The election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate brought national attention to the growing presence and influence of African immigrants in the United States. The son of a Kenyan immigrant, Obama is only the third African American senator since Reconstruction.

The growing African presence is also manifested in the mushrooming of African churches, mosques, fashion boutiques, hair-braiding salons, and in emerging hip-hop icons like AKON and Shaka Zulu.

Contrasted with the majority of African Americans, descendents of enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. centuries ago, voluntary African immigrants are a relatively new phenomenon.

Rising numbers

The history of voluntary immigration from Africa began with Cape Verdeans in the early 1860s. They were seamen who worked on ships, primarily employed as whalers. Cape Verdean women immigrants soon followed. After the demise of the whaling industry, Cape Verdeans worked mostly in textile mills and cranberry bogs.

According to U.S. census figures, more Africans have arrived in the United States voluntarily than the total amount brought in as captives during the slave trade. Of almost 35 million African Americans today, it is estimated that 1 million are African-born. More than half entered and settled in the country within the last three decades. Recent immigration figures show that more than 350,000 Africans legally entered the U.S. in the 1990s. Nearly 30,000 came in the 1960s, 80,000 in the 1970s and 176,000 in the 1980s.

In some metropolitan regions these “new” Black groups, immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa, amount to 20 percent or more of the Black population. Nationally, nearly 25 percent of the Black population growth between 1990 and 2000 is attributed to African and Caribbean sources. African Americans born in sub-Saharan Africa almost tripled in the 1990s, while the numbers with origins in the Caribbean increased by over 60 percent. African immigrants currently represent 6 percent of all the immigrants to the U. S.

African immigration observers caution that these statistics are official numbers reflecting the estimated 50,000 legal immigrants who have been arriving every year — refugees, students and recent recipients of family reunification and diversity visas. The real number of African immigrants, many estimate, is two or three times higher than the official numbers.

Globalization, civil war and other factors

The rise of immigration from Africa is largely due to the economic and political conditions in Africa where capitalist globalization has negatively affected living conditions on the continent.

“One of the factors is the deteriorating economic situation since the IMF and the World Bank imposed structural adjustment policies [on a number of African countries],” Sylviane A. Diouf, a research scholar at the Schomberg Center for Research on Black Culture, told the World. “People who didn’t think of leaving before found themselves unemployed with their families to support.”

Another related factor, according to Diouf, is the devaluation of the franc in 14 West African countries in 1994. Also, she said, “In some African countries, like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Somalia and the Ivory Coast, there have been civil wars,” which has also been an impetus to emigraton.

However, refugees make up only a small percentage of African immigrants – 16 percent – almost the same proportion as their European counterparts.

Diouf also points to factors in the receiving countries that have impacted immigration to the U.S. For example, a growing anti-immigrant, racist trend in Europe has caused difficulties for Africans entering and settling there. At the same time, visas for certain categories of African immigrants coming to the U.S. became easier to obtain. Many African immigrants in Europe eventually move to the U.S.

The largest concentrations of Africans are found in New York State. Nigeria and Ghana are among the top 20 sources of immigrants to New York City. Many have settled in places as diverse as Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cape Verde and Ghana have the largest communities of African immigrants in the U.S.

According to a report by the State University of New York in Albany, Africans tend to live in neighborhoods with higher median income and education attainment levels than their African American and African Caribbean counterparts.

“One of the surprising things I have found in my research is the high level of education of African immigrants. It is almost like you have to have a graduate degree to get into the country,” John R. Logan, professor of sociology at Brown University, told the World by telephone. “This places African immigrants in the United States with the highest educated Asian immigrants and actually higher than non-Hispanic whites.”

A primary reason for this selectivity is that many come to the United States via the “diversity lottery” visa, a system that requires at least a high school education for eligibility. While this accounted for 7 percent of all other countries, it accounted for one-third of immigrant visas awarded to Africans in 2003.

Civil rights legacy

Some commentators are using this character of African immigration as a means of political comparisons with the majority African American population. Others claim that the class differences will influence the debate on policies instituted to redress the legacy of slavery, since African immigrants purportedly are less sensitive to issues of structural inequality. According to a recent New York Times article, “[this] steady decline in the percentage of African Americans with ancestors who suffered directly through the middle passage and Jim Crow is also shaping the debate over affirmative action, diversity programs and other initiatives.”

Many Africans see this perception as presumptuous since immigration reform and the concomitant increased African immigration is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement in the United States. A series of post-1965 immigration policy shifts opened the doors for all immigrants but particularly African immigration towards the end of the 20th century. Building on the successes of the civil rights movement, the new laws, such as the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965, encouraged more equitable policies in U.S. immigration.

Indeed, the long tradition of Caribbeans in the U.S., as well as the recent upsurge in African immigration, attest to the continuity of struggle of Africans for dignity. The civil rights movement is deeply indebted to the pan-African movement pioneered by leaders and social movements throughout the African Diaspora, such as Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), Claudia Jones (Trinidad), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), and W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King (U.S.).

