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Asian-Americans: soaring minority. Diversity is the most striking feature of this prospering group

Asian-Americans -- this country's hard-working ``model minority'' -- are rapidly growing into a large, prospering population that could number 10 million people within 15 years. Planeloads of immigrants from Asia are raising the number of ethnic Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Kampuchean (Cambodian) citizens in the United States. Since 1980, nearly half of all legal immigrants to the United States have come from Asia. They easily outstrip those from Latin America (35 percent) and Europe (12 percent).

As a result, America is witnessing the first major nonwhite immigration into this country since boatloads of African blacks entered as slaves centuries ago.

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A new study of Asian-American immigrants was released today by the Population Reference Bureau Inc. The publication, ``Asian Americans: Growth, Change, and Diversity,'' was written by three demographers, Robert W. Gardner, Bryant Robey, and Peter C. Smith.

Dr. Gardner noted in an interview with the Monitor that the outstanding economic and educational performance of Asian-Americans in this country is well known. They are at the top of the ladder economically. Their educational scores often outrank white Americans. And their success in business, science, and the professions is a model for other minorities.

But what was most striking to Gardner was the diversity among the Asian-Americans themselves. This is no homogeneous group, a minority which in past times was lumped together as ``Oriental-Americans.'' The age, income, and occupational differences between groups such as the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese in the US are tremendous.

Generally speaking, for example, Vietnamese-Americans are young (median age, 21.5 years), heavily dependent on welfare, have a very high birthrate, and have relatively low levels of education.

By contrast, Japanese-Americans are older (median age, 33.5), almost never use welfare, have the lowest birthrate of any major group in America, and have a level of education well above native white Americans.

Yet the phenomenal story of Asian-Americans remains their success. Even the report concedes that where Asians appear to be having trouble, it is primarily because they are new to this country and are still struggling with the language and other adjustment problems.

A central reason for their success appears to be a strong attachment to family. Young Asians grow up in an environment where education is encouraged, even demanded, by elders. Families put all their resources behind the educational and economic success of their children. Two-parent families are the rule, and this gives children a nurturing sense of stability and support.

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Each ethnic group has made its adjustments to the US in its own way. Success stories abound:

Indian-American immigrants have individual incomes of $18,707, highest of any group, including whites, in the 1980 census. One reason: 47 percent of all employed Indian immigrants work in professional, managerial, or executive jobs. The report calls this ``amazing.'' Fifty-two percent of all adult Indians have college degrees, compared with 17 percent for white Americans.

Korean-Americans, less educated than Indians, have gone into business for themselves. They are reported to operate about 1,000 of New York City's 1,200 independent grocery stores -- a field where all members of an extended family can pitch in to help. While individual incomes of Koreans are not very high (the 1980 census reported it at $9,589 per person compared with $15,572 for whites), family income of Koreans ($20,460) is nearly as high as for whites ($20,800) because more members of a typical Korean family work.

Japanese-Americans are out front in a number of areas. Japanese family incomes ($27,350) easily exceed whites. Ninety-six percent of all Japanese men aged 25-29 are high school grads, even higher than the 87 percent for whites.

Unlike some other recent immigrants, primarily those from Spanish-speaking countries, Asians seem to assimilate into American culture quickly. Education and learning English are high priorities. Many parents spend long evenings with their children reading in English. While some cultural traits, such as food and tradition, are retained, there appears to be a rapid absorption of American behaviors and beliefs, the report concludes.

All of this has brought admiring comments from many native Americans. But there have also been some hints of envy and prejudice.

Asian-Americans have done remarkably well in school. They outscore whites in college-entrance SATs in math by 32 points, at 519. According to a report in the New Republic, 68 percent of all Japanese-American students scored over 600 in the most recent SAT math exam -- good enough to get into America's top universities.

At some colleges, the results have been what might be expected. Enrollments at Brown, Princeton, Harvard, University of California (Berkeley), Cal Tech, and other fine schools now have a heavily disproportionate number of Asian-Americans. Many students with an Asian heritage go into the sciences, where mastery of English language and American culture is not essential.

Some demographers are now trying to figure out how large this growing Asian role will be in America's future. They concede it is hard to predict.

Twenty-one years ago, when Congress was considering a new immigration code, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy testified that if the law were liberalized: ``The number of immigrants to be expected from the Asian Pacific triangle would be approximately 3,000...after which immigration from that source would virtually disappear. Five thousand immigrants could come in the first year, but we would not expect there would be any great influx after that.''

Seldom has any public official been so wrong.

From 1980 to September 1985, the number of Vietnamese rose from 245,000 to 634,000; the number of Laotians from 48,000 to 218,000; Kampucheans from 16,000 to 161,000; Filipinos from 782,000 to 1,051,000; Indians from 387,000 to 526,000; and so on.

It's a tidal wave moving across the Pacific.

Today the largest Asian minorities in the US are estimated to be: Chinese (1,079,000); Filipino (1,051,000); Japanese (766,000); Vietnamese (634,000); Korean (542,000); and Asian Indian (526,000). Fastest growing are the Filipino and Vietnamese, and the Filipinos are expected to move into first place in the near future.

Within 15 years, there will be an estimated 2,071,000 Filipinos, 1,684,000 Chinese, and 1,574,000 Vietnamese in the nation, with Koreans and Indians also in the 1 million-plus category.

While birthrates decline in Europe, Asia continues ready and able to supply an almost limitless number of immigrants. As newcomers become citizens, they will be allowed, in turn, to bring in immediate family members without regard to any quotas or limits. This almost ensures a continuing heavy flow of Asians, perhaps exceeding 50 percent of all immigrants in the 1990s.

All this could raise questions in Congress and among the public about dangers of overcrowding in the US, or an excessive tilt toward one part of the world. But that has not happened yet. The tide of Asians has flowed into America with scarcely a complaint from any quarter. GRAPH: Where US immigrants come from 1931-59 58% from Europe 21% from North America 15% from Latin America

5% from Asia

1% other 1960-69 39% from Europe 38% from Latin America 12% from Asia 10% from North America

1% other 1980-84 48% from Asia 35% from Latin America 12% from Europe

2% from North America

3% other Source: US Immigration and Naturalization Service

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