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date: 29 November 2022

African Americans: Immigrants of African Originfree

African Americans: Immigrants of African Originfree

  • Fariyal Ross-SheriffFariyal Ross-SheriffHoward University
  •  and Tamarah Moss-KnightTamarah Moss-KnightTamarah Moss-Knight, PhD, MSW, MPH - Adjunct Faculty, School of Social Work, Barry University


The number and percentage of immigrants and refugees from Africa to the United States have increased substantially since the mid-1990s. Though still a relatively small percentage of the immigrant population, immigrants from Africa encounter many challenges that are important for social work professionals to address. This entry examines two groups of immigrants from Africa: legal migrants (immigrants) and refugees. It provides information on distinctive characteristics of recent African immigrants, reasons for emigration from Africa, challenges they face in the United States, and their settlement (geographical distribution) patterns. While black Africans are the focus of this entry, the research literature does not provide clear distinctions within the group of African immigrants. The emphasis is on black African immigrants to the United States as their experience is unique in terms of their race in America and the types of stigma and discrimination they face as a result. Critical issues for social work practice are examined through a case example of Somali refugees, followed by implications for social work practice and research.


  • International and Global Issues
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

Updated in this version

Article expanded and updated statistics on Black African immigrants and refugees in the US. The San Diego Five-Stage Approach to Refugee Health Promotion was presented as a promising strategy to address health and mental health needs of this population.


There are approximately 1.1 million black African immigrants in the United States, who account for 3% of the total foreign-born population in the United States (Capps, McCabe, & Fix, 2011). The nature, form, and process of immigration from Africa to the United States have changed significantly since the mid-20th century. U.S. policies during the first half of the 20th century and social and political factors in Africa resulted in the migration of a very small number of people directly from Africa. Unlike immigrants from Western Europe, Eastern Europeans, Asians, and other people of color, including Africans, were restricted from entering the United States. The McCarran Walter Act of 1952 reversed racially based quotas by establishing new quotas for immigrants from the Asian-Pacific area. It continued to give preference to northwestern Europeans, however (Helton, 1992). The 1965 Immigration Act phased out the national-origins quota and allowed for immigration to the United States under four main categories: (a) family reunification; (b) labor certification, which included those needed for their work skills in the United States; (c) refugees for political and humanitarian reasons; and (d) temporary visitors, such as tourists, students, and diplomats (Bean, Vernez, & Keeley, 1989; Ross-Sheriff, 1995). The 1980 refugee act facilitated the entry of a large number of Africans among other groups who came to America (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1993). (An immigrant is a person who migrates to another country for permanent residence. For purposes of this paper, an immigrant is a person who is admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Unlike immigrants, refugees are persons who are forced to leave their country because of well-founded fear of persecution. The 1980 Refugee Act, Public Law 96-212 (1980) was created to provide systematic procedures to admit to the U.S. people with special humanitarian concerns and to provide support for their resettlement into American society.)

Two more policies—the 1986 Immigration and Reform Control Act, which gave amnesty to undocumented people and the 1990 Diversity Visa program—opened the doors further for documentation and entry of Africans to America. Between 1998 and 2006, 27% of the awards of Diversity Visas to the United States were made to Africans (Kent, 2007). Yet, Africans are the least represented groups of immigrants to the United States and continue to be disproportionately underrepresented in the U.S. immigration system (Newton, 2005). The reasons for immigration are varied and highlighted in the following discussion.

Reasons for Immigration

Political instability in post-independent African states beginning in the 1970s—civil unrest, inter- and intra-ethnic power struggles, regional tensions, and military coups in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Somalia—as well as natural and man-made disasters created a large number of refugees (Mohammad & Rahman, 1998). During the same period, deterioration in socioeconomic conditions, unemployment, and related reduction in standards of living increased the desire for Africans to migrate to the United States (Adepoju, 1991; Peil, 1995). Such conditions, coupled with globalization, including exchanges of commodities and capital across international borders and developments in transportation and mass communication, resulted in an increase in migration of Africans to America (Massey, 1995; Okome, 2001; Rumbaut, 1994) and remain important “push factors” (Martin, 1994; Okome).

