National Dialogues on Immigration

Immigration and Diversity

May 22, 2014  |  Featured News,News

by Jennifer Scott

A quieter trend of immigration in the United States includes rapidly growing black immigrant community. A recent article, The Changing Face of Citizenship, asserts that since 2000, black citizenship in Massachusetts has more than doubled, “fueled by transplants from the Caribbean and, increasingly, fast-growing groups from Africa. Nationwide, the number of new black citizens has nearly doubled, to 1.8 million.”  Nationally, in fact, according to the Population Reference Bureau, the number of the black foreign-born population increased dramatically, from just 125,000 in 1980 to well over 2.8 million in 2005, with most entering the United States after 1990.

This is unprecedented. Although, many black Africans came to the United States through the forced migration of the Transatlantic slave trade that began in the 1500s, voluntary black migrants did not enter in larger numbers until the late twentieth century, mainly after the 1960s with the passing of legislation that allowed people from underrepresented countries to emigrate. Today there are three million black immigrants residing in the United States.

Who are these immigrants, where are they settling, and why don’t we hear about them more often? Are black immigrants missing from the immigration reform conversation? Helina Faris from the Center for American Progress lists five important facts and misconceptions about this little known group of growing immigrants:

1. Black immigrants are a significant group in the United States—more than 3 million people comprising 8 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population. More than half come from the Caribbean, with the rest mostly coming from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. A small number also come from Europe and Canada. Black immigrants account for more than one-quarter of the black population in New York, Boston, and Miami.

2. Black immigrants arrive in the United States through multiple pathways. Most black immigrants—especially those from the Caribbean—arrive as legal permanent residents based on their family ties. Refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, and Eritrea accounted for 30 percent of all black African immigrants in 2009, while around one-fifth of black African immigrants entered the United States through the diversity visa lottery program—which provides 55,000 visas each year to countries underrepresented in immigrant streams to the United States. Around 400,000 black immigrants in the United States are here without legal status.

3. Black immigrants are one of the most-educated immigrant groups. Black immigrants have more college education and higher rates of degree attainment than any other immigrant group in the United States.

4. Black immigrants face many challenges in the United States. Even with high levels of education, black immigrants tend to earn low wages compared to other similarly trained immigrant or native workers. In 2011 black immigrants had the highest unemployment rate—12.5 percent—of any foreign-born group in the United States. Proposed immigration reforms such as reductions in family-based admissions and elimination of the diversity visa lottery could affect the flow of black immigrants to the United States, cutting off all legal means of entry into the country.

5. Despite the challenges they face, black immigrants are stepping up in support of immigration reform. Despite the risk of deportation by coming out as undocumented, several young black immigrants—such as Tolu Olubunmi, who was born in Nigeria and came to the United States at age 14—are fighting for passage of the DREAM Act. Haitian Americans in Miami also came out in large numbers last year to protest U.S. immigration policies that favor groups such as Cuban migrants—allowing, for example, any Cuban who makes it onto American soil to stay—but discriminate against Haitians seeking asylum in the United States.

Despite the educational and economic advantages that many black immigrants may have, they still face serious challenges, as other immigrants do, integrating into American society.  Many newcomers recount stories, in particular, about racial biases and tensions that they must battle, especially for those moving into smaller, isolated racially homogenous towns, well-outside of major metropolitan areas. In Fort Morgan, Colorado, where there were some initial racial hostilities, the police chief reflected, “We weren’t prepared…Nobody visited and told us these refugees were coming. We had a group of several hundred men, Somali men, just show up.”

Do we need to broaden the immigration conversation to include more diverse experiences? According to Sam Fullwood from the Center of American Progress, black immigrants are being forgotten: “Many Americans are familiar with the stories about work-seeking immigrants who crossed our southern border and are compelled to live and toil in the shadows of opportunity. Often overlooked or ignored, however, are the estimated 3 million black immigrants whose daily plight in the United States is no less dramatic or demanding of public attention.” To insure that diversity is kept at the forefront of the conversation, a number of African American leaders and organizations have begun to step up and speak out in support of immigration reform. Last year, Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. Donald Payne, stated, “America is a nation of immigrants.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the 10th Congressional District. We have welcomed large populations of different immigrant groups from Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean. It is our diversity that is our incredible source of strength, and we must remember that many of our parents and grandparents faced the same challenges immigrants face today – opposition, incredible prejudice, and the challenge of learning a new language.”

And others, like Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) equate it to the Civil Rights Movement:  “Comprehensive immigration reform is a continuation of the civil rights movement, which many African-Americans have been the protectorate over since the beginning of our nation’s history…It’s about equality for all and the elimination of second class citizenship. The legacy of the Civil Right Movement and the impact of African Americans on this country in perpetuity rely on everyone’s engagement. Many of us know someone who will benefit from comprehensive immigration reform and the time has come for us to stand with them and advocate for their right to fully participate in our civil society.”

Do you agree that immigration reform is an extension of the Civil Rights Movement?

To read more about African immigrants in the US, see this Migration Policy Institute Report
You can also listen directly to some African immigrant perspectives here:

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