Show Summary Details

A more recent version of this content exists; this version was replaced on 2 January 2014. The version that replaced it can be found here.
Page of

PRINTED FROM the Encyclopedia of Social Work, accessed online. (c) National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the applicable license agreement governing use of the Encyclopedia of Social Work accessed online, an authorized individual user may print out a PDF of a single article for personal use, only (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 18 October 2019

African Americans: Immigrants of African Origin

Abstract and Keywords

The number and percentage of immigrants from Africa to the United States have increased substantially since the mid-1990s. Though still a relatively small percent of the immigrant population, immigrants from Africa encounter many challenges and are of concern to social work professionals. This entry examines two groups of immigrants from Africa: legal migrants and refugees. It provides information on distinctive characteristics of recent African immigrants, reason 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 type of stigma and discrimination they face as a result. Critical issues for social work practice are examined through a case example of a Somali refugee group, followed by implications for social work.

Keywords: immigrants of African origin, social work practice with immigrants, African refugees


The nature, form, and process of immigration from Africa to the United States have changed significantly over the past few decades. 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 the Western Europeans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, and other people of color, including Africans, were restricted from entering the United States. The McCarran Walter Act of 1962 reversed racially based quotas by establishing new quotas for immigrants from the Asian-Pacific area. However, it continued to give preference to Northwestern Europeans (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). 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. 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).

Despite the opening of the doors as a result of changes arising from the 1965 Immigration Act, the numbers of Africans migrating to America did not increase substantially soon after because of two reasons. First, few qualified under the family reunification category (Rockett, 1983). Second, most Africans who had high levels of education and good skills and who would qualify under the labor certification category preferred to return home to participate in the development of their nations postindependence. They hoped that independence would provide opportunities for contributions toward social, economic, and political developments leading to improvement in education and health care and greater employment opportunities in their countries (Takougang, 2003).

Reasons for Immigration

Political instability in postindependent African states beginning with 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 standard 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).

During the 1990s, about 350 million Africans, which is ∼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 selected to return home to African countries migrated back to the United States when social and economic conditions in their home countries had 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% (Ross-Sheriff, 1995). By 1992, the percentage of immigrants from Africa increased to 2.8% (Ross-Sheriff, 1995). The largest increase was during the 1990s as a result of the Diversity Visa Program beginning 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 has 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.)

Characteristics of Recent African Migrants

As a whole, the 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 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 owned their own homes (Dixon, 2006). Compared with the poverty rates of all Americans in 2000 (which was 11.3%), the rates of African immigrants was about 10% (Dixon, 2006). However, there is a great variation in the demographic characteristics of African immigrants and they form a very heterogeneous group composed of people from different countries of origin, ethnic groups, cultural, linguistic, and social backgrounds, as well as their geographic locations in the United States.

A recent report from Migration Information Source indicates 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, Republic of South Africa, and Ghana. Among the 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, 2006).

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 the 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 language and cultural background, which are a great source of comfort during the initial resettlement and adaptation phase in American society. This enables them to maintain their ethnic identity, 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, 2005, 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

Number and Percentage of African Refugees Admitted to the United States

Total Number of Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Status

Number and Percentage of Africans Obtaining Legal Status







































































From Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, by U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2006, Office of Policy and Office of Immigration Statistics. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from


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. 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). The case example of Somali refugees is presented below to highlight some of the challenges, followed by implications for social work practice 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 is from Somalia, and 75% of this group is 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. Most recently, the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the United States is located in the states of Ohio (Columbus) and Minnesota (Minneapolis) (Kusow, 2006). Many have arrived directly to 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, 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. Unlike the predominantly Mexican or Hmong immigrants who preceded them in the Midwest, they make up one of the largest African-born Muslim immigrant groups (Kusow, 2006). This combination of a minority culture, religion, and race raises several challenges for them as well as the host communities.

Muslim customs and practices are typically not well known in American communities. Lack of understanding of their cultural practices, including unacceptable practices such as female genital mutilation, has created several points of conflict. Somali women who wear head coverings (hijab) stand out from among the rest of the population groups. This makes them targets of prejudice and hate crimes. Lastly, their skin color and their language make them easily identifiable as a “foreign” other (Schaid and Grossman, 2003). Very few Americans speak the Arabic or Somali languages of this group of refugees, which makes finding Somali translators much more difficult for social service professionals.

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 the 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. Today, 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 immigrants and refugees to the United States, and there are implications for social work practice and research.


In 1970, it was reported that there are four significant experiences immigrants encounter: social isolation, cultural shock, cultural change, and goal-striving stress (Kuo, 1976). African immigrants today 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 those immigrants from West Africa, women are earning their own income by either joining their husbands in the United States, or leaving husbands and children behind (Daff, 2002). Refugee women who have lost their spouses and male relatives arrive as heads of households. Immigrant and refugee women are actually 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.


Because of 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). Compared with the stereotyped 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 (“African immigrants in the United States are the nation's most highly educated group,” 1999/2000). The “brain drain” on African countries has resulted in slower economic growth and a reduction in specific skill shortages (Carrington & Detragiache, 1999). 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 on 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? More focused studies 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.


