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 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.”
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