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Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the United States

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Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the United States

Traditional Ghanaian dance at Delaware festival (Photo: Jeffrey/Flickr) 

The first migrants from sub-Saharan Africa came to the United States as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Between 1519 and 1867 approximately 360,000 Africans were forced to migrate to the United States; in total, more than 10 million people were enslaved and brought to the Americas. Significant voluntary migration from sub-Saharan Africa to the United States did not begin until the 1980s. From 1980 to 2013, the sub-Saharan African immigrant population in the United States increased from 130,000 to 1.5 million, roughly doubling each decade between 1980 and 2010. Between 2010 and 2013 the sub-Saharan African-born population increased a further 13 percent, from 1.3 million to 1.5 million. As of 2013, sub-Saharan Africans accounted for a small but growing share (4 percent) of the 41.3 million total immigrants in the United States; they also constituted 82 percent of the 1.8 million immigrants born anywhere on the African continent.

Figure 1. Sub-Saharan African Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2013
Source: Data from U.S. Census Bureau 2006, 2010, and 2013 American Community Surveys (ACS), 2000 Decennial Census, and Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-2000" (Working Paper no. 81, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006), www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0081/twps0081.html.

Click here for an interactive chart that highlights migration trends to the United States from individual sub-Saharan African countries.

The contemporary wave of sub-Saharan migration is diverse and includes both skilled professionals and less-educated refugees. In 2013, 78 percent of sub-Saharan Africans came from Eastern and Western Africa, with Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa representing the top sending countries. Together, these five origin countries accounted for more than 52 percent of all sub-Saharan Africans in the United States.

Table 1. Distribution of Sub-Saharan Immigrants by Country and Region of Origin, 2013

Note: Due to ACS data limitation, people shown in the “Africa, not else classified” (Africa, n.e.c.) category were added to the sub-Saharan African foreign-born group. The 116,000 foreign born from the residual “Africa, n.e.c.” category accounted for 6 percent of the total 1.8 million African-born immigrants and 8 percent of the 1.5 million sub-Saharan African-born immigrants.

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2013 ACS.

Immigrants from several Anglophone African countries (Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe) were more likely to have at least a four-year degree, while those born in Cape Verde, Eritrea, Liberia, and Somalia, though accounting for a small share of the total sub-Saharan population, were disproportionately refugees and less likely to have a college degree.

Most sub-Saharan African immigrants who obtain lawful permanent residence in the United States (also known as receiving a green card) arrive as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, refugees, or through the Diversity Visa Lottery. Compared to the total foreign-born population, sub-Saharan African immigrants were among the best educated and less likely to be Limited English Proficient (LEP). Sub-Saharan Africans also had a higher rate of health insurance coverage.

Definitions

The U.S. Census Bureau defines the foreign born as individuals who had no U.S. citizenship at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization.

The terms foreign born and immigrant are used interchangeably and refer to those who were born in another country and later emigrated to the United States. Data collection constraints do not permit inclusion of those who gained citizenship in a sub-Saharan African country via naturalization and later moved to the United States.

Sub-Saharan Africa is defined as all African countries except Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia. Due to census data limitations and for the purposes of this Spotlight, people shown in the “Africa, not else classified” (Africa, n.e.c.) category were added to the sub-Saharan African foreign-born group.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau (the most recent 2013 ACS as well as pooled 2008-12 ACS data), the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, and the World Bank's annual remittance data, this Spotlight provides information on the sub-Saharan African immigrant population in the United States, focusing on its size, geographic distribution, and socioeconomic characteristics.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Distribution by State and Key Cities

Most immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa settled in New York (9 percent), Texas (8 percent), and Maryland (8 percent). The top four counties with sub-Saharan immigrants were Montgomery County in Maryland, Bronx County in New York, Prince George’s County in Maryland, and Hennepin County in Minnesota. Together, the four counties accounted for about 12 percent of the total sub-Saharan immigrant population in the United States.

Figure 2. Top Destination States for Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the United States, 2008-12

Note: Pooled 2008-12 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the state and metropolitan statistical area levels, for smaller-population geographies.

Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2008-12 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that shows the geographic distribution of immigrants from top sub-Saharan African sending countries by state and county.

In the 2008-12 period, the U.S. cities with the greatest number of sub-Saharan immigrants were the greater New York, Washington D.C., and Atlanta metropolitan areas. These three metropolitan areas accounted for about 26 percent of sub-Saharan immigrants in the United States.

Figure 3. Top Destination Metropolitan Areas for Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the United States, 2008-12

Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2008-12 ACS.

Table 2. Top Concentrations by Metropolitan Area for the Foreign Born from
Sub-Saharan Africa, 2008-12
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2008-12 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that highlights the metropolitan areas with the highest concentrations of immigrants from top sub-Saharan African sending countries.

English Proficiency

Sub-Saharan immigrants were more likely to be proficient in English and speak English at home than the overall U.S. foreign-born population. In 2013, about 26 percent of sub-Saharan immigrants (ages 5 and over) reported limited English proficiency, compared to 50 percent of the total foreign-born population. Approximately 25 percent of sub-Saharan immigrants spoke only English at home, versus 16 percent of all immigrants.

Note: Limited English proficiency refers to those who indicated on the ACS questionnaire that they spoke English less than “very well.”

Educational and Professional Attainment

Sub-Saharan immigrants tend to have much higher educational attainment compared to the overall foreign- and native-born populations. In 2013, 38 percent of Sub-Saharan immigrants (ages 25 and over) had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 28 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population and 30 percent of the native-born population.

