African Immigrants in the United States
Originally published on the Migration Information Source (www.migrationinformation.org), a project of the Migration Policy Institute.
While the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought large numbers of Africans to the United States as forced migrants from the 16th to the 19th centuries, significant voluntary migration from Africa to the United States did not begin in earnest until the 1980s. From 1980 to 2009, the African-born population in United States grew from just under 200,000 to almost 1.5 million. Today, Africans make up a small (3.9 percent) but growing share of the country's 38.5 million immigrants.
In 2009, almost two-thirds of African immigrants were from Eastern and Western Africa, but no individually reported country accounted for more than 14.1 percent of the foreign born from the Africa region. The top countries of origin for the African born were Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, and Kenya.
Classes of admission for African immigrants who gained lawful permanent residence in 2010 were also diverse, with 48 percent having done so through family relationships, 24 percent through the diversity visa program, 22 percent as refugees and asylees, 5 percent through employment, and the rest through other means.
Compared to the foreign born overall, African immigrants reported higher levels of English proficiency and educational attainment in 2009, and were more likely to be of working age and to participate in the labor force. Yet African immigrants were also more likely to be recent arrivals to the United States and to live in households with an annual income below the poverty line. Overall, striking differences are evident across African origin countries, with some refugee-origin countries appearing as outliers in certain measures of immigrant integration.
This Spotlight focuses on African immigrants residing in the United States, and examines the population's size, geographic distribution, admission categories, legal status, and demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. The data used are the most recent detailed data available and come from the US Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey (ACS), the 2000 Decennial Census (as well as earlier censuses), and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).
Click on the bullet points below for more information.
Size and Geographic Distribution
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
Size and Geographic Distribution
In 2009, about 1.5 million African immigrants resided in the United States.
This growth has been driven in large part by increasing numbers of immigrants from Eastern Africa and Western Africa, who made up almost two-thirds of the entire African immigrant population. Although pre-1980 estimates of these two populations are not available, the numeric growth of the Western African (which grew by 492,030) and Eastern African (397,262) immigrant populations from 1980 to 2009 each outweighed that of African populations from any other individually reported region.
Although African immigrants account for a relatively small percent of the total foreign born, the share of African-born immigrants has increased consistently over the past 50 years. Though African immigrants represented only 0.4 percent of all foreign born in 1960, this share grew to 1.4 percent in 1980, to 1.8 percent in 1990, and to 2.8 percent in 2000 (see Table 1).
Nearly two-thirds of African immigrants were from Eastern or Western Africa in 2009.
Western Africa was the leading region of birth for African immigrants with 542,032 individuals (or 36.3 percent of all African immigrants), followed by Eastern Africa (28.4 percent; 423,298), Northern Africa (17.7 percent; 264,536), Southern Africa (5.7 percent; 85,145), and Middle Africa (4.4 percent; 65,457). For the remaining African immigrants (7.5 percent; 112,317), information on the region of birth was not available.
The shares of African immigrants born in Western, Eastern, and Middle Africa have increased substantially since 1980, the first year data is available for these regions. Conversely, the share of the African born from Northern Africa has decreased each decade since 1960, and the share from Southern Africa has decreased each decade since 1990 (see Table 2).
The top countries of origin for African immigrants were Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, and Kenya.
Other individually reported countries of birth for African immigrants included: South Africa (82,339, or 5.5 percent), Liberia (72,111, or 4.8), Morocco (58,283, or 3.9 percent), Sudan (35,821, or 2.4 percent), Cape Verde (32,885, or 2.2 percent), Sierra Leone (32,467, or 2.2 percent), Cameroon (30,726, or 2.1 percent), and Eritrea (23,840, or 1.6 percent).
Over one-third of all African immigrants resided in New York, California, Texas, and Maryland.
Other states with African immigrant populations greater than 60,000 in 2009 included New Jersey (79,420, or 5.3 percent), Massachusetts (76,832, or 5.1 percent), Georgia (75,692, or 5.1 percent), Virginia (69,941, or 4.7 percent), and Minnesota (63,982, or 4.3 percent).
Almost one-quarter of the African-born population lived in the metropolitan areas of New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV.
