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.”
As a member of this city’s economic elite, 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 MIT 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 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 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 Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Charles E. Schumer D-N.Y., aims to reshape the legal system to give priority to high-skilled, high-earning immigrants, offering narrower channels for low-wage workers.