Anuj Chandra first came to the United States with a student visa in 1990 for postgraduate training in medicine. He had plans eventually to go back to his native India.
But as he spent time in Boston and Connecticut, he fell in love with the United States, its people and all the opportunities in the medical field, said Chandra, a Chattanooga resident who specializes in sleep disorders.
He and his wife, Lotika Chandra, are just two of a growing number of high-skilled immigrants calling the United States and the South home.
There are just as many high-skilled as low-skilled working-age immigrants currently living in the United States, and "the growth rate of more educated arrivals to the United States now outpaces that of immigrants with little education," according to a report from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
The report defines low-skilled immigrants as people with less than high school diplomas; mid-skilled have high school diplomas and maybe some college; high-skilled have at least bachelor's degrees.
"The Geography of Immigrant Skills: Educational Profiles of Metropolitan Areas" analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau for the nation's 100 largest metro areas, including Chattanooga.
"In terms of Chattanooga, there's less than 20,000 foreign-born residents, they make up less than 4 percent of the population and it's a fairly balanced mix of skill and education levels amongst those immigrants," said Audrey Singer, one of the report's authors and a fellow with the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C.
Singer said the report is especially relevant since the recession and rapid demographic changes have intensified the debate over immigration.
Chattanooga's metropolitan area includes Hamilton, Marion, and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee and Catoosa, Dade, and Walker counties in Georgia.
IMMIGRANTS BY SKILL LEVEL AROUND THE METRO AREAS
Low (%) Mid (%) High (%)
• Chattanooga: 3,939 (28.3) 5,754 (41.3) 4,235 (30.4)
• Nashville: 25,132 (28.7) 37,358 (42.7) 24,926 (28.5)
• Knoxville: 4,404 (25.3) 5,475 (31.4) 7,562 (43.4)
• Memphis: 15,410 (31.4) 17,798 (36.3) 15,850 (32.3)
• Atlanta: 152,799 (26.6) 238,938 (41.6) 182,534 (31.8)
• Note: Low-skilled immigrants have less than high school diploma; mid-skilled have a high school diploma and maybe some college; high-skilled have at least a bachelor's degree.
Source: Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program
One of the report's main findings nationwide is that more foreign-born residents have college degrees than lack high school diplomas, she said, and Chattanooga fits into that trend.
Chattanooga's size and quality of life attracts companies as well as professionals, said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor of economics Bruce Hutchinson.
"In any city the size of Chattanooga, you are going to have a substantial medical community, [and] TVA headquarters are here, which is going to lead to a larger-than-normal number of engineers," he added.
But Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, said not all growth, even from high-skilled immigrants, is good. Numbers USA is a nonprofit public policy organization that favors reducing the number of immigrants.
"The question before Congress is not about legal immigrants already here, but whether we should be bringing in any new college-graduate immigrants right now while one out of every eight young American college graduates under 30 who wants a full-time job can't find one," he wrote in an email.
"Yes, we should probably increase visas for foreign grads of truly extraordinary skills, but our unemployment rates show that most of the importation of most higher-educated foreign workers is just as damaging to unemployed Americans as lower-educated immigrants," he said.
There are more immigrants now than ever in the nation's history - 38.5 million in 2009. Their share of the American population - 12.5 percent - is approaching levels not witnessed since the height of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to the Brookings report.
Immigrants now account for one out of every seven U.S. residents and almost one out of every six workers, the report said.
Chandra said his practice has grown from two employees and one office in 2000 to 28 and four offices today.
He and his wife, also a doctor, are naturalized citizens. But he said it's not easy to become a permanent U.S. resident.
"We need people with very specialized skills and we are sending these people back after giving them Ph.Ds," he said.
The report said close to 4,000, or 28 percent, of Chattanooga's foreign-born are low-skilled immigrants attracted by jobs in construction, the food processing industry and service industries such as food and hotel housekeeping.
"Most researchers agree that new immigration has at least a small negative effect on wages and employment for other low-skilled immigrants and some low-wage native workers, especially minority men," the report stated.
The report includes several recommendations, including an approach to immigration that considers the economic advantages of the new arrivals and responds to the labor market changes. Another recommendation is additional support for low-skilled immigrants to learn English, regardless of their immigration status.
"Nobody is in favor of illegal immigration, including immigrants; that's not the status they would prefer to have," Singer said.
"The fact is, there are people here who are not authorized to be here. Many immigrants, particularly low-skilled, are young, are starting families, and most of those children are U.S. children who are here to stay," she said. "They are the major source of our future labor supply."