06/10/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2011

Understanding the Geography of Immigrant Skills

If all we knew about immigration is what we learned from the popular press or some politicians, we would probably believe most immigrants living in the U.S. are low-skilled and undocumented, having crossed the Rio Grande under cover of darkness on their way to some menial job working in a restaurant, on a farm, or in somebody's yard.

The truth, however, is somewhat different.

In a just-released report from the Brookings Institution that I co-authored, The Geography of Immigrant Skills, we help dispel this erroneous perception. Our research found that not only has high-skilled immigration surged over the last three decades, but high-skilled, working-age immigrants -- that is, those with at least a college degree -- outnumber low-skilled working-age immigrants -- those lacking a high school diploma. On its face, that fact may not seem momentous, but it is part of a major demographic shift in America and presents major challenges to our leadership.

There are several reasons for this dramatic change in makeup of our workforce. First is the reorientation of America's industrial structure from one dominated by manufacturing and other stable, blue-collar jobs to one that increasingly emphasizes knowledge-based and analytic skills. This transformation heightens demands for a workforce with technical skills that require considerable education, and highly-motivated immigrants from all reaches of the globe are often among the best to fill the slots.

Another major force driving high-skilled immigration has been the formation of the H1-B program that permitted employers to sponsor foreign workers with specific talents. Since the onset of the program in 1992, millions of foreign workers have been granted temporary work visas and many have been able to adjust their status to permanently settle in the U.S.

A third factor that explains that the growth in high-skilled immigration is the rapid rise of the foreign-born student population. Today, 700,000 foreign students are enrolled America's prestigious colleges and universities. At some flagship institutions like my own University of Illinois, nearly one out of every five students was born abroad and in some colleges and in highly-technical engineering and natural science programs, foreign students compose a large majority.

The tenor of the immigration debate to date has failed to recognize this important shift underway in the foreign-born population, and more generally, the enormous diversity in the immigrant population, choosing instead to focus almost exclusively on illegal immigration and its consequences. As the U.S. recovers from the Great Recession, now is the perfect time to stop and reflect on how we can take advantage of the many strengths of our diverse immigrant population to help stimulate economic growth and increase American competitiveness globally.

As the report details, the national picture does not hold across metropolitan areas across the United States. Although 44 metro areas are dominated by high-skilled immigrants, 30 have majority low-skilled immigrants, and 26 have a close mix of both. The settlement of new immigrants with low skills has sparked rancorous debates in communities nationwide, which in turn have greatly influenced the national debate on immigration reform. The Obama Administration recently issued a blueprint for "Building a 21st Century Immigration System" which acknowledges the mix of skills and the need to nurture both. This is a welcome change in the conversation.