Center for American Progress

Overlooked Story of Black Immigrants in the United States Deserves Attention

Overlooked Story of Black Immigrants in the United States Deserves Attention

The estimated 3 million black immigrants living in the United States often go ignored, but their daily plight is no less dramatic or demanding of public attention.

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Barwako Abayle, an immigrant student from Burlington High School, listens during a meeting with lawmakers about racial inequality at her school on April 26, 2012 in Montpelier, Vermont. (AP/ Toby Talbot)
Barwako Abayle, an immigrant student from Burlington High School, listens during a meeting with lawmakers about racial inequality at her school on April 26, 2012 in Montpelier, Vermont. (AP/ Toby Talbot)

Note: This is the second of two columns on black Americans and immigration reform. Today, I examine the history and plight of black immigrants in the United States.

Thanks in large part to the prevalence of media narratives, the current discussion of immigration reform is often represented by a Latino face. This works well to impress a human story in portraying the need for the nation to reform our dysfunctional immigration system. But the emphasis on the Latino story as the immigrant story fails to capture the broader, more complex issue.

Many Americans are familiar with the stories about work-seeking immigrants who crossed our southern border and are compelled to live and toil in the shadows of opportunity. Often overlooked or ignored, however, are the estimated 3 million black immigrants whose daily plight in the United States is no less dramatic or demanding of public attention. While the vast majority of black immigrants are legal residents concentrated in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami, an estimated 400,000 of them lack documents that would allow them to live openly.

“It’s been nerve-racking because it puts me at risk,” Tolu Olubunmi told the world at a news conference in 2011, announcing her undocumented status and her willingness to work for comprehensive immigration reform. “But I think you have to focus on the individual to get away from the politics of an issue that’s so divisive. Once you know that there are real people attached to the statistics, then you have to start working on real solutions.”

(Full disclosure: Tolu, 32, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and was brought to the United States by her mother when she was 14. Her activism is well known to me—she was one of the inaugural fellows of the Center for American Progress’s Leadership Institute, a program I created to increase the number of public policy experts from communities of color. Her work to bring about a change in the nation’s immigration policies continues in her new job as a senior policy analyst at the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C.)

As is the case with any immigrant to the United States, black immigrants find their way to this country in search of their own American Dream. Yet unlike many white immigrants, they discover heightened barriers in reaching their dream. The persistence of racism and anti-black bias in many forms of American life comes as a rude awakening to those who expect opportunity to be limited only by their willingness for hard work.

Although the nation has long had a significant black population, owing to its legacy of slavery and the importation of Africans as chattel property, the history of willful and voluntary black immigration is a relatively recent development.

According to figures in a recent Pew Social Trends report, immigration from the Caribbean—primarily Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Dominican Republic—ticked up after the Spanish-American War ended in 1898. But the real expansion occurred after passage of 1965 federal laws that enabled people from countries other than Europe to find their place in this country.

Immigration from Africa was rare until the late 20th century, as many came from Africa to study in the United States and decided to stay. The Pew report estimates, however, that about 21 percent of African immigrants are undocumented. Moreover, no single country dominates the flow from the many African nations. Nigeria, which produced the largest single group of black immigrants in 2009, only accounted for about one in five of all black African immigrants that year, Pew reported.

Immigrants from Africa were also among the fastest-growing groups within the U.S. foreign-born population from 2000 to 2009. If current trends continue, the Pew analysts predict that Africa will replace the Caribbean by 2020 as the major source of black immigration to the United States.

Helina Faris, a former intern with the Center for American Progress’s Immigration team, recently noted:

Even with high levels of education, black immigrants tend to earn low wages compared to other similarly trained immigrant or native workers. In 2011 black immigrants had the highest unemployment rate—12.5 percent—of any foreign-born group in the United States. Proposed immigration reforms such as reductions in family-based admissions and elimination of the diversity visa lottery could affect the flow of black immigrants to the United States, cutting off all legal means of entry into the country.

That’s unfortunate because immigration reform is needed to assist more than a single ethnic or population group. It’s required for fairness to all who currently work—and wait—in the shadows of opportunity.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)