Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the dominate countries of origin for the D.C. region’s African-born population .This version has been corrected.
The number of African-born residents in the United States has doubled every decade since the 1970s, with the greater Washington region remaining among the most popular areas for them to live, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday.
The African immigrant population nationwide has grown steadily, from about 80,000 in 1970 to 1.6 million today nationwide, but the rate has accelerated and the highest growth has occurred in the past decade, the federal agency reported.
As in past years, those from just four countries — Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt — account for 41 percent of the total, although their enclaves are scattered in diverse regions, from major urban centers to remote parts of North and South Dakota. The new survey data was collected between 2008 and 2012.
The great majority of African residents arrived legally. Most are U.S. permanent residents or citizens, or hold work or educational visas. Some, especially the large numbers of Ethiopians, fled a succession of conflicts over the years and have been resettled here as refugees.
Maryland, with 120,000 African-born residents, is one of only four states where their population tops 100,000, after New York, California and Texas. Both Maryland and Virginia are among the 10 states that have the highest percentages of such populations, with 15 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
The Washington metropolitan region is also the second-most popular destination for African-born immigrants, after New York City and ahead of Los Angeles, Atlanta and Minneapolis. More than 161,000 African-born people live in the District and nearby suburbs, with Ethiopians leading at 35,200, followed by Nigerians with 19,600 and Ghanians with 18,400.
“In much of Africa, capital cities are where you can ahead in education or careers, so Africans who come to America assume Washington is the place to go,” said Jill Wilson, a specialist on Africa and senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It is also a more manageable place for them than urban jungles like New York. It is cosmopolitan without being overwhelming.”
Wilson and others said Africans were first drawn to the D.C. area because they felt welcomed by institutions such as Howard University and political leaders like former District Mayor Marion Barry, who served from 1979 to 1991. One local African immigrant leader, Nigeria-born Samuel Adewusi, described Barry’s tenure as “inclusive and Africa friendly.”
Adewusi, who heads the regional chapter of the non-profit group Nigerians in Diaspora, said some Nigerians were recruited as nurses and stayed. Once here, he added, Africans tended to become permanent residents and raise families. Many who came to attend college went on to secure government jobs, abandoning their original plans to return home.
“We feel appreciated and protected here,” he said. “There are plenty of African stores and restaurants. You put down roots and it becomes like a second home.”
The census report said that, as seen in past surveys, African-born immigrants are more educated than the immigrant population as a whole, with 41 percent having a college or graduate degree compared to 28 percent for immigrants overall. Egyptians rank highest on that scale, with 64 percent having a college education.
However, some groups that arrived as refugees from civil wars and natural disasters, such as those from Somalia and Sierra Leone, have lower education levels. The survey said less than 40 percent of Somalis here had finished high school.
Ethiopians, despite their history of flight from serial conflicts, have achieved extraordinary cultural success, turning parts of the Washington area into bastions of Ethopian food and fashion. Although enclaves have formed in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and other cities, many Ethiopians refer to the District as a second Addis Ababa, their homeland’s capital.
“We love our birth country, but we love America and we especially love Washington,” said Dawit Gizaw, director of the Ethiopian Community Services and Development Council in the District. “People move here from other states, because we can get everything Ethiopian here.”
The survey did not detail the reasons that African-born people have continued to arrive in large numbers, but experts and previous studies have pointed to family migration as well as educational and work opportunities as major factors, in addition to flight from war.
“When I looked at the new survey, my first reaction was the more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Wilson, who has studying African immigration patterns for years. Aside from some fluctuations refugee origins, she said, most African-born residents still come from the same countries as before, and still do better in education and income than many other immigrants.