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Work Force Fueled by Highly Skilled Immigrants

ST. LOUIS — After a career as a corporate executive with her name in brass on the office door, Amparo Kollman-Moore, an immigrant from Colombia, likes to drive a Jaguar and shop at Saks. “It was a good life,” she said, “a really good ride.”

Amparo Kollman-Moore, 60, moved to St. Louis in the 1970s and is now a consultant and business school professor.

As a member of this city’s economic elite, Ms. Kollman-Moore is not unusual among immigrants who live in St. Louis. According to a new analysis of census data, more than half of the working immigrants in this metropolitan area hold higher-paying white-collar jobs — as professionals, technicians or administrators — rather than lower-paying blue-collar and service jobs.

Among American cities, St. Louis is not an exception, the data show. In 14 of the 25 largest metropolitan areas, including Boston, New York and San Francisco, more immigrants are employed in white-collar occupations than in lower-wage work like construction, manufacturing or cleaning.

The data belie a common perception in the nation’s hard-fought debate over immigration — articulated by lawmakers, pundits and advocates on all sides of the issue — that the surge in immigration in the last two decades has overwhelmed the United States with low-wage foreign laborers.

Over all, the analysis showed, the 25 million immigrants who live in the country’s largest metropolitan areas (about two-thirds of all immigrants in the country) are nearly evenly distributed across the job and income spectrum.

“The United States is getting a more varied and economically important flow of immigrants than the public seems to realize,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director for immigration research at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group in New York that conducted the data analysis for The New York Times.

The findings are significant because Americans’ views of immigration are based largely on the work immigrants do, new research shows.

“Americans, whether they are rich or poor, are much more in favor of high-skilled immigrants,” said Jens Hainmueller, a political scientist at M.I.T. and co-author of a survey of attitudes toward immigration with Michael J. Hiscox, professor of government at Harvard. The survey of 1,600 adults, which examined the reasons for anti-immigration sentiment in the United States, was published in February in American Political Science Review, a peer-reviewed journal.

Americans are inclined to welcome upper-tier immigrants — like Ms. Kollman-Moore — believing they contribute to economic growth without burdening public services, the study found. More than 60 percent of Americans are opposed to allowing more low-skilled foreign laborers, regarding them as more likely to be a drag on the economy.

Those kinds of views, in turn, have informed recent efforts by Congress to remake the immigration system. A measure unveiled last month by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, aims to reshape the legal system to give priority to high-skilled, high-earning immigrants, offering narrower channels for low-wage workers. (A bill in 2007 by the Bush administration tilted even more sharply toward upper-tier immigrants; it failed in Congress.)

Yet while visa bottlenecks persist for high-skilled immigrants, on the whole, the census data show, the current system has brought a range of foreign workers across skill and income levels. The analysis suggests, moreover, that the immigrants played a central role in the cycle of the economic growth of cities over the last two decades.

Cities with thriving immigrant populations — with high-earning and lower-wage workers — tended to be those that prospered the most.

“Economic growth in urban areas has been clearly connected with an increase in immigrants’ share of the local labor force,” Mr. Kallick said.

Surprisingly, the analysis showed, the growing cities were not the ones, like St. Louis, that drew primarily high-earning foreigners. In fact, the St. Louis area had one of the slowest growing economies.

Rather, the fastest economic growth between 1990 and 2008 was in cities like Atlanta, Denver and Phoenix that received large influxes of immigrants with a mix of occupations — including many in lower-paid service and blue-collar jobs.

In metropolitan Denver, where the economy doubled between 1990 and 2008, 63 percent of immigrants worked in jobs on the lower end of the pay scale.

Denver “did a great job of attracting people from other places in the world,” said Rich Jones, director of policy and research at the Bell Policy Center, a nonpartisan group in that city that focuses on the impact of economic and fiscal policies in Colorado. “They are coming with a variety of skills,” Mr. Jones said. “They created demand for goods, services and housing that began a dynamic.”

The figures on jobs and earnings of immigrants in American cities are based on an analysis by the Fiscal Policy Institute of census data for the 25 largest metropolitan areas from 1990 to 2008. The data from 2008 are the most current in-depth census statistics on immigrants’ places of residence and earnings; they also include the first year of the severe recession. The analysis includes legal and illegal immigrants and naturalized citizens.

St. Louis is a good vantage point to observe the census analysis play out on the ground — both in the past and, possibly, the future.

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