison, the nation’s 52 million Hispanics make up almost 17 percent of the population.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes the Dream Act that would make legal some immigrants who came to the United States as children, said most Americans won’t even notice that Asians outnumber Hispanics as new arrivals.
“I don’t think things are necessarily going to change much,” he said. “Even if Asians are the biggest new immigrant group, the blip of a few percentage points is not going to change the fact today’s immigration flow is remarkably un-diverse. That’s what drives much of the political concern in the public.”