Sunday, February 25

African Immigrants in the United States

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by Kristen McCabe for the Migration Information Source

Originally published on the Migration Information Source (, 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).

The US Census Bureau defines theforeign bornas individuals who had no US citizenship at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or certain other types of temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization.The terms “foreign born” and “immigrant” are used interchangeably.

In 2009, about 1.5 million African immigrants resided in the United States.

Naturalization rates for the African born and the foreign born overall were comparable in 2009.

As of 2009, about 43.7 percent of African immigrants were naturalized US citizens. This is about the same share of the overall immigrant population that are naturalized US citizens.

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).

Click on the bullet points below for more information.

Size and Geographic Distribution

Modes of Entry and Legal Status

Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview


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