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Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the United States

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Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the United States

A woman stands outside in front of a crowd of people

An organizer at a rally against Islamophobia in Minnesota. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue)

Slightly more than 2 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa lived in the United States in 2018. While this population remains small, representing just 4.5 percent of the country’s 44.7 million immigrants, it is a rapidly growing one. Between 2010 and 2018, the sub-Saharan African population increased by 52 percent, significantly outpacing the 12 percent growth rate for the overall foreign-born population during that same period.

There were very few sub-Saharan Africans in the United States just a few decades ago, with under 150,000 residents in 1980. Since then, immigrants from some of the largest sub-Saharan countries, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Somalia, and South Africa, have settled in the United States. Overall, more than 2 million immigrants have come from the 51 countries that comprise sub-Saharan Africa, making up 84 percent of the 2.4 million immigrants from the entire African continent. The remainder are from the six countries of North Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia.

Figure 1. Sub-Saharan African Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2018

Source: Data from U.S. Census Bureau 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2018 American Community Surveys (ACS), 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), available online.

The diversity in origins for this population is mirrored by the diversity in reasons for coming to the United States, with the arrival of refugees from conflict-ridden countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); high-skilled immigrants and foreign students from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa; Diversity Lottery visas recipients from countries such as Liberia and Cameroon; and, more recently, family members reuniting with immigrants already residing in the United States.

Eighty-one percent of all sub-Saharan Africans living in the United States as of 2018 had come from Eastern and Western Africa. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Somalia comprised the top five sending countries, accounting for 54 percent of all sub-Saharan Africans residing in the United States (see Table 1).

Table 1. Distribution of Sub-Saharan African Immigrants by Country and Region of Origin, 2018

Notes: Due to ACS data limitation, people shown in the “Africa, not elsewhere classified” (Africa, n.e.c.) category, who did not report their country of birth, were included in the sub-Saharan African foreign-born group, though some may have been from North Africa. The 117,000 foreign born from the residual “Africa, n.e.c.” category accounted for less than 5 percent of the total 2.4 million African-born immigrants and for less than 6 percent of the more than 2 million sub-Saharan African immigrants.
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

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 data limitations and for the purposes of this Spotlight, individuals in the “Africa, not elsewhere classified” (Africa, n.e.c.) category were added to the sub-Saharan African foreign-born group.

More than half of sub-Saharan African immigrants were naturalized U.S. citizens in 2017, and most of the 97,800 who obtained lawful permanent residence during 2017 (also known as receiving a green card), arrived as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, as refugees, or through the Diversity Visa Lottery. Compared to the total foreign-born population in the United States, sub-Saharan Africans are better educated, tend to participate in the labor force at higher rates, and are more likely to speak English at home. Sub-Saharan Africans experience poverty at higher rates than immigrants overall, but are more likely to have health insurance.

While the United States is an important global destination for sub-Saharan Africans, intraregional migration is far more common, with 71 percent of emigrants moving between countries in the region, according to 2017 estimates by the United Nations Population Division. South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are the main destinations, hosting 32 percent of all intraregional migrants. The United Kingdom (1.3 million), France (978,000), and Italy and Australia (nearly 370,00 each) are also popular destinations for sub-Saharan African migrants.

Click here to view an interactive map showing where migrants from individual sub-Saharan African countries (and elsewhere) have settled worldwide.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau (the most recent 2018 American Community Survey [ACS], as well as 2017 and pooled 2013-17 ACS data), the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, and World Bank annual remittances 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.

Note: While the characteristics of the overall sub-Saharan African population are based on the entire subregion, analysis of individual countries in this article covers only the largest origin groups: Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Kenyans, Liberians, Nigerians, Somalis, and South Africans.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Distribution by State and Key Cities

Sub-Saharan Africans tend to spread throughout the United States, and as of 2013-17, the states with the largest shares of these immigrants were Texas (11 percent), New York (9 percent), Maryland (8 percent), California (8 percent), and Minnesota (6 percent). The top five counties by concentration of sub-Saharan Africans were Harris County, TX; Bronx County, NY; Montgomery County, MD; Prince George’s County, MD, and Hennepin County, MN. Together, these counties accounted for about 15 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, 2013-17

Notes: Pooled 2013-17 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the state and metropolitan statistical area levels, for smaller-population geographies. Not shown are populations in Alaska and Hawaii, which are small in size; for details, visit the MPI Data Hub for an interactive map showing geographic distribution of immigrants by state and county, available online.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2013-17 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that shows the geographic distribution of immigrants by state and county. Select individual sub-Saharan African countries from the dropdown menu to see which states and counties have the most immigrants.  