During the 1990s, about 350 million Africans, which is approximately 10% of the population of the African continent, had migrated to another country (Ricca, 1989). While most of the refugees sought shelter in neighboring countries, there was also an exodus of immigrants out of Africa to Europe, Australia, and North America (Dodoo, 1997; Kamya, 1997; Martin & Widgren, 2002; Takougang, 1995). Between 1990 and 2000, the number of African immigrants to the United States increased by 142%, with the largest group arriving from West Africa (Dixon, 2006).

Other critical considerations in the discussion of African immigration to America are two pull factors: educational and professional opportunities in America from the 1960s to the turn of the century. The United States, which is considered a major center for higher education, provided scholarships and other cultural and educational opportunities that served as great incentives for Africans from the newly independent countries during the 1960s and the 1970s. Oil revenues, during the boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, further increased the number of students from Nigeria, Algeria, and Libya. Some graduates of American universities never returned home to African countries, while others who had elected to return home to African countries migrated back to the United States when social and economic conditions in their home countries deteriorated. These returnees served as chain migrants for their families and friends (Takougang, 2003).

Thus, there has been a small but steady increase of African immigrants to America. Prior to 1965, the percentage of immigrants from Africa was 0.7%; by 1992, that percentage had increased to 2.8% (Ross-Sheriff, 1995). The largest increase was during the 1990s, as a result of the Diversity Visa Program, beginning in 1990. In addition, beginning in 2000, there was a significant increase in admission of refugees from Africa. As a result, the percentage of legal migrants from Africa to the United States increased from 6% in 1997 to 9.6% in 2006, and the percentage of refugees from 8.7% to 44.2% during the same period (see Table 1). More recently, the percentage of legal migrants from Africa to the United States was 8.99% in 2007 to 9.45% in 2011, but the percentage of refugees from Africa decreased from 36.36% to 13.64% in 2011 (see Table 2).

Characteristics of Recent African Migrants

As a whole, African immigrants have higher levels of education (Carrington & Detragiache, 1999), higher English level proficiency, and lower unemployment rates compared with other immigrant groups. They work in high-level occupations in management or professional positions and sales, and they earn relatively more than the overall foreign-born population in America (Dixon, 2006). Approximately 90% of African immigrants had a high-school or higher education. Forty percent of these immigrants had a college education, and one-third of households own their own homes (Dixon). Compared with the poverty rates of all Americans in 2000 (which was 11.3%), the rates of African immigrants was about 10% (Dixon). There is a great variation in the demographic characteristics of African immigrants, however, and they form a very heterogeneous group comprising people from different countries of origin; ethnic groups; cultural, linguistic, and social backgrounds; and geographic locations in the United States.

A report from Migration Information Source early in the 2000s indicated that African immigrants originate from western, eastern, northern, and southern Africa (Dixon, 2006). While almost all the African countries were represented among the countries of origin, Butty (1991) estimated that one out of every four Africans in the United States was a Nigerian. Using the 1990 Census data, Takyi (2002) found that the largest numbers of African immigrants were from Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Republic of South Africa, and Ghana. This has remained relatively the same according to the 2010 Census, with Kenya also being a top nation for African immigrants. Among the most recent immigrants, those from Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Malawi had high-school educations or higher, while those from Cape Verde, Mauritania, and Somalia were least likely to have completed a high-school education. In terms of college education, those from Egypt, Cameroon, and Nigeria reported having a college degree or higher. Those from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, and Sierra Leone had relatively high levels of labor-force participation. Those from Somalia, Sudan, and Botswana had the highest rates of unemployment and lived in poverty (Dixon).

Patterns of Settlement in the United States

New York, California, Texas, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia, and Massachusetts are eight states that are selected as destination locations by black African immigrants (Takyi, 2002). Based on destination locations such as New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and the Greater Washington Metropolitan area, Takyi speculates that “black African immigrants gravitate more to states with a significant number of other black residents” (p. 37), where they settle in large numbers and establish ethnic enclaves. Established African immigrants help newcomers from their countries or from their ethnic, tribal, or religious groups find employment and housing. Takougang (1995) explains that the choice of location of African immigrants is a function of availability of jobs. Gozdziak (1989) notes that a large proportion of refugees find their jobs through informal referrals from extended family members and friends. Unger (1995) describes how “Ethiopians in business here prefer to hire their own compatriots in part because there is natural tribal identification and affinity for their own people” (p. 226). Eissa (2005) notes that African immigrants are establishing small businesses, cultural associations, religious institutions, and ethnic restaurants in cities across the country. They share languages and cultural backgrounds, which are a great source of comfort during the initial resettlement and adaptation phase in American society. This enables them to maintain their ethnic identities, which they value very highly. African immigrants have introduced their cultural practices and ways of life, including food, music, and dance, and “entrepreneurial ingenuity in the American mosaic” (Eissa, p. 4), and their entrepreneurial skills provide economic stability for their families and communities.

