By Chris Kenning
CHICAGO - Nearly half the recent immigrants to the United States have college degrees, reflecting a steady increase in educational attainment fueled largely by growing numbers of people from Asia, a study released on Thursday showed.
Rising immigration from countries such as India, China and the Philippines helped increase the share of arrivals with a bachelor's degree to 48 percent between 2011 and 2015 from 27 percent in the five years through 1990, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank.
The findings followed comments by President Donald Trump in March that the United States had "lower-skilled immigration" and should switch to a "merit-based" system to attract people who could support themselves rather than strain public resources. Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in Congress to cut back on legal immigration.
The rise in immigrant education levels followed higher investment in education globally, changing attitudes about education and gender, and reduced poverty, said the institute's senior policy analyst Jeanne Batalova.
Also contributing were recent declines in the number of unauthorized immigrants who are less likely to have degrees, she said. According to the Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the number of unauthorized immigrants in 2015 fell below 2009 levels.
Batalova said the increasing "human capital" of better-educated immigrants contrasts with political rhetoric casting them as a burden.
"For a very long time, the perception of immigrants was they had low education, were low-skilled and they came to the U.S. to take advantage of opportunity and benefits," she said.
"Our study sheds light on the fact that the debates and the public understanding of immigration often lags behind the realities."
The recent rise in education levels drove up the proportion of all adult immigrants in the United States with college degrees to 30 percent in 2015, from 20 percent in 1990, the study said.
Of those with degrees who arrived between 2010 and 2014, 44 percent were on temporary visas such as H1B visas, used by employers to bring in specialized foreign workers, and 34 percent were permanent residents, holding U.S. green cards. Unauthorized residents accounted for 18 percent, mostly those who overstayed visas, Batalova said.
Among immigrants from Asian countries, 62 percent of recent arrivals were college educated, compared with 40 percent from Africa and 23 percent from Latin America. Among immigrants from India, that proportion reached 86 percent, the study found.
The report defined immigrants as naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylum seekers, those on student, work or other temporary visas, as well as those residing in the United States without authorization.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andrew Hay)