More Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are highly skilled, study finds

"There is a dramatic change in the profile of Mexican immigrants coming to the United States," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
Image: Graduates enter TD Garden for the Northeastern University commencement in Boston on May 4, 2018.
Graduates enter TD Garden for the Northeastern University commencement in Boston on May 4, 2018.Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe via Getty Images file

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By Suzanne Gamboa

The number of college-educated Mexican immigrants in the United States has risen more than 150 percent since 2000, according to a study released Thursday.

Mexican immigrants with a bachelor’s degree rose from 269,000 in 2000 to 678,000 in 2017, an increase of 409,000, according to the report by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, and Southern Methodist University’s Mission Foods Texas-Mexico Center.

That makes Mexicans the fourth largest group of college-educated immigrants in the country, after people from India, China and the Philippines, according to the study, which looked at highly skilled Mexicans in Texas and the rest of the nation.

"Much of the immigration debate in this country is framed around illegal immigration from Mexico," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute and a co-author of the study. "But in fact there is a dramatic change in the profile of Mexican immigrants coming to the United States."

He said that change has come as Mexico's population has become better educated and as more Mexicans have come to the U.S. through legal channels and on temporary visas.

The findings contradict language President Donald Trump has used to describe Mexican immigrants, particularly when he said, in announcing his presidential bid in 2015, that they were bringing drugs and crime to the U.S. and that some were "rapists."

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In Texas, the number of Mexicans with bachelor’s degrees rose to 185,000 from 61,000 over the same period. The state has the second-largest number of Mexicans with college degrees, behind California, which has 215,000 with degrees.

About 1 in 6 Mexicans in the United States overall had a college degree from 2000 to 2017, up from about 1 in 20 from 1996 to 2000. But highly skilled Mexicans are just 8 percent of the foreign-born population nationally.

The researchers said that naturalized citizens made up the largest share of Mexican college graduates, but unauthorized immigrants and legal permanent residents also are well represented. Temporary visa holders were a smaller share, but more likely to have a college degree.

The Trump White House has been working on an immigration plan and one proposal includes provisions to set up a “merit-based” system to attract high-skilled immigrants, according to media reports.

Often missing from the conversation about immigration, Selee said, is how highly skilled the immigrant population in the United States is — not just in college education, but also in technical education, high school education and other types of professional certification.

He said with that reality added to the conversation, a merit-based immigration system, depending on how it is constructed, may not exclude Mexicans and Latin Americans.

"How it is constructed is key," he said.

This increase in educational attainment comes as Mexican migration has slowed because the country's economy has improved, as the U.S. has hardened its border enforcement and as Mexico's birth rates have dropped.

Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, an associate policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute and a co-author of the study, said the updated profile on Mexican immigrants in the U.S. can be important for making sure higher skilled immigrants of Mexican descent are not facing barriers beyond English proficiency to employment matching their skills.

In Texas, the top five industries for Mexican immigrant adults with a college degree in Houston, Dallas, El Paso, McAllen and San Antonio were elementary and secondary schools; construction; restaurants and food services; hospitals; and colleges and professional schools, including junior colleges.

Those findings suggest significant underemployment for some of the Mexican immigrants, Ruiz Soto said.

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