The sub-Saharan immigrant population was slightly younger than the overall U.S. immigrant population but older than the native-born population. In 2013, 84 percent of sub-Saharan African immigrants were of working age (18 to 64), 6 percent were ages 65 and over, and 10 percent were under age 18. In comparison, 80 percent of all foreign born in the United States were of working age, 14 percent were 65 and over, and 6 percent were under age 18. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the native-born population was of working age, 14 percent was 65 and over, and 26 percent was under 18.

Sub-Saharan immigrants participated in the labor force at a higher rate than the overall immigrant and native-born populations. In 2013, about 76 percent of sub-Saharan African immigrants (ages 16 and over) were in the civilian labor force, compared to 67 percent and 63 percent of the overall foreign-born and native-born populations, respectively. Sub-Saharan immigrants were much more likely to be employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations (36 percent) and much less likely to be employed in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (3 percent) compared to the overall foreign-born population. Sub-Saharan immigrants were almost as likely as the native born to be employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations. They were also more likely to be employed in service occupations (28 percent) and less likely to be employed in sales and office occupations (17 percent) compared to their native-born counterparts.

Figure 4. Employed Workers in the Civilian Labor Force (ages 16 and older) by Occupation and Origin, 2013

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2013 ACS.

Poverty

In 2013, sub-Saharan African immigrants were as likely to be in poverty (20 percent) as all immigrants (19 percent); however, they were more likely to be in living in poverty compared to the native-born population (15 percent).

Immigration Pathways and Naturalization

In 2013, approximately 1.5 million sub-Saharan African immigrants resided in the United States, comprising about 4 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population. Most sub-Saharan immigrants arrived between 2000 and 2009 (44 percent), about 40 percent came before 2000, and 17 percent arrived in 2010 or later. In contrast, 61 percent of all immigrants to the United States arrived prior to 2000, 29 percent between 2000 and 2009, and 10 percent in 2010 and after.

Figure 5. Sub-Saharan African Immigrants and All Immigrants in the United States by Period of Arrival, 2013

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2013 ACS.

Forty-nine percent of the 1.5 million sub-Saharan immigrants were naturalized U.S. citizens, compared to 47 percent of all immigrants. In fiscal year 2013, almost half of all sub-Saharan immigrants who became lawful permanent residents (LPRs) in the United States were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (45 percent). Sub-Saharan African immigrants were much more likely to have been admitted as refugees (21 percent) or through the Diversity Visa Lottery (17 percent) than immigrants from most other world regions. Sub-Saharan immigrants were much less likely to gain a green card via employment pathways (5 percent) compared to the overall LPR population (16 percent).

Figure 6. Immigration Pathways of Sub-Saharan African Immigrants and All Immigrants in the United States, 2013

Notes: Family-sponsored: Includes adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens as well as spouses and children of green-card holders. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens: Includes spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens. Diversity Visa Lottery: The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa Lottery to allow entry to immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The law states that 55,000 diversity visas are made available each fiscal year.

Source: MPI tabulation of data from Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 2013 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2014), www.dhs.gov/yearbook-immigration-statistics-2013-lawful-permanent-residents.

Health Coverage

As of 2013, the main source of health insurance for sub-Saharan immigrants was private coverage (55 percent). Sub-Saharan immigrants were more likely to be uninsured (26 percent) compared to the native-born population (12 percent), but less likely to be uninsured than the overall U.S. foreign-born population (32 percent). Sub-Saharan immigrants were less likely to have public health insurance (22 percent) compared to the native-born population (33 percent).

Figure 7. Health Coverage for Sub-Saharan African Immigrants, All Immigrants, and the Native Born, 2013

Note: The sum of shares by type of insurance is likely to be greater than 100 because people may have more than one type of insurance.

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2013 ACS.

Diaspora

The sub-Saharan African diaspora population in the United States is comprised of approximately 3 million individuals who were either born in or reported ancestry from sub-Saharan African countries, according to tabulations from the U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2008-12 ACS.

Remittances

Global remittances sent to sub-Saharan Africa via formal channels equaled $31 billion in 2013, representing about 2 percent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to data from the World Bank. Remittances received by sub-Saharan African countries have seen a seven-fold increase since 2003.

Figure 8. Annual Remittance Flows to Sub-Saharan African Countries, 1970-2013

Source: MPI tabulations of data from the World Bank Prospects Group, “Annual Remittances Data,” October 2014 update.

Visit the Data Hub’s collection of interactive remittances tools, which track remittances by inflow and outflow, between countries, and over time.

Sources

Capps, Randy, Kristen McCabe, and Michael Fix. 2012. Diverse Streams: African Migration to the United States. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Available Online.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics. 2014. 2013 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics. Available Online.

Ettis, David. 2001. The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment. The William and Mary Quarterly 58 (1): 17-46.

Gibson, Campbell J. and Kay Jung.2006. Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-2000. Working Paper no. 81, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006. Available Online.

Thomas, Kevin J.A. 2011. What Explains the Increasing Trend in African Emigration to the U.S.? International Migration Review 45 (1): 3-28.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2013. 2013 American Community Survey. American FactFinder. Available Online.

---. 2013. 1850-2000 Decennial Census and 2000-2012 ACS. 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: University of Minnesota. Available Online.

World Bank Prospects Group. 2013. Annual Remittances Data, October 2014 update. Available Online.