African Immigration Essay

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The  initial  flow  of  Africans  to  North  America began  as  early  as  the  1500s,  with  a  trickle  of Africans coming from Mexico  and the Caribbean to  the  then   Spanish   territories  of  Florida   and Texas.  It generated  into  a distinct  and  significant wave  in  1607  with  the  founding   of  the  British colony  of Jamestown. These African  immigrants came not as slaves but willfully as bonded or indentured servants,  a status  held by many whites who also immigrated to the New World. Indentured servants  were  sought  as laborers  to  work  in the southern  regions  of  Virginia,  Maryland, North Carolina, and other colonies where labor-intensive tobacco, rice, and indigo production was a major source of income. As indentured servants, Africans received  contracts that  included  free  passage  to North America,  paid  to  a  ship’s  captain   by  a master, typically a large landowner, or his representatives.  They  also  received  shelter   and food.  In return,  they had  to work  for the master, generally  for a stipulated period  of 4 to 7 years, until  their  debts  for  travel,  food,  and  lodgings were paid. They were then free to make their own way  in  the  New  World.   This  opportunity  for African   immigrants  changed   by  the   mid-17th century  as demand  for cheap  labor  escalated  and laws permitting slavery were passed in Massachusetts, Virginia, and other  colonies.

From 1650  to 1700, whites had to confront the insecurities  of life in the New World and concomitantly  advance  a profit  to investors.  The eventual solution was to displace white, indentured servants as  laborers  with  the  less expensive  black,  slave-based   economy.   Bringing   blacks   out   of  Africa as slaves soon became a profitable business. From 1607 to 1865, some 12 million black men, women, and  children  had  immigrated to  the  New  World, the  vast  majority  coming  involuntarily. However, not all blacks were equally subjected to this involuntary immigration. Slave traders  especially pursued   blacks  living  on  or  near  Africa’s  west coast,  thereby  reducing  travel  time  to  the  New World  as well as limiting the dangers  of the often unknown or  unfriendly  environments associated with   travel   into   deeper   parts   of  Africa.   Also avoided were members of warring  tribes and those whose economy  was based on hunting  rather  than agriculture. Warrior-oriented  tribes   and   hunters were more  likely to be belligerent  and  vigorously resist  enslavement.   In  addition, they  lacked  the skills needed  to  efficiently cultivate  tobacco, rice, and  other  crops.  Alternatively,  members  of more pacific  tribes  who  traditionally worked  the  land for a living and who knew little about  self-defense and  violent  conflict  made  ideal  sources  for  slave labor.  Senegal, in northwest Africa, is where most black Africans last stood  as free men and women, and Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, is where they last saw their native soil.

Many  Africans  forcefully  resisted  immigrating to   the   New   World.   This   resistance   was   often well-planned,  violent,  and  fought   to  the  death. Ships transporting black slaves were known  to be overtaken by them, their officers and crew captured and imprisoned on board. In more desperate  times and situations, Africans bound  for slavery aboard these ships occasionally  committed  suicide  rather than allow themselves to succumb to the institution of slavery. Resistance  to forced  immigration took many forms, including war, rebellion, accommodation, running  away, self-induced  abortion, and murder.

To   overcome   black   resistance,   slave  traders devised numerous nefarious  strategies to make immigration a  more  attractive choice.  One  such strategy   involved  inciting  or  exacerbating  intertribal   conflicts   by  causing   one  tribe   to  accuse another of some crime, injustice, or atrocity, even when the real culprit, unknown to the victim tribe, was  a  representative of  the  slave  trade.  Fearing attack   and   even  genocidal   reprisals,   traditional tribal   enemies   often   provided   the   impetus   to induce  otherwise   reluctant blacks  to  leave  their homes  and  forsake  their  heritage,  fleeing aboard ships  masquerading as safe havens  but  in reality transporting them from freedom  to slavery. Other techniques   used  to  induce  immigration included kidnapping, slave raiding,  and ransom  taking.

Finally,  the  great  transatlantic  immigration of Africans as slaves to the New World  ended during the early 1800s. England agreed to cease the transportation  of  slaves  in  1807.   Other   European colonial   powers   followed,   including   France   in 1814, the Netherlands in 1817, and Spain in 1820. While   the   rhetoric   surrounding  the   demise   of forced  African  immigration spoke  to  high  ideals such as the rights of the citizen, the equality  of all, human  dignity, and social justice, in fact the major force  pressing  for  the  abandonment of the  slave trade  and forced immigration from Africa was an economic    one.   Africa,   once   known    as   the Dark   Continent, was  rapidly   being  revealed  by explorers  and  adventurers such  as Cecil Rhodes, Albert   Schweitzer,  and   H.  M.  Stanley  to  be  a continent of  vast  wealth  in  the  form  of  natural resources including gold, silver, precious metals, diamonds, exotic woods, tin, oil, copper, iron, coal, nickel, cobalt,  and bauxite.  In addition, there was an abundance of fertile land readily cultivated  for growing  tropical  fruits,  grains,  coffee, tea,  cocoa, and spices of all kinds. The discovery of Africa as a repository of great  riches waiting  to  be tapped encouraged not only colonization but also the training and hiring of large cadres of local laborers, keeping them in Africa to work the land, making it give up its vast riches and sending them on to eager markets  in Europe and the New World. This partly explains why transporting slaves out of Africa was often   made   illegal  in  colonialist   countries   like England   and   France,   while   the   institution  of slavery remained  in force and legally protected for decades thereafter.