Table 1 African Immigration to the United States From 1997 to 2006


Total Number of Refugee Arrivals to the United States from Africa

African refugees admitted to the United States

Total number of persons obtaining legal permanent status

Number and percentage of Africans obtaining legal status

Total number

Percentage (%)

Total Number

Percentage (%)







































































Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2006).

Table 2 African Immigration to the United States From 2007 to 2011


Total number of refugee arrivals to the United States from Africa

African Refugees Admitted to the United States

Total Number of Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Status

Africans obtaining legal permanent status

Total number

Percentage (%)

Total number

Percentage (%)




































Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2011).


Despite their relatively high overall educational and occupational status and level of employment, a significant number of recent African immigrants, specifically refugees, are poor, underserved, and inadequately served by human service professionals. African immigrant women are unique because of their layered experience of immigration, gender-role, and race-related issues (Ward, Sellers, & Pate, 2005). They encounter challenges in the workplaces and in residential settings (Lamphere, Stepick, & Grenier, 1994). Many encounter serious discrimination and even denial of due process. Recent immigrants struggle with interethnic conflicts, racial discrimination, and cultural denigration (Arthur, 2000). It should be noted that approximately 30% of Africans from sub-Saharan Africa who received legal permanent residence between 2000 and 2006 originally entered as refugees or asylum seekers (Kent, 2007). Education and employment needs are primary measures of success in settlement and resettlement, but the health and mental health needs of immigrants and refugees go ignored.

While African immigrants are an expanding group in the United States, the needs and practices of African immigrants are not understood (Venters et al., 2011). It is well documented that African immigrants arrive with unique problems related to infectious diseases, but upon their arrival are relatively healthier than African Americans in the United States. This observation is referred to as the “healthy immigrant effect” but how African immigrants acquire chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes over time is not clearly understood (Venters & Gany, 2011). For some African immigrants, it should be noted that the American concepts of medicine, especially preventative medicine does not always translate into health practices (Morris et al., 2009). For example, language and cultural barriers make it difficult for some African immigrants to understand diagnosis and treatment.

In terms of mental health, stigma barriers exist, and providers express the need for more culturally linguistic and appropriate mental health as needed (Morris et al., 2009). Other barriers include “misconceptions and fear concerning the U.S. Health system, stigma concerning HIV transmission, as well as legal and linguistic challenges to accessing care” (Venters & Gany, 2011, p. 344). The case example of Somali refugees is presented below to highlight some of the challenges, followed by implications for social work practice and research with African immigrants.

An Illustration of the African Refugee Experience

Somalis make up the largest African refugee group in the United States. Among all the refugees admitted to the United States annually since 2000, a high percentage are from Somalia, and 75% of this group are women and children (Cultural Orientation Resource Center, n.d.). Prior to the 1991 Somali civil war, very few people of Somali descent resided in the United States. The largest concentrations of Somali immigrants in the United States, as of the first decade of the twentieth century, were located in Ohio (Columbus) and Minnesota (Minneapolis) (Kusow, 2006). Many arrived directly in Midwestern America from refugee camps. Others, who were resettled in other regions of the United States, are drawn as secondary migrants to areas with job opportunities and where there are perceptions of social-support programs. Somalis have a unique culture, and they have arrived with little knowledge of English. Almost all Somali refugees are Muslims, and they make up one of the largest African-born Muslim immigrant groups (Kusow). This combination of a minority culture, religion, and race raises several challenges for them as well as for their host communities.

Implications for Social Work Practice With African Immigrants

The experience of migration may cause mental disorders due to factors such as acculturation stress, loss of employment, premorbid personality, and life events that occurred before, during, and after admission into the host country (Bhugra, 2004). Using Census data from the period between 1960 and 2002, Bangura (2005) found that recent African immigrants are establishing permanent residency in America. This is different from the earlier population of African immigrants. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, African immigrants face many challenges. In response, they have created individual and community resources such as churches, religious and spiritual groups, social clubs, and ethnic restaurants (Watson, 2002). Social work has a role to play in the lives of African refugees and immigrants to the United States, and there are implications for social work practice and research.


