African Immigration


Over the past thirty years, more Africans have come voluntarily to the United States than came during the entire era of the transatlantic slave trade, which transported an estimated half million men, women, and children to these shores. But this contemporary migration - although larger in strictly numerical terms, and concentrated over a much shorter period - forms only a trickle in the total stream of immigrants to the United States.

Nevertheless, small as it still is today, the African community has been steadily and rapidly increasing. Sub-Saharan Africans have recently acquired a high level of visibility in many cities. Close-knit, attached to their cultures, and quick to seize the educational and professional opportunities of their host country, African immigrants have established themselves as one of the most dynamic and entrepreneurial groups in the country.

The Waves of Migration

Voluntary immigration from sub-Saharan Africa dates back to the 1860s, when men from Cape Verde - then Portuguese-controlled islands off the coast of Senegal - made their way to Massachusetts. They were seamen, and most were employed as whalers. Women soon followed, and after the demise of whale hunting, Cape Verdeans worked mostly in textile mills and cranberry bogs. For several decades, they represented the largest African community - other than Egyptians and white South Africans - in the United States. Several hundred other sub-Saharan Africans were also living in the country up to the end of the nineteenth century: they were former slaves who had arrived before and after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. Some survived until the 1930s.

A small number of African students were sent by Christian missions and churches to historically black colleges and universities beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. The trend continued in the early twentieth century. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, and Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, both studied at Lincoln University, and pursued graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Except for the few who married in the United States, the great majority of students left the country when their studies ended, primarily because they wanted to go back home to their families and were eager to contribute to their country's development.

Immigration was insignificant until the late 1960s. Between 1961 and 1970, 29,000 Africans (including North Africans) were admitted to the United States, but the numbers increased to almost 81,000 from 1971 to 1980.

Traditionally, Africans had migrated primarily to their former colonial powers: Great Britain, France, and Portugal, and more than a million sub-Saharan Africans currently live in Europe. But beginning in the late 1970s, these countries froze immigration because of economic slowdowns. Immigration to the United States became an option. At the same time, increasing numbers of students and professionals decided to remain in America owing to difficult political and economic situations on the continent.

Concurrently, mounting debts, sluggish growth, exploding populations, and high unemployment were pushing many Africans still at home to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In the 1990s, emigration was also spurred by the Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These resulted in cuts in education and health services, the discharge of public servants, private-sector bankruptcies, and a decrease in middle-class standards of living. In addition, in 1994, more than a dozen French-speaking countries devalued their currencies by 50 percent: the consequences of this were a restructuring of the public sector, numerous layoffs, more bankruptcies, and fewer prospects for college graduates.

Emigrants were not only pushed out of their countries, they were also pulled to the United States. A number of favorable immigration policies enabled them to make the journey in much greater numbers than before. Tens of thousands of political refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea, living under a Marxist regime, were allowed entry in the mid-1980s, and when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 legalized the status of eligible illegal aliens, more than 31,000 Africans applied. In addition, the Immigration Act of 1990 established a lottery system that favors underrepresented nations, a category that includes all the African countries. Since 1995, an average of 40,000 African immigrants have entered the country legally every year, but the number increased to more than 60,000 in 2002.

The Numbers

Census Department estimates of immigrants - particularly those without documentation - are traditionally unreliable. For example, the 1990 census counted 2,287 Senegalese, even though various studies showed that at least 10,000 were living in New York City alone. The 2000 census reports between 511,000 and 746,000 sub-Saharan Africans, with West Africans (36 percent) in the lead, followed by East Africans (24 percent). About 6 percent of the sub-Saharan Africans are South Africans, many of whom are white. A small percentage of East Africans are of Asian origin.

Nationwide, 1.7 million people claim sub-Saharan ancestry. Africans now represent 6 percent of all the immigrants to the United States. It is a recent phenomenon: about 57 percent immigrated between 1990 and 2000. People of sub-Saharan African ancestry now represent almost 5 percent of the African American community. Those among them who were actually born in Africa form 1.6 percent of the black population in the country. Over the past ten years, this group has increased 134 percent.