Other metropolitan areas with African immigrant populations greater than 60,000 included Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA (67,535, or 4.5 percent) and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA (61,326, or 4.1 percent).
About one in five immigrants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI metropolitan area was born in Africa.
Other metropolitan areas where more than one in ten immigrants was born in Africa included the Baltimore-Towson, MD Metro Area (14.5 percent) and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metro Area (13.4 percent).
There were 3.5 million self-identified members of the African diaspora residing in the United States in 2009.
While the vast majority (92.2 percent) of foreign-born members of the African diaspora were born in Africa, 3.8 percent reported a birthplace in the Caribbean and 1.5 percent reported a birthplace in Europe.
Note: There is no universally recognized definition of the term "diaspora." Most often, the term includes individuals who self-identify as having ancestral ties to a specific country of origin. To calculate the size of the African diaspora in the United States, we included all immigrants born in Africa (excluding individuals born in the Africa to at least one US-born parent) and all individuals who selected a US Census-designated African country, "African," "West African," or "Other Subsaharan Africa" (either alone or in combination with another option) as a response to the two ACS questions on ancestry.
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
From 2001 to 2010, African nationals accounted for 28.4 percent of refugee arrivals and 21.2 percent of persons granted asylum.
Between 2001 to 2010, the leading origin countries of African refugee arrivals were Somalia (59,840, or 40.0 percent of total African refugee arrivals), Liberia (23,948, or 16.0 percent), Sudan (18,869, or 12.6 percent), Ethiopia (11,400, or 7.6 percent), Burundi (9,869, or 6.6 percent), the Democratic Republic of Congo (7,900, or 5.3 percent), Eritrea 6,493, or 4.3 percent), and Sierra Leone (6,280, or 4.2 percent).
During the same period, African nationals accounted for 21.2 percent ( 58,232) of the 274,848 total individuals granted asylum. The leading countries of origin for African nationals granted asylum were Ethiopia (17.1 percent of total African asylum grants), Cameroon (10.5 percent), and Egypt (8.5 percent).
An estimated 4,550 Africans received temporary protection from removal under Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure.
Foreign countries are designated for TPS by the US executive branch for a period of six to 18 months, an initial period that can be extended if country conditions remain unchanged. Congress can also grant TPS through legislation, although it has not done so since 1990.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has estimated that 700 individuals from Sudan and 250 individuals from Somalia benefit from TPS. USICS has also estimated that 3,600 Liberians reside in the United States under Deferred Enforced Departure, another form of temporary blanket relief that protects certain foreign nationals from removal.
Nearly half of all immigrants who received green cards through the diversity visa lottery program in 2010 were born in Africa.
Although diversity immigrants make up only a small share of persons granted LPR status each year (4.8 percent in 2010), diversity immigrants from five African countries — Ethiopia (3,987), Egypt (3,447), Nigeria (2,937), Kenya (2,279), and Ghana (2,086) — collectively accounted for 14.5 percent of all Africans who obtained legal permanent residence in 2010.
Over 860,000 African immigrants gained lawful permanent residence in the United States between 2001 and 2010.
In 2010 alone, 101,355 African immigrants obtained green cards, accounting for 9.7 percent of all immigrants granted legal permanent residence. The foreign born from Africa gained legal permanent residence through varying routes: 48.3 percent obtained green cards through family relationships, 23.6 percent through the US diversity immigrant visa program, 22.3 percent as refugees or asylees; 5.2 percent through employment, and 0.6 through other routes.
Naturalization rates for the African born and the foreign born overall were comparable in 2009.
About 60.1 percent of immigrants from Egypt were naturalized US citizens, making them the most likely of all African immigrants to naturalize. Immigrants from Algeria (56.1 percent), Sierra Leone (54.7 percent), Eritrea (53.1 percent), and Morocco (52.8 percent) were also more likely to become naturalized US citizens than other African immigrant groups. Naturalization rates were comparatively lower for the African born from Cameroon (24.0 percent), Senegal (26.2 percent), Zimbabwe (32.2), and Kenya (33.6 percent).
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
Almost half of the African foreign born in the United States have arrived since 2000.