In 1970, it was reported that there were four significant experiences immigrants encounter: social isolation, cultural shock, cultural change, and goal-striving stress (Kuo, 1976). Decades later, African immigrants share a similar experience. It is important in social work practice to examine these issues in the context of the social dimension of stress, which includes attitudinal, familial, and environmental contexts (Kamya, 1997). The distinctive needs of diverse African immigrant and refugee groups call for culturally sensitive practice outside of the generic “Western” framework (Betancourt, Green, Carillo, & Ananeh-Firempong, 2003).

There has also been a shift in the gender make-up of African immigrants. More recently, especially among those immigrants from West Africa, women are earning their own income (Daff, 2002). Refugee women who have lost their spouses and male relatives arrive as heads of households. Immigrant and refugee women are becoming entrepreneurs and opening their own businesses. It is important that social work practitioners take into account the needs of women as part of the workforce, and provide effective services taking into account language, culture norms, and gender values.

A hopeful model of practice is the San Diego Consortium’s five-stage approach to refugee health promotion and disease prevention (Palinkas et al., 2003). That may also be considered for immigrant health and mental health issues. The five stages involve: (a) gaining the confidence of the refugee that their needs and belief systems are understood, respected, and utilized by the health care system; (b) addressing the mental health issues that influence motivation and ability to understand and adopt interventions; (c) developing interventions that address immediate, short-term, and long-term health care needs; (d) disseminating culturally and logistically appropriate materials for target communities; and (e) evaluating the process and outcomes that result from interventions.


Due to the lack of research on black immigrants, Bryce-Laporte (1972) referred to them as “invisible” immigrants. Given the rise in the population of black African immigrants, there is a call to explore and examine the experiences of African immigrants. It is reported that 60% of African immigrants have a tertiary education (Carrington & Detragiache, 1999). Despite the stereotypical Asian American model minority, African immigrants have the highest educational attainment rates and are most likely to be college educated of any immigrant group in the United States. The “brain drain” on African countries has resulted in slower economic growth and an increase in specific skill shortages (Carrington & Detragiache). It would be important for social work research to explore the impact of African immigrants’ perception of the brain drain on their families and social networks that remain in Africa. This would inform social workers and others about how to assist African individuals, families, and communities effectively in terms of resettlement and adaptation.

Variations in life experiences of different African groups have not been researched. Questions that need to be answered include: Are the acculturation and adaptation of different African groups similar? What is the nature of relationship among different African groups and among African immigrants, Africans from the global diasporas, and African Americans? Studies focused on different African groups would provide information on the contributions of this vibrant population to the American mosaic. This information is much needed to augment the limited research literature in social work, immigration studies and others, on this subpopulation of immigrant groups.


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Further Reading

  • Bhui, K., Craig, T., Mohamud, S., Warfa, N., Stansfeld, S. A., Thornicroft, G., et al. (2006). Mental disorders among Somali refugees: Developing culturally appropriate measures and assessing socio-cultural risk factor. Social Psychiatry and Epidemiology, 41, 400–408.
  • Ibrahim, R. (1991). The changing lives of Somalian women. In T. Wallace (Ed.), Changing perceptions (pp. 132–136). Oxford, UK: Oxfam.
  • Omar, H., & Richard, J. (2004). Cultural sensitivity in providing reproductive care to adolescents. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 16, 367–370.
  • Pobst, K. (2002). The after effects of September 11th: What the polls tell us. Social Education, 66(2), 103.
  • Rumbout, R. (1989). Origins and destinies: Immigration to the United States since World War II. Sociological Forum, 9(4), 583–622.
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2004). 2003 yearbook of immigration statistics. Retrieved June 30, 2007, from
  • Van Lehman, D., & Eno, O. (2003). The Somali Bantu: Their history and culture (Cultural Profile No. 16). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, The Cultural Orientation Resource Center.
  • Wachtler, C., Brorsson, A., & Troein, M. (2005). Meeting and treating differences in primary care: A qualitative interview study. Family Practice, 23, 111–115.