(Bloomberg) — The labor market is healing faster for immigrants than for U.S.-born workers as the growing economy favors those at the low and high ends of the pay scale.

Joblessness among those born outside the United States averaged 8.1% in 2012, down from 9.7% three years earlier, according to Labor Department data released to Bloomberg. In the same period, the rate among those born in the country fell to 8.1% from 9.2%.

Working immigrants, who are more likely than native-born Americans to either lack a high school diploma or to hold an advanced degree, have gained from a decades-long divergence in the labor market that has swelled demand for jobs paying above- and below-average wages. Amid this dynamic, the battle over comprehensive changes in immigration law is coming to the forefront in Congress.

Foreign-born workers “increase efficiency in the economy, and by increasing efficiency, they eliminate bottlenecks,” says Pia Orrenius, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas who has studied immigration. Their availability “lowers overall unemployment, and increases economic growth.”

From 2009 through 2012, the number of immigrants employed in the United States rose 6.5% to 23 million, compared with a 1% gain to 119.5 million for those born in the U.S., Labor Department data show.

Underlying those figures, immigrants’ gains during the past three years were concentrated in low- and high-paying categories that range from health care to management. Only in manufacturing did those born in the U.S. see bigger gains than their foreign counterparts.

Carola van Eck is among the beneficiaries of rising demand for high-skilled workers. She came to the United States in 2008 to work on her doctorate through a University of Amsterdam/University of Pittsburgh joint venture. Though the 28-year-old said that she intended to return home to the Netherlands, the draw of a job as a resident in Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center prompted her to stay.

 “I really like the work ethic in the U.S.,” van Eck said. “In my country you’re always told to not be better than the boss. Here, you get rewarded for your accomplishments, which motivates you to work harder.”

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