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The Foreign-Born Population from Africa: 2008-2012

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Report Number ACSBR/12-16


According to the 2008–2012 American Community Survey (ACS), 39.8 million foreign-born people resided in the United States, including 1.6 million from Africa, or about 4 percent of the total foreign-born population. In 1970, there were about 80,000 African foreign born, representing less than 1 percent of the total foreign-born population (Figure 1). During the following four decades, the number of foreign born from Africa grew rapidly, roughly doubling each decade.

About three-fourths of the foreign-born population from Africa came to live in the United States after 1990.1 The timing of this movement was driven in part by historical changes. Outmigration from Africa increased rapidly after World War II, as migrants responded to the pull of educational opportunities and jobs abroad.2 While the first waves of postwar migrants went to other African countries and former colonial powers of Europe, migration to the United States increased in the 1970s as economies faltered and new restrictions were placed upon immigration in Western Europe.3 More immigrants from Africa were admitted to the United States after the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965, which replaced the national origin quota system favoring immigration from Europe with a new law prioritizing skilled labor, family unification, and humanitarianism.4 In addition, nearly a quarter of all immigrants from Africa to the United States in 2010 entered as refugees or received asylum as a result of ethnic conflict or civil war, particularly in countries such as Somalia, Liberia, and Sudan.5 The rate of African-born immigrants arriving and staying in the United States accelerated further as immigrant networks grew and pathways were established.6

This brief discusses the size, place of birth, geographical distribution, and educational attainment of the foreign born from Africa. Data are presented at the national, state, and metropolitan levels based on the 2008–2012 ACS 5-year file.

1 Elizabeth M. Grieco, et al., The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2010, American Community Survey Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, May 2012, page 10, <www.census.gov/library/publications/2012/acs/acs-19.html>, accessed on July 31, 2018.
2 John A. Arthur, Invisible Sojourners: African Immigrant Diaspora in the United States, Praeger Publishers, 2000, pp. 20–26.
3 April Gordon, “The New Diaspora: African Immigration to the United States,” Journal of Third World Studies, 1998, 15(1): 81–87, <www.inmotionaame.org/texts/viewer.cfm?id=13_011T&page=79>, accessed on August 15, 2014.
4 Congressional Budget Office, Immigration Policy in the United States, Washington, DC, 2006, <www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/70xx/doc7051/02-28-Immigration.pdf>, accessed on August 15, 2014.
5 Randy Capps, Kristen McCabe, and Michael Fix, Diverse Streams: African Migration to the United States, Migration Policy Institute, 2012, pp. 8–9, <www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/CBI-AfricanMigration.pdf>, accessed on August 15, 2014.
6 John A. Arthur, “Transnational African Immigrant Lives and Identities,” African Diaspora Identities, Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 79–87.

Supplemental Tables

Supplemental Table 3.

The number of foreign-born, number of African-born, and the percentage of the foreign-born population that is African-born, for selected metropolitan statistical areas.

Page Last Revised - December 16, 2021
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