By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) – The immigration debate often centers on stemming the flow of people entering the United States illegally and what to do about securing borders to the south. But here’s a fact that goes without much attention: Asians have now taken over Latinos as the largest group of new arrivals every year.
In 2010, 36% of new immigrants were Asians compared to 31% for Hispanics, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
That’s a significant change from a decade ago, when 19% of immigrants were Asians and 59% were Hispanics.
“They were already a significant part of the immigration story. It seems like in the last few years they are the most important part of the immigration story,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside, and expert on Asian-American immigration and civic participation.
He said that if the trends continue, Asian-Americans will play greater roles in shaping American society and perhaps, more significantly in an election year, they will have an impact at the polls.
“This is an important moment to see immigration for what it is — that it is far more complicated and diverse than deporting illegal immigrants,” Ramakrishnan said, referring to discussion sparked by President Barack Obama’s policy shift last week to spare some children of illegal immigrants from deportation.
Pew’s exhaustive new report on Asian-Americans found important differences between Asian-Americans and other population groups in America. It also shed light on the diversity among Asian-Americans, who sometimes cringe at the broadness of the category that covers every country of origin from Afghanistan to South Korea.
The Pew survey showed that across the board, Asian-Americans are more satisfied than any other Americans with their lives, finances and direction of the country.
They also place more value on traditional marriage, family and parenthood and usually possess a strong work ethic.
Nearly seven in 10 respondents said people could get ahead if they are willing to work hard. And 93% of Asian-Americans describe people of their origin as “very hard-working,” whereas only 57% said the same about Americans as a whole.
Asian-Americans also attain college degrees (61%) at about double the rate of recent non-Asian immigrants (30%), Pew found.
“The overall picture that you get from this survey is that like immigrants throughout American history, Asian-Americans are strivers,” said Pew’s Paul Taylor, who edited the study.
“But what’s interesting about them are the educational credentials.” He said. “By far they are the best educated in American history.”
It’s not that Asian-Americans value education more.
“Everyone values education,” Ramakrishnan said. “But the difference is in the sacrifices Asian-Americans are willing to make.”
He said his department’s research has found instances where Asian families in Southern California will move into a much smaller house in order to move to the best school districts.
However, some Asian-Americans recognize that they may go overboard in stressing hard work.
Nearly 39% in the Pew survey said Asian-American parents put too much pressure on their children to do well in school. Think “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” the provocative memoir by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua that sparked conversation about strict parenting.
Pew recognized the vast differences between the nationalities lumped under the U.S. Census Bureau category of Asian-American — the six major countries are China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam and India.
Indian-Americans lead other groups in terms of income and education.
Seven in 10 Indian-American adults ages 25 and older have a college degree, compared with about half of Americans of Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Japanese ancestry, and about a quarter of Vietnamese-Americans.
Ramakrishnan attributed that largely to the fact that the Indians coming to America are the cream of the crop. They also have very high proficiency levels in English because of a history of British colonialism.
As a whole, Pew found Asian median income and household wealth exceeded average Americans.
Asian median annual household income is $66,000 versus $49,800 for all Americans.
Asians who came to this country are more likely than their compatriots back home to say their standard of living is better than that of their parents at the same stage of life.
But there are differences on the socioeconomic ladder.
Americans with Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and “other U.S. Asian” origins have a higher poverty rate than does the general public, while Pew found that those with Indian, Japanese and Filipino origins have lower rates.
There were other factors that made the groups distinct.
The survey noted that Indian-Americans stand out in the personal importance they place on parenting — 78% of them said being a good parent is one of the most important things to them personally.
Korean-Americans are the most likely to say discrimination against their group is a major problem, and they are the least likely to say that their group gets along very well with other racial and ethnic groups.
In contrast, Filipinos are the most positive on interethnic and interracial relations in America.
The Vietnamese are the only major subgroup who arrived on American shores as political refugees; the others say they have come mostly for economic, educational and family reasons.
Ramakrishnan said the Vietnamese were also the only subgroup that tended to vote Republican but that is changing given anti-immigration positions and other exclusionary measures supported by some GOP lawmakers.
The American dream began later for Asian-Americans than other immigrant groups because of racial discrimination.
It was not until 1965, during the height of the civil rights movement and robust economic growth, that the United States opened its doors to immigration from all parts of the world.
The decision paved the way for Asian-Americans to grow from less than 1% of the population more than 40 years ago to nearly 6% now.
Persisting prejudice against Asians led to many communities developing in their own enclaves, Taylor said. Hence the blossoming of Chinatowns, Japantowns and Koreatowns.
But now Asian-Americans are more likely to live in mixed neighborhoods and marry out of their race.
“When newly minted medical school graduate Priscilla Chan married Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last month, she joined the 37% of all recent Asian-American brides who wed a non-Asian groom,” the Pew report said.
Between 2008 and 2010, 29% of all Asian newlyweds married someone of a different race, compared with 26% of Hispanics, 17% of blacks and 9% of whites.
Among them, Japanese had the highest rate of intermarriage and Indians had the lowest, Pew said. More than half of recent Japanese newlyweds married a non-Asian; among recent Indian newlyweds, one in eight did.
Another big distinction was with single parenthood. Forty-one percent of all American parents are single parents. Among Asians, that number plummets to 16 % and among Indians, it’s 2% to 3%.
Pew spoke with 3,511 Asian-Americans between January 3 and March 27. The telephone interviews were conducted in English and seven Asian languages.
Ramakrishnan said the Asian-American population, unnoticed before in many spheres of American life, would only continue to increase its share of the spotlight.
In swing states like Virginia and Nevada, where census data now shows Asians make up 9% of the population, Asian-Americans will make a mark at the ballot box in November, Ramakrishnan predicted. Most tend to vote Democratic.
“Republicans should be wary,” he said.
At the very least, Taylor said the robust Asian-American immigration is sure to redefine the debate over people coming to these shores.
“Illegal immigration has been a driver of the immigration policy debate and illegal immigration has been primarily associated with Hispanics,” he said.
But now, he said, the discussion may be forced to keep up with immigration realities.