African Immigration,  1807 To 1965

Between 1807,  when  England  declared  transporting slaves illegal, and  1965,  African  immigration remained  relatively  dormant. Alternatively,  white immigration from Europe to the United States was robust   and   responsible   for   major   population growth  rates. Two waves of immigrants are traditionally  identified:  (1) old-wave  immigrants, from 1840  to 1890  and (2) new-wave immigrants, from 1890 to 1930. The former were mainly western Europeans, especially Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, English,  and  Irish.  The  latter  were mostly  central  and southern Europeans, including Italians,  Russians,  and  Poles.  By the  early  20th century,  U.S. immigration policies  became  more restrictive.  Peoples of color especially faced closed doors.  Meanwhile, African colonies of the formidable European powers were successfully revolting against colonial rule, and newly independent nation-states were emerging throughout Africa. Possibilities of self-rule and rising political,  social, and  economic  expectations coupled   with   the  hegemony   of  African  natives reduced  interest  in  emigration. Indeed,  the  only significant African immigration during  this period involved  former   white   colonialists   returning  to their ancestral  homes in Europe.

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the resumption of  black  Africans  emigrating   in  steady  streams from Africa. The “push” forces at work  churning up these streams in the once idealized independent African   nation-states   included   the   following: (1) economic  downturns, (2) widespread political corruption, (3)  poverty  and  high  unemployment rates,   (4)   rapidly   deteriorating  infrastructure, (5) civil unrest  and  violence, (6) political  instability, (7) inept government officials, and (8) depressed valuation  of  once   financially   rewarding  crops plus the rising costs of imports, especially manufactured goods.

Generally,  those  emigrating  from  Africa  in the 1970s  headed  for other  countries  within Africa as well as various European ports, typically following language-based comfort  zones. By the  1980s  and into  the  2000s,  the  United  States had  become  an attractive alternative for many African immigrants. Facilitating  this were a number  of social and legal developments in  the  United  States  that  included the  following:  (1) the  creation  of diversity  visas, which  prioritized entry  to  the  United  States,  of immigrants whose ethnic pool was underrepresented; (2) the passage of immigration law amendments giving preferential treatment to immigrants, regardless  of nationality, who had occupational skills  needed  in  the  United  States; (3) the legislation  of laws allowing  children  born to foreigners living in the United States as students, workers,  or  tourists   to  sponsor   family  members into the country  on the basis of family unification; and  (4) the  relaxing  of refugee  policies  to  allow 500,000 persons  to enter  the United  States annually. These and related developments, including the expanding globalization of capitalism  linking  the world into an intricate  network of commerce, technology, and  finance,  facilitated  and  increased African immigration to the United States.

Contemporary African Immigration

Today,  black  Africans  constitute about  4 percent of all immigrants entering the United States. Of the approximate 1.1 million immigrants coming from Africa  annually,  about  75  percent  identify  themselves as black. The African countries  contributing especially to the new African diaspora are Nigeria, Ghana,  and  Ethiopia.  In 2009,  these  three  countries alone accounted for more than  40 percent  of all  black  African   immigration  into   the  United States. The remainder is dispersed  among  diverse nationalities,  many   contributing  only   1   or   2 percent  to the overall  flow of African immigrants to the United States. African immigrants constitute one of the fastest-expanding subgroups of the U.S. immigrant   population.   In   1980,    there   were 800,000 black  immigrants in  the  United  States, and  by 2013,  their  numbers  had  mounted to 3.5 million. From 1980  to 2000,  the number  of black Africans  in the  United  States  having  foreign  origins increased roughly by about 200 percent. It continues   to  grow  today  by  about   100  percent every 10 years. In 2010,  the United  States ranked fifth,  just  behind   France,   Cote   d’Ivoire,  South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, as the preferred  destination   of  most   black  African   immigrants.  Other popular ports of disembarkation for black Africans are  Canada, Australia,  England,  and  Italy. Those coming to the United States, Canada, and Australia tend  to  be better  educated  and  generally  enjoy  a higher living standard than those entering the European Union.