Africans are dispersed throughout the country, and in no state do they number fewer than 150. New York has the largest African community, followed by California, Texas, and Maryland. However, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Rhode Island have the highest percentages of Africans in their total populations. With 136,000 officially - African associations and scholars of immigration claim higher numbers - recorded immigrants, Nigerians are the number one sub-Saharan African community; Ethiopians (69,500) and Ghanaians (65,600) come far behind.

Although media coverage of African immigrants is usually devoted to the refugees, they represent a minority of the African community. From 1990 to 2001, 101,000 African refugees - 10 percent of all refugees who entered the country - were admitted to the United States. More than 40,000 were Somalis, and close to 21,000 came from Ethiopia, while 18,500 arrived from the Sudan.

Africans are highly urban: 95 percent live in a metropolitan area, and like most immigrants, they tend to settle where other countrymen have preceded them and established the basis of a community. Attracted by commercial opportunities, a few Senegalese put down roots in New York in the early 1980s; today, most Senegalese can still be found there. The largest number of Nigerians reside in oil-rich Texas - their homeland is a major oil producer, and they have experience in that industry. Washington, D.C., the headquarters of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international organizations has attracted numerous African professionals.

The Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have America's largest Somali population, estimated at 30,000. Many are refugees, relocated directly from camps in East Africa. But the overwhelming majority - attracted by job opportunities, a desire for family reunification, and educational possibilities - are now coming in a secondary migration from Texas, Virginia, and California.

Because sub-Saharan Africans tend to live in neighborhoods whose residents have high incomes and college educations, they are largely segregated from African Americans and Caribbeans. Although this trend is declining somewhat, it still holds true in New York and Atlanta, two cities where Africans are quite numerous.

The Brain Drain

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.

A Class of Entrepreneurs

The African presence has become highly visible on the streets of more than a few American cities and neighborhoods - Harlem is the prime example. In the area around West 116th Street - called Little Senegal - Africans, mostly from French-speaking nations, own most of the stores.

African entrepreneurs have made their mark in other locales. In Philadelphia, an area of recent settlement, African women own more then twenty braiding salons. This follows a long-held West African tradition. Women have always formed a dynamic entrepreneurial group; in many countries they control the markets and also engage in long-distance commerce. In the United States, vendors of both sexes roam the country, bringing African arts and crafts to local fairs, flea markets, and African-American cultural events.

From the time of the transatlantic slave trade, African arts and crafts transmitted and transformed over several generations have been at the core of African-American culture. Today, traditions developed and modernized in Africa and brought here by the immigrants are infusing a new dynamism into the cultural productions of the African-American community.

Some highly educated immigrants, realizing that their limited proficiency in English and their foreign degrees would make it difficult to get the American jobs they coveted, have instead opened their own businesses. This entrepreneurial spirit is deeply ingrained in Africa, where the informal economic sector is particularly dynamic. To be one's own boss is a common aspiration there, and Africans in the United States make the most of the opportunities offered by a free market economy. These entrepreneurs do not look for a job; they come to create one. From information technology to the oil industry, they have established several successful companies.

They are also a major force in the revitalization of some inner-city neighborhoods. Without help from banks, using their own money augmented by income from communal rotating savings funds, they have opened stores, car services, and restaurants that provide needed services to the community.

Family Life: Continuity and Change

Africans are traditionally family-oriented. The extended family - not the individual or the nuclear family - is the basic societal unit. Respect for elders, cohesion, unity, and solidarity are values held dear by Africans. Emigration, however, transforms the family. The extended unit is left behind, and only the immediate relatives can expect to migrate. In many cases, nuclear families are created in the United States as émigrés marry locally and have children.

The percentage of African women participating in the migration is rising, and there is a significant new trend of women coming to this country on their own. Some are single, but others have a husband and children back home. These women arrive as the pioneer, a role traditionally reserved for men in most cultures; or they settle for a few months, to work and save money to enable them to start a business when they return to their homeland. African women have the second highest levels of education of any female group in the United States.