The greater New York City and Washington, DC metropolitan areas were the U.S. cities with the largest number of sub-Saharan immigrants in the 2013-17 period, followed by Minneapolis, Dallas, and Atlanta. These top five metropolitan areas were home to about 36 percent of sub-Saharan Africans in the United States.

Figure 3. Top Metropolitan Destinations for Sub-Saharan Africans in the United States, 2013-17

Notes: Pooled 2013-17 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the metropolitan statistical-area level for smaller-population geographies. Not shown are the populations in Alaska and Hawaii, which are small in size.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2013-17 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that highlights the metropolitan areas with the highest concentrations of immigrants. Select individual sub-Saharan African countries from the dropdown menu to see which metro areas have the most immigrants.

Table 2. Top Concentrations for Sub-Saharan African Immigrants by U.S. Metropolitan Area, 2013-17

Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2013-17 ACS.

Language Diversity and English Proficiency

In 2017, 26 percent of sub-Saharan Africans spoke only English at home, compared to 16 percent of all immigrants; 27 percent (ages 5 and over) reported limited English proficiency, compared to 48 percent of the overall foreign-born population. Higher levels of proficiency in English are not surprising, as most sub-Saharan Africans come from countries where English is an official language. Other than English, top languages spoken were Amharic; Somali, Beja, or other Cushitic languages; French; and Swahili and other Bantu languages.

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

Age, Education, and Employment

Sub-Saharan Africans are slightly younger than the overall U.S. foreign-born population, but older than the native born. In 2017, 82 percent of sub-Saharan immigrants were of working age (18 to 64 years), compared to 79 percent and 59 percent for the overall foreign-born and U.S.-born populations, respectively.

Figure 4. Age Distribution of U.S. Residents by Origin, 2017

Note: Numbers may not add up to 100 as they are rounded to the nearest whole number.
Source: PI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 ACS.

Sub-Saharan immigrants have higher educational attainment compared to immigrants overall and native U.S. citizens. In 2017, 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africans (ages 25 and over) held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 31 percent of the total foreign-born population and 32 percent of the U.S.-born population. Nigerians and South Africans were the most highly educated, with 61 percent and 58 percent holding at least a bachelor’s degree, respectively; Kenyans (50 percent), Ghanaians (39 percent), Liberians (31 percent), and Ethiopians (30 percent) followed. Meanwhile, Somalis had the lowest educational attainment of all sub-Saharan Africans, with just 15 percent having graduated from a four-year college.

Sub-Saharan Africans also participate in the civilian labor force at a higher rate than the overall immigrant and U.S.-born populations. In 2017, about 75 percent of sub-Saharan immigrants (ages 16 and over) were in the civilian labor force, compared to 66 percent of foreign-born and 62 percent of native-born adults, respectively.

In addition, sub-Saharan Africans were much more likely to be employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations than in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (see Figure 5) in 2017. South African (61 percent), Nigerian (54 percent), and Kenyan (50 percent) immigrants were the most likely to hold management positions, while 36 percent of Somali immigrants worked in production, transportation, and material moving occupations. Thirty-eight percent of Liberians were employed in service occupations.

Figure 5. Employed Workers in the U.S. Civilian Labor Force (ages 16 and older) by Occupation and Origin, 2017

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 ACS.

Poverty

About 19 percent of sub-Saharan Africans lived in poverty in 2017, compared to 15 percent of all immigrants and 13 percent of the U.S. born. Poverty rates were highest among Somalis (42 percent), and lowest among South Africans (9 percent).

Immigration Pathways and Naturalization

In 2017, 53 percent of sub-Saharan Africans were naturalized U.S. citizens, compared to 49 percent of all immigrants. Those coming from Ethiopia (60 percent) and South Africa (59 percent) were most likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens.