In fact, African immigrants are significantly more likely than immigrants overall to be recent arrivals: 31.6 percent of the 38.5 million foreign born entered the United States in 2000 or later, 27.9 percent entered between 1990 and 1999, and 19.6 percent entered between 1980 and 1989. Eleven percent of the overall foreign-born population entered between 1970 and 1979, and 9.9 percent prior to 1970.
Among the African born, some origin groups are more established than others. For example, immigrants from Egypt (23.3 percent), Cape Verde (17.7 percent), South Africa (15.8 percent), and Algeria (13.4 percent) are more likely than some other African origin groups to have arrived in the United States prior to 1980, while immigrants from Cameroon (71.6 percent), Sudan (60.4 percent), Somalia (58.3 percent), and Kenya (58.0 percent) are the most likely among African origin groups to have arrived in the United States between 2000 and 2009.
The foreign born from Africa were less likely to be age 65 or older than the native born and the foreign born overall.
African immigrants were more likely to be age 15 and under (youths) than the foreign born overall, with 8.5 percent of the former falling into that age range compared with 5.7 percent of the latter. Among the native born, a category that includes US-born children of immigrants, 23.8 percent were youth.
The African origin countries with the highest share of seniors were Egypt (15.1 percent), Cape Verde (12.2 percent), Tanzania (10.9 percent), South Africa (10.3 percent), and Algeria (10.2 percent). African origin countries with the highest share of youth included Kenya (17.6 percent), Cape Verde (12.6 percent), Sudan (11.3 percent), Ethiopia (10.3 percent), and Guinea (10.2 percent).
African immigrant men outnumbered women in 2009.
The gender imbalance among African immigrants was more pronounced among those from certain African countries. For example, the tilt towards men was more exaggerated for immigrants born in Senegal (63.7 percent men), Morocco (59.0 percent), Tanzania (58.3 percent), Ghana (57.6), and Guinea (57.6), while the African born from Zimbabwe (51.7 percent women), Somalia (51.3 percent), Sierra Leone (50.6 percent), and Cape Verde (50.2 percent) were more likely to be women.
More than seven out of ten African immigrants spoke only English or spoke English "very well."
The African born were significantly less likely to be LEP than the foreign-born population overall, 52.0 percent of which reported limited English proficiency in 2009.
Rates of English proficiency varied substantially by African country of origin, due in part to the variety of languages spoken across African countries. Among African immigrants, those from Cape Verde were most likely to be LEP (60.9 percent), followed by those from Somalia (56.8 percent), Senegal (52.4 percent), Eritrea (51.5 percent), Guinea (47.9 percent), and Sudan (46.6 percent). The highest rates of English proficiency (i.e., speaking only English or speaking English "very well") for African immigrants occurred among immigrants from South Africa (96.9 percent), Zimbabwe (93.6 percent), Liberia (92.0 percent), Nigeria (87.0 percent), Uganda (86.2 percent), and Sierra Leone (81.6 percent).
Note: The term "limited English proficient" refers to any person age 5 and older who reported speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well" on their survey questionnaire. Individuals who reported speaking only English or speaking English "very well" are considered proficient in English.
Nearly three-quarters of African immigrants reported their race as "Black."
Racial self-identification varied widely by African country of origin. For example, nearly all immigrants from Ghana (99.7 percent), Somalia (99.3 percent), Cameroon (98.8 percent), Nigeria (98.7 percent), and Ethiopia (98.2 percent) reported their race as Black, either alone or in combination with another race, compared to 4.6 percent of Algerians, 5.6 percent of Egyptians, 8.1 percent of Moroccans, 13.8 percent of South Africans, 56.7 percent of Tanzanians, and 65.7 percent of Cape Verdeans.
African-born adults were more likely than the native born to have bachelor's degree or higher level of education.
Among those who reported not having obtained at least a high school diploma or equivalent credential, the African born more closely resembled the native born than the foreign born overall. In 2009, almost one-third (32.3 percent) of immigrants overall had not obtained this credential, compared to 11.7 percent of the African born and 11.4 percent of the native born. The share of African born who reported their highest educational attainment as a high school diploma or some college (46.6 percent) was higher than that of the foreign born overall (40.5 percent), but lower than that of the native born (60.5).