The independence struggles in Africa inspired U.S. civil rights struggles and emboldened the Black Power movement. Conversely, the U.S. civil rights movement advanced the cause of freedom and anticolonialism throughout the African Diaspora.

Immigrant advocates see it quite fitting that the labor movement kept this continuity when the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, UNITE HERE, spearheaded the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, inspired by the freedom riders of the civil rights movement. African and Caribbean workers were well represented in the freedom ride.

The Bush administration attack on civil rights has also meant reversal on immigration rights. The recently passed Real ID Act, endorsed by the president, will push illegal immigrants further underground and make them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, immigrant advocates say.

Shared realities

“African professionals and students are not spared from racism and discrimination. In addition to being a person of dark complexion, Africans are also identifiably immigrants and face [double] discrimination,” Zenebu Gebre, an Ethiopian medical student at New York University who came to New Jersey as a refugee in 1992, told the World. “Things got even more difficult for African immigrants since 9/11. The last few years have been the worst in terms of obstacles and just day-to-day things like class registration at my university.”

Brown’s Professor Logan points out that while many Africans are more integrated in mainstream American society than other African Americans, more live in the same communities as majority African Americans and therefore the community concerns like schools, security, and the general local environment that are experienced by African Americans are also often experienced by African immigrants. “That means that whatever the difference in situation that is experienced has to be seen in terms of the similarities also,” Logan said. The police shooting deaths of African immigrants like Amadou Diallo and Ousmane Zongo (from Guinea and Burkina Faso, respectively) in New York underscore these points.

Solidarity between the three communities — African American, Caribbean and African — is a work in progress and is often realized in practical ways, such as networking or running joint credit unions in an effort to strengthen neighborhoods.

Senator Obama once said Black descendants of slaves share more similarities than differences with Black immigrants and their children. He said his grandfather worked as a servant in Kenya and was described as a “houseboy” by whites even when he was a middle-aged man. “Some of the patterns of struggle and degradation that Blacks here in the United States experienced aren’t that different from the colonial experience in the Caribbean or the African continent,” Obama said.

Dual existence

However, like most recent immigrants, African immigrants have a dual existence — contributing to the U.S. while contributing to their mother countries.

Diouf cautions against expecting African-born immigrants to automatically identify with wider African American issues.

“African immigrants don’t have the same stakes as the native population. Many of them are members of African associations. Many are more concerned with affairs in their home countries than where they live. Most of their time, money, etc., is spent [on African-related issues] rather than what’s going on here,” Diouf said. Immigrants who make the decision to emigrate are highly motivated to succeed, she said.

Many African immigrants are those who can afford the high cost of travel to the U.S. and naturalization. Highly educated with high-paying jobs, many are professionals educated in Africa or Europe’s top universities. Others come as university students. Many are multilingual.

According to Diouf, the great outflow of professionals from Africa to the U.S. is the cause of a significant “brain drain” from the continent. “A lot of African professionals end up doing menial jobs in the U.S.,” because they cannot find jobs in their professional areas, she said.

However, a large percentage of recent African immigrants are poor and eager to improve their condition. Many are taxi drivers, street merchants, nurses, restaurant employees, messengers and day laborers.

Ernest Kwesi Apaak, a Ghanian educator and specialist on West African refugee issues, is a messenger at a top Manhattan law firm while he pursues a sociology degree at New York University. “To me it is a question of survival. I am not going to worry about what I go through now. My salvation comes from thinking ahead.”

Because mass African immigration to the U.S. is a relatively new phenomenon, citizenship is at a low percentage. African electoral success here has been minimal. Many Africans living in the U.S run for office in Africa or fund candidates seeking office in their home countries.

Many Africans seek education in the U.S. before going back to their home countries to re-engage in struggle. Some have become heads of state like Kwame Nkrumah and American-educated John Chilembwe, who led a rebellion against the British in Malawi in 1915. Many of the leaders of South Africa’s African National Congress were educated in the U.S.

And as with many immigrants, economic remittances to their home countries play an important role in the home country’s economy. Over $3 billion in remittances are sent to Africa from the U.S. annually. Raising the salient question of “Who’s helping whom?” Diouf points out that while U.S. aid to Africa is about $1 billion, the tremendous contributions of Africans to the U.S. are not just monetary but also intellectual.

Undoubtedly, capitalist globalization is recreating the brain drain from Africa that began with chattel slavery. But, as African American empowerment in the U.S. continues to gain momentum, and as the struggle of African immigrants in the U.S. for equal rights advances, so too will the ongoing struggle against imperialism in Africa gain strength.

Martin Frazier ( is a PWW contributing editor and writes on African American/Caribbean/African affairs. Frazier will publish a feature on Caribbean immigration in an upcoming issue.