Sub-Saharan Africans are more likely than immigrants overall to have entered since 2000. Almost 70 percent arrived in 2000 or later, compared to 47 percent of all immigrants (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Sub-Saharan Africans and All Immigrants in the United States by Period of Arrival, 2017

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 ACS.

About 9 percent (97,800) of the 1.1 million immigrants who became legal permanent residents (LPRs) in 2017 were from sub-Saharan Africa. More than half did so as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens or through family-sponsored preferences (44 percent and 12 percent, respectively; see Figure 7). New LPRs from sub-Saharan Africa were much more likely to have been admitted as refugees (25 percent) or through the Diversity Visa Lottery (15 percent) than immigrants from most other regions. Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africans were much less likely to become green-card holders via employment pathways (4 percent) compared to the overall LPR population (12 percent).

The majority of new LPRs from Burundi (82 percent), the Republic of Congo (74 percent), and Chad and Rwanda (73 percent each) obtained their green cards by adjusting from refugee or asylee status. The Diversity Visa program was a significant route for Benin (46 percent of all green cards issued to the nationals of this country), Togo (44 percent), and Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, and Liberia (34 percent each).

Figure 7. Immigration Pathways of Sub-Saharan Africans and All Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) in the United States, 2017

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 (FY). For the FY 2021 Diversity Visa program, nationals of all countries in sub-Saharan Africa except Nigeria are eligible to participate in the lottery.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 2017 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2018), available online.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides temporary reprieve from deportation and work authorization to qualified unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as children. As of April 30, 2019, approximately 669,080 individuals were active participants. Ninety-five percent of DACA recipients were born in Latin America or the Caribbean; recipients from sub-Saharan Africa represented 0.5 percent (or 3,160) of all participants, with Nigeria and Ghana making up the top two countries of origin for active DACA participants from the region.

Since 2010, there has been an uptick in the number of sub-Saharan immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. Granted, the number is still very small, increasing from 98 in fiscal year (FY) 2013 to 346 five years later—representing less than 1 percent of the 404,142 total apprehensions in FY 2018.

Health Coverage

Sub-Saharan Africans are about as likely to be covered by private health insurance as the overall foreign-born population, and slightly less likely to be uninsured (see Figure 8). Among sub-Saharan origin groups, in 2017 South Africans had the lowest uninsured share (9 percent) while Nigerians and Liberians had the highest rates (about 17 percent each).

Figure 8. Health Coverage for the U.S. Population by Nativity, 2017

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, 2017 ACS.

Diaspora

Approximately 4.3 million members of the sub-Saharan African diaspora resided in the United States in 2017. This estimate includes individuals who were either born in the region or who reported sub-Saharan African ancestry regardless of their place of birth.

Remittances

Remittances received by sub-Saharan African countries via formal channels have risen almost 13-fold since 2000, reaching $45.7 billion in 2018, according to the World Bank. Global remittances account for about 3 percent of overall gross domestic product (GDP) in the region. Some African economies have been more dependent on remittances than others: remittances accounted for 15 percent of GDP in The Gambia and Lesotho, and 12 percent in Cabo Verde and Liberia. Although Nigeria received by far the largest amount of remittances in the region in 2018, $24.3 billion, the monetary transfers accounted only for 6 percent of GDP.

Figure 9. Annual Remittance Flows to Sub-Saharan African Countries, 1980-2018*

*The 2018 figures represent World Bank estimates.
Source: MPI tabulations of data from the World Bank Prospects Group, “Annual Remittances Data,” April 2019 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. 2018. 2017 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.

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.

Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas, and Matthew Sobek. 2019. IPUMS USA: Version 9.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 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.

United Nations Population Division. 2017. International Migrant Stock: The 2017 Revision. Accessed October 1, 2019. Available online.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2019. 2017 American Community Survey. American FactFinder. Available online.

---. 2019. 2018 American Community Survey. Explore Census Data. Available online.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 2019. Approximate Active DACA Recipients: Country of Birth. Updated April 30, 2019. Available online.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Various years. U.S. Border Patrol Nationwide Apprehensions by Citizenship and Sector. Updated July 20, 2018. Available online.

World Bank Prospects Group. 2018. Annual Remittances Data. Updated April 2019. Available online.