Levels of educational attainment, however, vary widely among African origin countries. The majority of immigrants from Uganda (66.5 percent), Egypt (61.1 percent), Algeria (61.0 percent), Nigeria (60.0 percent), Zimbabwe (57.5 percent), South Africa (55.3 percent), Cameroon (54.6 percent), and Tanzania (51.2 percent) reported a bachelor's degree or more as their highest educational credential. Yet more than a third of immigrants from Cape Verde (38.4), Somalia (37.5 percent), and Guinea (35.0 percent) lacked a high school diploma.
African immigrants of both genders were more likely to participate in the civilian labor force than were foreign-born men and women overall.
While labor force participation rates for men from individually reported African origin countries did not dip below 67.2 percent (the percentage for Cape Verde), rates of labor force participation for women varied widely between African origin countries.
For example, while women born in Uganda (86.3 percent), Ghana (78.3 percent), Zimbabwe (76.2 percent), Cameroon (76.0 percent), Cape Verde (74.2 percent), and Kenya (73.7 percent), among other countries, exhibited above-average rates of labor force participation for African immigrant women, those from Algeria (36.5 percent), Egypt (49.4 percent), Somalia (50.8 percent), Morocco (53.0 percent), and Sudan (58.5 percent) — all countries with large Muslim populations — were less likely to be in the labor force.
More than 30 percent of employed African-born men worked in service occupations and in construction, extraction, and transportation.
Compared to male immigrants overall, African-born male workers were more likely to report working as health-care practitioners and in other health-care support occupations (see Table 3).
Among the 369,167 African-born female workers age 16 and older employed in the civilian labor force, 18.7 percent reported working in service occupations, 13.9 percent in healthcare support, 13.1 percent in administrative support occupations, 9.0 percent in sales, and 9.0 percent in management, business, and finance roles.
Compared to female immigrants overall, African-born female workers were more likely to report working as registered nurses, other non-physician healthcare practitioners, and in healthcare support occupations (see Table 3).
The African born were more likely to live in poverty in 2009 than were the native born and the foreign born overall.
There were substantial differences between origin countries with respect to the share living in poverty. For example, immigrants from Nigeria (10.6 percent), Morocco (10.8 percent), Sierra Leone (13.5 percent), and Ghana (14.6 percent) were much less likely than African immigrants overall to live below the federal poverty line. In contrast, almost half of all immigrants from Somalia (49.9 percent) live in poverty, and poverty rates for immigrants from Guinea (42.7 percent) and Sudan (41.2 percent) are also well above the average for African immigrants overall. Somalia and Sudan have both accounted for a large number of refugee admissions over the past decade.
Roughly 714,000 children resided with at least one African-born parent in 2009.
Like the overall population of children with immigrant parents, the vast majority of children in African immigrant families were native born. However, this majority figure is somewhat smaller for children with African parents (80.4 percent) than for children with immigrant parents overall (86.4 percent).
Note: Includes only children who reside with at least one parent and households where either the household head or spouse is an immigrant born in Africa.
For information about ACS methodology, sampling error, and nonsampling error, click here.
Capps, Randy, Kristen McCabe, and Michael Fix. 2011. New Streams: Black African Migration to the United States. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Available online.
Thomas, Kevin. 2011. What Explains the Increasing Trend in African Emigration to the U.S.? International Migration Review 45 (1): 3-28.
US Census Bureau. 2009 American Community Survey. Accessed from Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2010. Available online.
US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. 2011. 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, various tables. Available online.
Wasem, Ruth Ellen. 2011. Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery Issues. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Available online.
Wasem, Ruth Ellen and Karma Ester. 2011. Temporary Protected Status: Current Immigration Policy and Issues. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Available online.Originally published on the Migration Information Source (www.migrationinformation.org), a project of the Migration Policy Institute.
Kristen McCabe is a Research Assistant at the Migration Policy Institute, where she works on the US Immigration Policy Program and the Labor Markets Initiative. Prior to joining MPI, she worked as a Legal Assistant at an immigration and nationality law firm in Boston, MA. Ms. McCabe holds a BA with honors from Tufts University, where she double majored in English and International Relations.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.