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Who Is Coming to America? Increasingly, Chinese Students and Indian 20-Somethings

11 May

By Neil Shah

China and India are sending more immigrants to the U.S. than Mexico, following more than a decade of decreasing immigration from Latin America, according to the latest numbers from the Census Bureau. So, who exactly is coming? It’s hard to say, but a good guess is that Chinese college students and 20-something Indian workers are playing a big role.

Recent U.S. immigrants from China were more likely to be college-aged in 2011 to 2013 than in 2005 to 2007, according to a Census study presented this month at the Population Association of America’s annual demography conference. The study uses data from the American Community Survey, which asks respondents if they are foreign-born and lived abroad a year ago.

Between these two time periods, 2005-07 and 2011-13, the age groups that saw the largest percentage point increases were 15 to 19 years old and 20 to 24 years old, for both men and women, Census said.

These ages are roughly around the time people go to college—though, of course, plenty of young Chinese immigrants may not be going to college but may instead be in low-wage jobs or something else. (Note these figures include immigrants from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.)

This makes sense. U.S. universities are enrolling record numbers of foreign students, including many affluent Chinese. The number of foreign students in the U.S.—most in college-degree programs—is up nearly 50% from 2010 and 85% from 2005. Students from China account for around 30% of foreign students.

India is a different case. The Census study suggests the “age structure” of inflows of immigrants from India looks roughly the same in the two time periods. In both cases, the flows are concentrated in the 20 to 34 age group, especially people ages 25 to 29, for both men and women. These are potentially young workers starting and building their careers, or postgraduates getting more education—as opposed to older people or college students or teenagers.

Some of these Indian immigrants are coming on skilled-worker U.S. visas, known as H-1Bs, no doubt, but that’s not the whole story. Demand for such visas among employers has long exceeded each year’s congressionally mandated supply.

Some words of caution: One can’t take that much from analyzing “age structures.” Just because people are “college-aged” doesn’t mean they’re headed for college. At least in the U.S., young people move more than older people, so the youth-oriented nature of these flows isn’t altogether surprising.

Census’s data, which, again, comes from asking people if they are foreign-born and lived abroad a year ago, may not capture people who are frequently entering and exiting the U.S. in a circular fashion.

And Census is planning to do further analysis of its findings.

These caveats aside, there’s one more interesting thing to note: Immigrants from Mexico were older from 2011-13 than in 2005-07.

That’s part of a long-term shift. Mexico’s healthier economy (relative to years ago) and falling birth rates are slowing the flows of young Mexicans coming to the U.S., whether authorized or unauthorized. (The Census’s American Community Survey does not ask about legal status.) Today’s immigration debates might lead you to think that many Hispanic-Americans are recent immigrants, but relatively few of them are—a little more than a third in 2013. The rest are born in the U.S.

The upshot? These Census figures throw some light on the changing face of U.S. immigration, which increasingly may look Asian (Chinese, Indian, Korean), and even slightly more African, and less Latin American and European.