For youngsters born in Africa, life in America comes with both restrictions and advantages. The freedom of movement they enjoyed in their hometown neighborhoods - where everyone knows everyone else, and the crime rate is lower than in many American cities - is often restricted by parents who think that the world outside their door is dangerous and violent. "I don't feel we're safe here," says an Ivorian mother of three. "I don't allow my children to go anywhere by themselves. I drive them wherever they need to go. At home, they had much more freedom."

Apart from their local families, Africans continue to feel very much a part of their extended families back home. Whatever their circumstances in America, they send as much money as they can to their kinfolk. "The main reason I came here was to support my family," stresses a Ghanaian nurse. "I send $250 every month, which is more than I used to make. I am nothing without my family and I would never think of not providing for them, even when it gets difficult here."

Collectively, Africans send hundreds of millions of dollars home every year. In 1999, Nigerians abroad sent $1.3 billion home, equivalent to 3.7 percent of their country's Gross Domestic Product, while the total development aid to Nigeria was only $152 million. Senegalese emigrants all over the world contributed close to 2 percent of their country's GDP. Some immigrants have established businesses in their hometowns that are run by relatives; many pay the tuition of siblings, as well as nephews and nieces, who study in Africa or overseas.

Some immigrants, however, face restrictions in their efforts to maintain close relationships with loved ones back home. Many undocumented men and women migrated specifically in order to support their kin, yet visiting them is impossible because their illegal status would prevent them from reentering the United States, which would then deprive the family of much-needed financial help.

They often feel they have no choice but to work at several low-paying, exploitative jobs, to accumulate as much money as possible and return home permanently with enough capital to give their family a comfortable life. In the meantime, the very people they are attached to and came here to support may pass away. Refugees and asylees are also cut off from their families. As long as the situation they fled prevails, they have no possibility of returning home.

Religious Communities

As communities grow and become established, they generally pool their resources to rent or buy spaces that can accommodate from a dozen to several hundred believers, in order to worship in familiar surroundings. Ethiopian immigrants have established Coptic Orthodox Christian churches. African Protestants of many denominations have done the same. There are now hundreds of Ghanaian, Nigerian, Kenyan, and Liberian churches across the country. In New York City alone, African churches number at least 110. Some African denominations have established churches throughout the United States.

The immigration experience has brought about a new situation: sometimes the national make-up of the congregation is more important than the specific denomination. For instance, the many Liberian Pentecostal churches across the country address a diversity of Liberian issues and attract worshippers irrespective of their religious beliefs.

The most recent development on the African religious landscape is the proliferation of mosques, which corresponds with the immigration from French-speaking West Africa, where a majority of the population is Muslim. More than twenty mosques have opened in New York City alone since the mid-1990s. There are also well-established Nigerian mosques in Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Services at most churches and mosques are conducted in a variety of African languages, as well as English, French, and Arabic.

Regardless of the congregations they serve, African religious institutions have taken on new roles in response to the needs of an immigrant population. They serve as orientation focal points for recent immigrants, conference halls, community and counseling centers, religious schools, temporary shelters, and mutual aid societies. They have become job-referral centers, and imams and clergy often act as intermediaries between undocumented congregants and the authorities.

Weddings, baptisms, and holy days frequently take on more significance than they had in the country of origin. They are occasions for gathering and sharing news, discussing social and political developments at home, and passing on information that can make life here more manageable. They also are an essential instrument of cultural continuity. It is during these events that young Africans - many of whom were born here - learn firsthand about history and culture, as well as the proper way to behave - respect for elders, sharing, the importance of community.

Between Here and Abroad

Life in African societies revolves around the community. Not surprisingly, Africans have transported this vital part of their culture to their countries of immigration. Here, their strong commitment to community is reflected in the astonishing number of groups they have created across the country. Every nationality has national, regional, professional, gender, cultural, and political organizations. People often belong to several, and the multiplicity of groups reflects the many layers of identity that Africans bring with them and are eager to maintain.

The organizations reinforce communities and create resource networks to serve them. Churches, mosques, associations, or simply compatriots are quick to pool resources to help people who have fallen on hard times. It is significant that very few Africans are buried in the United States. As a rule, fellow citizens pay to ship the body back to Africa, cover funeral expenses, and give assistance to grieving families here and in the homeland.

