Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the United States

Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, Migration Policy Institute, October 30, 2014

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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

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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.

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).

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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.

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