Building Afromerica: America’s Fastest-growing Migrant Group

Ethiopian man waving the Ethiopian flag in Washington, D.C

By Economist

America’s fastest-growing migrant group may challenge the country’s fraught race relations

THE Eritrean Cultural & Civic Centre in Washington, DC is housed in a modest building near the city’s convention centre. Despite its name, it is less of a centre and more of a bar and restaurant where Eritrean cab-drivers, students and pensioners chat politics and chow down on lamb stews served on spongy “injera” bread. On its notice board are adverts from a shipping company, an immigration lawyer and a taxi firm seeking drivers. Eritrean flags hang from the ceiling and the walls are lined with trinkets from the country.

With roughly 170,000 African residents, Washington and its surrounding suburbs have, proportionately, the largest African-born population of any large city in America. Their numbers are still small: even in Washington, Africans make up just 14% of all immigrants, and 3% of the total population. But they are among the fastest growing. Between 2000 and 2013—the latest available figures—the number of people from sub-Saharan Africa in the United States more than doubled, from 690,000 to 1.5m. Since 1980 it has increased more than tenfold. Their experience reveals the successes of America’s unusual legal-immigration policies. Over time, their growing numbers may help to change what it means to be “African-American”.

The free migration of Africans (as opposed to the slave trade) has existed since the 19th century, when New England whaling ships picked up crew members from the Cape Verde islands. Even today, Cape Verdeans are among the most common African migrants in Boston and Providence. Since the 1980s, however, plenty more have joined. In Washington, DC, Ethiopians and Eritreans are the most numerous. In New York, Egyptians and Ghanaians are. Around Houston there are plenty of Nigerians. In Minneapolis there is a substantial Somali community.

Relatively few Africans are illegal immigrants (those who are have almost all overstayed their visas). Instead, they have particularly benefited from the Refugee Act of 1980, which brought more refugees to America, and the Immigration Act of 1990, which created special diversity visas, issued by lottery, for people from under-represented countries. According to analysis by the Pew Research Centre, 28% of legal African immigrants who arrived between 2000 and 2013 came as refugees; 19% of them arrived on diversity visas. For all legal immigrants, the equivalent figures were 13% and 4%.

As the migrants have put down roots, they have inspired others. Bahda Gide, an Eritrean-born retired social worker, arrived in America in the 1970s. Now Eritrean migrants go home for visits, he says, and impress their friends and relatives with their smart clothes and plump wallets. An established community helps penniless people find their way in an expensive foreign land: “Traditionally, you cannot ignore any countryman in a foreign country,” says Mr Gide. America’s relatively generous system of family reunion, which allows citizens and migrants with legal residency to apply to bring siblings and parents to America, helps to keep up the flow.

African migrants stand out from American-born blacks. Indeed, on most measures, they have little in common but their colour. With the exception of some refugees, who are often resettled in areas with cheap housing, they live mostly in the suburbs, rather than in inner cities. In Washington Ethiopians and Eritreans cluster in Silver Spring, a part of Maryland at the edge of the District of Columbia. They are older—the average African-born black in America is 37, against 29 for American-born blacks. And they are far more likely to be married: 52% are, against a figure of just 28% for American-born blacks.

They also tend to be well educated, according to Pew’s data. In 2013 35% had a bachelor’s degree or better, against a figure of 30% for all Americans and just 19% of American-born blacks (see chart). But despite these qualifications, they earn slightly less than most Americans. In 2013 the average household income for black Africans was $43,000. That is sharply higher than the $33,500 American-born blacks earn, but lower than the amounts earned by other immigrants and by white Americans. In Washington, Ethiopian and Eritrean men disproportionately work as taxi drivers, or in the city’s many East African restaurants.

Still, over time, they find their way. Research by Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank, found that in 2009 more-established African immigrants were far less likely to be working in unskilled jobs than new arrivals. This suggests that well-qualified migrants are getting on in the world, says Mr Capps. He thinks that those Africans who have settled in relatively affluent suburbs may face some discrimination, but they will succeed nonetheless, because their education and motivation will allow them to climb into the middle class.

What does this mean for America as a whole? Africans are just one group of black immigrants in America—Caribbeans and people from Latin America bring the total of people who identify as black and were born overseas to around 3.8m. One possibility is that their growth in numbers may help soften the historical racialised division of America’s population between those whose descendants moved willingly and those whose descendants were enslaved. In the meantime, the definition of the term African-American may already be changing. In a few weeks, Barack Obama will pay his first visit as president to Kenya, the homeland of his father. However Americans see him, there he will be both African and American.
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