The many organizations fill a variety of needs. Some are mostly devoted to the maintenance of sociocultural traditions; for example, several Nigerian and Ghanaian masquerade groups hold dances and ceremonies that while providing entertainment also acknowledge their members' success, mourn the deceased, and welcome newborns into the community.

A large number of organizations are involved in development efforts in Africa, raising funds for a wide range of local and national programs. African immigrants and their communities at home have established a triangular system of sorts that somewhat replicates the old route of the triangular slave trade, but this time with Africa as the beneficiary. Thousands of projects throughout the continent are being funded by emigrants and managed by the locals.

The émigrés' economic impact on their countries of origin, whether at the familial, local, regional, or national level, is extremely high. But African émigrés do more than share their financial resources; they also contribute their time, know-how, and ideas. Their expertise is often called upon by political and social entities eager to use their networks and knowledge. The negative effects of the brain drain are thus being partially mitigated by the strong involvement - based on traditional community values - of the expatriates in the socioeconomic life of their home countries. Nevertheless, the West remains a net recipient of African intellectual and economic "aid."

Today, African immigrants count on information technology to counterbalance some of the effects of the brain drain. Thanks to the Internet, their skills, expertise, and the networks they build in the United States and other countries of immigration - where they have access to better professional resources - are becoming increasingly available to colleagues and users in their countries of origin. This, they stress, transforms a problem into a potential asset. The African Virtual University, founded by a Burundian working at the World Bank in Washington, is a case in point. This initiative of distance learning, based in Kenya and headed for a time by Malian-born Cheikh Modibo Diarra - a former NASA physicist, - has already reached 50,000 students in seventeen countries. They study at a virtual campus via the Internet, CD-ROMs, and videocassettes. The "brain gain" that Africa can get from its expatriates is a topic that is widely debated and generally viewed positively on the continent.

In the United States, Africans are linked through community newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programs. In addition, African Independent Television, a Nigerian channel, is available on cable. But the latest development in the communal life of Africans is their use of the Internet. Today, Africans from Los Angeles to Brooklyn can watch television programs and listen to radio broadcasts from their home countries on their computers. They can read their national newspapers online the same day they are published in Dakar, Nairobi, or Accra. Chat rooms link the Senegalese, Burundi, and Nigerian diasporas scattered across America, Europe, and the Middle East. Links with families are kept alive by telephone, letters, fax, and e-mail. Though a wide digital gap separates the United States and Africa, major cities and small towns on the continent have telecommunication centers that provide telephone and fax services. Cyber cafes have sprung up at an amazingly rapid pace, and the Internet is thus available to a wide spectrum of urbanites, who can keep abreast of the expatriates' activities through their online magazines, or send e-mail to their kin and friends in the United States.

African immigrants also take part in the political life of their home countries. Many Nigerians based in the United States have participated in the party primaries in Nigeria, as candidates or financial supporters. Senegalese citizens from Los Angeles to New York regularly vote in the presidential elections at home.

The Question of Identity

Africans have several layers of identity - national origin, ethnicity, gender, class, and religion. At home, their color or "race" had no relevance. But in the United States, they find themselves defined by that specific criterion, and have to live as a racial minority in a country with a long history of exclusion and discrimination against black people. Encounters with racism are often baffling and evoke feelings of shock, indignation, and humiliation in people who have grown up in societies where their intellectual, physical, social, and even human qualities were never questioned on the basis of color.

When asked how they identify themselves, Africans, in general, say they are Africans first and members of a national group second. To be "African" means to have a continent, to belong to a specific country, to speak one or several foreign languages, to be heir to a deep-rooted history, and to share with other Africans a number of values, experiences, and cultural and social traits. Identity as "black" is often perceived as a negation of culture and origin, which Africans regard as the most important elements of identity. They are keenly aware that they encounter racism and discrimination as black people; but they generally reject the imposition of an identity they feel does not completely reflect who they are.

