For a significant number of Africans, the United States is not their country of first migration; many have come from Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and other nations in Africa. These are motivated expatriates, adaptable risk-takers always in search of better opportunities and with a wealth of experience acquired at home and in their countries of first immigration.
Besides their "migration experience," the most significant characteristic of the African immigrants is that they are the most educated group in the nation. Almost half have bachelor's or advanced degrees, compared to 23 percent of native-born Americans. Contrary to popular belief, the most substantial part of African emigration is thus directly linked to the "brain drain," not to poverty. Actually, 98 percent are high school graduates.
Sub-Saharan nations bear the great cost of educating students who will continue their education in the West and may not return home during their most productive years. As renowned Nigerian computer scientist Philippe Emeagwali puts it: "The African education budget is nothing but a supplement to the American education budget. In essence, Africa is giving developmental assistance to the wealthier western nations which makes the rich nations richer and the poor nations poorer."
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the International Organization for Migration, 27,000 African intellectuals left the continent for industrialized nations between 1960 and 1975. While 40,000 followed them from 1975 to 1984, between 1985 and 1990 the numbers skyrocketed to 60,000, and has averaged 20,000 annually ever since.
At least 60 percent of physicians trained in Ghana during the 1980s have left their country, and half of all Zimbabwe social workers trained in the past ten years are now working in Great Britain. To make up for the shortage of professionals, about 100,000 non-African expatriates work on the continent at a cost of $4 billion every year, which represents a large part of the aid directed toward Africa, which ultimately goes back to the industrialized countries.
This substantial brain drain is a significant obstacle to development, but African expatriates stress that it is poor economic conditions and political repression that are generally responsible for their leaving. They also point out that low salaries, lack of adequate equipment and research facilities, and the need to provide for their extended families are the reasons for their emigration, not individualistic motivations.
In addition to the professionals who work in the United States, more than 32,000 undergraduate and graduate students from sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in American universities. They pump more than half a billion dollars into American universities and the general economy each year. As a point of comparison, the total U.S. economic aid to sub-Saharan Africa is slightly more than $1 billion annually.
A significant proportion of African immigrants have "made it" in this country. Besides a few millionaires, 38 percent hold professional and managerial positions. The Africans' average annual incomes are higher than those of the foreign-born population as a whole. More than 45 percent earn between $35,000 and $75,000 a year, and - because of the immigrants' disproportionately high education levels - exceed the median income of African Americans and Caribbeans.
The fact remains, however, that the Africans' income levels, high though they may seem, do not correspond to their academic achievements. As the most highly educated community in the nation, they should occupy many more top-level professional and managerial positions. There are several reasons for this situation. Degrees earned overseas are sometimes not readily transferable, so the immigrants must enroll in school once more, while holding low-wage jobs to pay for their schooling. "It is at times degrading when you come here and find that all the education you have from home does not mean anything here. It is a shock. We had to start over from nothing," sums up a Sudanese social worker in Philadelphia.
Others, though possessing outstanding qualifications, cannot find adequate employment because of their status as undocumented aliens. Finally, Africans must confront the same problems as other people of color - racism and job discrimination that result in lower incomes, employment in positions for which they are overqualified, and the lack of adequate promotion.
Although unemployment is rare among Africans, poverty does exist, particularly among the undocumented, who are underpaid and live precarious, stressful lives. But poverty is usually mitigated by solidarity and communal life, as compatriots take care of one another.