Podcast • Opinion
“Broken Doors,” Episode 1
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One in 10 Black people living in the U.S. are immigrants, new study shows

Black immigrants have higher incomes and more education than U.S.-born Black people, but advocates say racism still holds them back

Selamawit Berhane, right, originally from Ethiopia, waves an American flag during a special World Refugee Day naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles on June 17, at which 26 new U.S. citizens were sworn in. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

The demographics of America’s Black population are in the middle of a major shift, with 1 in 10 having been born outside the United States. That’s 4.6 million Americans, a figure that is projected to grow to 9.5 million by 2060, according to the findings of a Pew Research Center study published Thursday.

“When we talk about the nation’s Black population, we have to understand it is one that is changing and becoming even more diverse than it already was, and immigrants are a big part of that story and so the immigrant experience is a growing part of the experience of Black Americans today,” said Mark Lopez, Pew’s director of race and ethnicity research.

Black immigrants and their American-born children make up 21 percent of the nation’s Black population, with an increasing number of migrants coming from Africa, according to the report. Lopez said it’s a group that often is overlooked in discussions about immigration.

“Usually when folks talk about the nation’s immigrant population, they talk about the two largest groups, Latin Americans, who make up about half of the nation’s 45 million immigrants, and then Asian immigrants, who make up another quarter of the overall population of immigrants,” Lopez said. “The story of Black immigration is one not as much a part of the conversation, yet it’s been ongoing for decades.”

While Black immigrants have much in common with both U.S.-born Black Americans and other immigrant groups, their experience stands apart in a number of ways. Nearly a third of Black immigrants over the age of 25 have a college degree, compared with 22 percent of U.S.-born Black Americans, the Pew report notes. Black immigrant households have a higher median income —
$57,200 — compared with U.S.-born Black households at $42,000, but lower than that of other immigrant-led households.

But although Black immigrants might be better educated and have higher incomes on average than native-born Black Americans, statistics show they face some of the same obstacles and barriers to success.

While the 14 percent of Black immigrants who lived below the poverty line in 2019 (before the coronavirus pandemic) is lower than the 19 percent figure for U.S.-born Black people, it is significantly higher than the 11 percent rate for the country as a whole, according to the study. Rates of homeownership for the two groups were similar, at 4 in 10, compared with 64 percent for the country as a whole.

“I work with a lot of first-gen and second-gen Black folks, and what I can tell you is they experience the same type of discrimination that Black folks do in general in the U.S.,” said Aiko Bethea, a Black leadership development coach working to get more people of color into corporate leadership positions.

“When you look at those disparities for Black immigrants in terms of income, it’s important to remember that they’re the ones who are usually more proficient in the English language when they come here than other immigrants, and yet they still are disproportionately lower income, and even their homeownership rate is lower as well,” she said. “It’s the color of your skin that marks you for disparate treatment. Nobody’s looking at your bank account or your immigration status; they see your skin.”

Legal Black migration to America was largely impossible until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended U.S. policies that essentially banned immigration from anywhere other than Europe. Black immigration would later be expanded with the Refugee Act of 1980, which created the current refugee admissions system and paved the way for recent flows of refugees from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia. In recent years, as many as a quarter of legal immigrants from sub-Saharan African and the Caribbean were refugees or asylum seekers, according to the Pew study.

A decade later, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990, which created the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program to encourage migration from countries that had sent few people to the United States. That program has increased the number of immigrants from African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. This path, which requires a high school education to qualify, has been particularly popular among African immigrants. Researchers say that helps to explain why Black immigrants have higher levels of educational attainment. Two-thirds of Nigerian-born Black immigrants age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while about half of immigrants from Cameroon and Kenya have a college degree.

While less than 5 percent of all immigrants admitted in 2019 came through the diversity visa program, 12 percent of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa entered the country via that path. While foreign-born Black people were less likely than other immigrant groups to live in the country without authorization, the Pew study found that 14 percent of Black immigrants were undocumented. Data from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, however, shows that Black immigrants from Africa are twice as likely to face deportation because of a criminal conviction compared with other immigrant groups, and more than three times as likely to be detained while their cases are pending.

Hidden among the top-line numbers that show the relative prosperity of Black immigrants when compared with U.S.-born African Americans is a lot of variation.

“So it’s usually a higher income level for the people who get here, and more access to resources overall, but they are still facing the same barriers,” Bethea said. “Look at what happened to the past CEO at Credit Suisse. So immigrant or native-born, even at the top, you are still subjected to that type of treatment.” Bethea was referring to Tidjane Thiam, the Ivory Coast-born executive who was ousted after turning the bank profitable again. He was the only Black chief executive in banking when he was ousted.

“The experience between my clients who are Black, whether they be Black American or Black immigrant, is different from my clients who might be Asian or even Asian immigrants,” Bethea said. “Now, there might still be a degree of discrimination or disparity, but when you think about benefit of the doubt and catalyst to moving up the ranks, it’s just different.”

Dwight Bullard, senior political adviser at Florida Rising, a grass-roots organization working to increase the voting and political power of marginalized Floridians, said the issues he hears from Haitian immigrants don’t differ much from those of U.S.-born Black Americans in South Florida.

“Like with a lot of the people we talk to, we’re hearing the key issues are around economic fairness and equity, especially here in Miami, where the community of Little Haiti is being rapidly gentrified,” he said. “So we’re working with community-based organizations that are trying to help move folks towards homeownership, towards business development, towards access to higher-wage jobs. But then on top of that they’re looking for candidates who are supporting a pathway to citizenship, expediting the green card process, and making sure that there’s an opportunity for people being protected by a temporary protected status to have access to the things that they need.”

Black immigrants have left an indelible mark on communities across the country. There are more than 1 million Black immigrants in metro New York, where, for example, a third of all foreign-born Black Jamaicans live. Metro Miami is home to the second-largest Black immigrant community, at 490,000, and is home to the nation’s largest Black Haitian immigrant community. Roughly 1 in 5 Ethiopian immigrants live in the D.C. area. Meanwhile, the Black immigrant population is soaring in Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Boston.

Bullard said that although the Haitian community still faces challenges that other immigrant communities in Florida don’t, such as the comparative dearth of Creole language resources compared with Spanish, he has seen Haitian political power growing there.

“We just elected our first Haitian American to Congress, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick,” he said. “So that political power is becoming impossible to ignore.”

Loading...