African expatriates are deeply conscious of the negative image of Africa projected in the American media. Although they readily acknowledge the continent's political and economic issues, they generally do not recognize their people and their countries in the stereotypical and pessimistic images that Americans are presented with. The derogatory clichés perpetuated by a wide spectrum of American society are a common subject of conversation and irritation. "Even in academia and the media Americans continue to use derogatory terms such as tribe for ethnic group and dialect instead of language," complains a Nigerian physician, "and even though in many countries more than half the population is urban, the only images you see on TV are national parks, which makes it look as if Africans lived in the forest!"

As children are born or grow up in this country, issues of identity, continuity, and change are becoming more pressing. Potential "Americanization" is a constant source of concern. Parents who can afford it send their children home for the summer to help them maintain cultural and linguistic links with their countries of origin. Some have their children reared by their grandparents and bring them back only for vacations or when they are older.

Reflecting the parents' strong belief in maintaining national identity, a new phenomenon has emerged in recent years: the spread of weekend and summer schools where adults teach native-born youngsters the languages, history, geography, manners, and culture of their communities.

The Future

Africans frequently stress that while they greatly appreciate this country's economic and educational opportunities, they prefer to distance themselves from a culture they often perceive as promoting individualism, materialism, racial polarization, and violence. They therefore tend to live insular lives, surrounded by compatriots, socializing primarily with other Africans and avoiding engagement with the rest of society. Very few are active in politics, even at the local level; they choose instead to turn their energies to the betterment of their homeland, the place where they want to live out their lives.

Africans represent a new breed of immigrant: they are transnationals, people who choose to maintain their distinctive qualities in the host country, and retain tight links to their community of origin. They generally view their American experience as transitory, the most effective way to construct a better future at home for themselves and their relatives.

Future developments, at home or in the United States, may change their plans; but their life strategies - savings, education, and strong links to home - are geared toward achieving this objective.

In the meantime, they bring to the United States their robust work ethic, dynamism, and strong attachment to family, culture, and religion, just as other Africans did several centuries ago.


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Web Links

All Africa

An excellent, very complete news site (in English and French) with articles on all subjects pertaining to Africa.

All About Africa

This extraordinary portal maintained by Stanford University can be browsed by country or topic. It also has a "Breaking News" feature with links to news sites, including hundreds of online newspapers and magazines from Africa



A site (exclusively in French) on African politics, culture, business, and personalities.

Africa Renewal

Online version of the United Nations magazine (in English and French) that covers economic and social issues in Africa. Several articles on the brain drain.

US - Africa on Line

This Houston-based Web site has news about Africa, and Africans in the United States. It is the online version of USAfrica The Newspaper, a bi-monthly magazine owned by a Nigerian entrepreneur from Texas.


The Web Site of Class, an African social events and style magazine based in Texas.

African Spectrum

Online magazine of the African community in Chicago.

Africa Resource Center

Various databases, books, poetry, forum of African scholars, and in the future the online Journal of African Immigration.

Africans in Philadelphia

Profiles of various African communities and directory of associations, organizations and businesses in Philadelphia. By The Historical Society of Pennsylvania: The African Immigrant Experience

Irinkerindo: A Journal of African Migration

Various articles about contemporary African migration including an editorial on the "brain drain", naturalization, and identity.

The African Foreign Born in the United States

Current statistical data on African immigrants in the U.S by the Migration Policy Institute.

Voices of New York Series - Senegal

In the Fall of 2001, the New York University Morse Academic Plan (MAP) course, The Language of America's Ethnic Minorities, undertook a project to hear the voices of real and imagined immigrant communities, and learn about the people behind them.

Voices of New York Series - Ethiopia

In the Fall of 2001, the New York University Morse Academic Plan (MAP) course, The Language of America's Ethnic Minorities, undertook a project to hear the voices of real and imagined immigrant communities, and learn about the people behind them.

African Immigrants in Nashville

February 28, 2001 - NPR's Phillip Martin reports on the struggle for understanding between the African-American community and the growing number of African immigrants in Nashville, Tennessee.

Reversing Africa's "Brain Drain"

United Nations article about new initiatives to tap the skills of Africa's expatriates

Reaching Out To African Families

Tri-annual Publication, this edition includes several articles focusing on the arrival of numerous young African immigrants into the Fairfax Public School system, and their families.