Profiling African immigrants reveals several interesting as well as socially, politically, and economically  significant variations compared with other  immigrants. Like most  U.S. immigrants, the major legal route Africans use to enter the country is family unification. They take  advantage of U.S. immigration laws  favoring  foreigners  who  enter the U.S. to join family members  already there. However,   unlike  other  U.S. immigrants, African immigrants are especially likely to enter the U.S. as refugees or under visa laws promoting ethnic diversity.  An especially  prominent socioeconomic characteristic of African immigrants to the United States is that  they are impressively better  educated than  U.S.-born  or  Caribbean-born blacks.  More than  38 percent  of African-born black immigrants in 2009 had college degrees, a figure well in excess of  either   Caribbean-born  blacks   or   U.S.-born blacks   or   whites.   Only   Asian  Americans   have greater proportions of their population with superior educational credentials. African immigrants to the United States also have achieved higher ranking  positions  in the professions,  upper management/administration, technology, and skilled labor. In addition, they are more likely to be younger  and  to speak  English more  fluently  than their Caribbean counterparts or immigrants in general.  While their  facility with  English is a distinct   advantage  in  the  competitive   marketplace and in bridging relationships with U.S.-born whites and  blacks,  this  advantage is  sometimes  diminished  by  their  heavy  accents,  often  difficult  for their U.S.-born peers to transcend.

Given   their   overall   advantages,  African-born black  U.S. immigrants enjoy  higher  employment rates,  have  lower  poverty  rates,  and  more  readily adjust  to  their  new  homelands than  other  immigrant groups. On average, they earn $10,000 more than their U.S.-born black counterparts. Correspondingly,  U.S.-born   blacks   as  compared with  black  African  immigrants are  more  likely to live  in  poverty,   28   percent   versus   20   percent. However, African-born blacks suffer from underemployment and lower pay scales for comparable work  than   their  U.S.-born  black  or white counterparts. These disadvantages may reflect the  reality  that  black  African  immigrants are  (a) relatively  new to the United  States and  lack good references; (b) unable  to produce  credentials  from their former  homeland; (c) in possession  of professional licenses and certificates, including those from prestigious   institutions such  as  the  University  of Oxford or the Sorbonne,  that are not recognized in the United States; and (d) subject to economic exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Last, African  immigrants are more  likely to be married, more likely to maintain two-parent homes for their  children,  and  less likely to have children outside  marriage  than  U.S.-born  blacks. They are also more likely than other immigrants to be in the United  States legally, to seek U.S. citizenship,  and to enjoy the support of the families they brought with them in the hope of remaining  as permanent residents. These characteristics give them the advantage of better health care and an easier opportunity to become  successfully integrated. At the  same  time,  they  often  maintain  the  use  of native African  languages  at home  and  reject total assimilation. They  prefer  to  keep  some  of  their cultural  traditions, pass them on to their children, and hyphenate their identity, thereby becoming another unique  piece in the patchwork quilt  that identifies  the  pluralist  tradition of  U.S. minority relations.


The plight of the average African immigrant today is not necessarily an enviable one. They often face years of waiting for visas and endure inept bureaucracies, corrupt officials,  emotional tensions,  and sometimes  formidable challenges to their personal safety. Once in the United States, they tend to settle in metropolitan areas where job opportunities are maximized.  The metropolitan areas of New York, Miami, and Washington account  for almost 50 percent  of  all  African-born blacks.  Within  these urban  environments, they prefer to settle into separate  small communities based  on their  native  origins. They  do  not  identify  with  U.S.-born  blacks and  with  immigrants from  other  parts  of Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. African immigrants, unlike  most  other  immigrants, tend  to  be  more dispersed throughout the United States, especially compared with Caribbean-born black immigrants.

As political  stability  in African  nations  continues  to  deteriorate, genocidal  wars  threaten, civil unrest  and  violence  gain  hegemony,  petit  corruption persists, and economic conditions decline, the modern   African   diaspora  will  likely  not   only endure  but  also  increase.  Most  population forecasters  predict  that  by 2020,  African immigration to the United States will likely surpass black immigrants  entering  the  country  from  the  Caribbean. While the arrival  of black African immigrants creates  a boon  for  the  U.S. economy  in terms  of its gross  domestic  product and  the  growth   of  real consumption, it  engenders  a  mounting dysfunctional  and  discouraging brain  drain  from African nations   least  able  to  afford   such  losses.  It  also leaves large tracts  of Africa without crucial  medical, educational, engineering,  and welfare services, stretching those resources that remain. More generally,  it  exacerbates the  GINI  Index  and  skews economic  activity toward wealthy  nations  such as the United States. Meanwhile, 2015  bears  witness to  a veritable  tsunami  of immigrants fleeing violence  in  North Africa—especially  Libya,  Tunisia, and   Algeria—and   making   their   way   to   Italy, France, and Germany, challenging the respective economic,  health,  welfare,  and  educational resources  as well as the ideological  resolve of their European hosts.


  1. Capps, Randy, Kristin McCabe,  and Michael Fix. Diverse Streams: African  Migration  to the United  Washington, DC: National Center  on Immigrant Integration Policy, 2012.
  2. Gordon, April. “The New Diaspora: African Immigration to the United States.” Journal of Third World  Studies, v.15/79,
  3. Schaefer, Richard Racial and Ethnic  Groups,  12th  ed. Boston: Pearson, 2011.
  4. Worth, Africans  in America  (Immigration to the United  States). New York: Facts on File, 2004.

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