Asian Newcomers Drive Immigration

Immigration to the U.S. picked up last year—driven largely by growing numbers of newcomers from Asia rather than the Hispanic immigrants that fueled the nation's population growth before the recession.

America's foreign-born population grew by nearly 447,000 last year, more than 2011's 422,000 increase, according to the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey, a comprehensive report on the nation's economic, social and demographic trends. The rise compares with a net outflow of nearly 32,000 people from the U.S. in 2008, the first full year of the recession.

Behind the latest increase was a jump in the nation's foreign-born Asian population of more than 309,000, well above 2011's 207,000 rise, according to an analysis of the Census data by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. The increase in foreign-born Hispanics—47,000 new immigrants in 2012—was relatively modest. More Mexico-born people left the U.S. last year than came in.

During the two decades before the 2007-2009 recession, net immigration averaged nearly one million people a year, Mr. Frey said, but tumbled during the downturn. The increase in 2012 "is a sign that things are improving," he said, while warning that the latest trends remain weak by historical standards.

The figures provide new evidence that the U.S. economy is starting to shake off the effects of the recession. Over the past few years, a moribund housing market and broader economic weakness have removed many of the lower-skilled jobs in construction and other sectors that employed many Latin-American immigrants. Meanwhile, tighter border security has reduced illegal immigration.

Christina Chang is among those who moved to the U.S. recently. After working for two years as a marketing researcher for a retail company in Taiwan, Ms. Chang, 28 years old, decided she wanted to bone up her business credentials—and have an adventure—by enrolling in a two-year business program in the U.S. on a student visa.

Last September, she started her studies at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and she hopes to go back into marketing after she is done. "I've been working and studying in Taiwan my whole life," she said. "I thought this would be a great experience."

More immigration provides a bigger pool of workers to power the American economy—and a bigger tax base to draw from to pay for the social benefits of older, retired Americans. A more fluid labor market—with workers flowing in and out of jobs, and in and out of states and countries—also improves economic growth over the long term by allowing for a more efficient matching of employers' and workers' needs.

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