Adepoju, A. (1991). South-north migration: The African experience. International Migration, 29(2), 205–221.Find this resource:

African immigrants in the United States are the nation's most highly educated group. (1999/2000). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 26, 60–61.Find this resource:

Arthur, J. (2000). Invisible sojourners: African immigrant diaspora in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger.Find this resource:

Bangura, A. K. (2005). African immigration and naturalization in the United States from 1960 to 2002: A quantitative determination of the Morris or the Takougang. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from

Bean, F. D., Vernez, G., & Keeley, C. B. (1989). Opening and closing the doors. Evaluating immigrant reform and control. Washington, DC: The Rand Corporation and the Urban Institute.Find this resource:

Betancourt, J., Green, A., Carillo, J., & Ananeh-Firempong, O. (2003). Defining cultural competence: A practical framework for addressing racial/ethnic disparities in health and health care. Public Health Reports, 118, 293–302.Find this resource:

Bhugra, D. (2004). Migration and mental health. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 109, 243–258.Find this resource:

Bryce-Laporte, R. (1972). Black immigrants: The experience of invisibility and inequality. Journal of Black Studies, 3(1), 29–56.Find this resource:

Butty, J. (1991). Dream or drain? Brain drain and Africa's development: A reflection. African Issues, 30(1), 25–30.Find this resource:

Carrington, W. J., & Detragiache, E. (1999). How extensive is the brain drain? Finance and Development: A Quarterly Magazine of the IMF, 36(2), 46–49.Find this resource:

Cultural Orientation Resource Center (n.d.). Refugee program statistics. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from

Daff, M. (2002, August 9). Women-migration: Women taking their places in African immigration. Inter Press Service. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from

Dixon, D. (2006). Characteristics of the African born in the United States. Migration Information Source. Retrieved November 2, 2006, from

Dodoo, F. (1997). Assimilation differences among Africans in America. Social Forces, 76, 527–546.Find this resource:

Eissa, S. O. (2005). Diversity and transformation: African American and African immigration in the United States. Immigration Policy Brief. Washington, DC: American Immigration Law Foundation. Retrieved July 16, 2013, from,0504-eissa.shtm.Find this resource:

Gozdziak, E. G. (1989). New Americans: The economic adaptation of Eastern European, Afghan and Ethiopian refugees. Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group.Find this resource:

Helton, A. C. (1992). U.S. refugee policy: African and Caribbean effects. Trans Africa Forum, 9, 93–102.Find this resource:

Kamya, H. (1997). African immigrants in the United States: The challenge for research and practice. Social Work, 42(2), 154–165.Find this resource:

Kuo, W. (1976). Theories of migration and mental health: An empirical testing on Chinese-Americans. Social Science and Medicine, 10, 297–306.Find this resource:

Kusow, A. M. (2006). Migration and racial formations among Somali immigrants in North America. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 32(3), 533–551.Find this resource:

Lamphere, J. B., Stepick, A., & Grenier, G. (1994). Newcomers in the workplace: Immigrants and the restructuring of the U.S. economy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

Martin, P., & Widgren, J. (2002). International migration: Facing the challenge. Population Bulletin, 57(1). Retrieved July 16, 2013, from

Massey, D. (1995). The new immigration and ethnicity in the United States. Population and Development Review, 21(3), 631–652.Find this resource:

Mohammad, E. O., & Rahman, B. A. A. (1998). Hazards in Africa: Trends, implications and regional distribution. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 7(2), 103–112.Find this resource:

Newton, A. A. (2005). Injecting diversity into U.S. immigration policy: The diversity visa program and the missing discourse on its impact on African immigration to the United States. Cornell International Law Journal, 38(3). Retrieved June 30, 2007, from this resource:

Okome, M. (2001). The antinomies of globalization: Causes of contemporary African immigration to the United States of America. Retrieved November 21, 2006, from

Peil, M. (1995). Ghanaian migrants abroad. African Affairs, 94, 345–367.Find this resource:

Ricca, S. (1989). International migration in Africa: Legal and administrative aspects. Geneva: International Labor Organization.Find this resource:

Rockett, I. R. H. (1983). American immigration policy and ethnic selection: An historical overview. The Journal of Ethnic Studies, 10, 1–26.Find this resource:

Ross-Sheriff, F. (1995). African Americans: Immigrants. In R. L. Edwards (Ed.), Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., pp. 130–136). Washington, DC: NASW Press.Find this resource:

Rumbaut, R. (1994). The crucible within: Ethnic identity, self-esteem, and segmented assimilation among children of immigrants. International Migration Review, 28, 749–794.Find this resource:

Schaid, J., & Grossman, Z. (2003). Somali immigrant settlement in small Minnesota and Twin Cities of midwestern Wisconsin communities: The case of Barron, University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, United States. Retrieved November 7, 2007, from this resource:

Takougang, J. (1995). Recent African immigrants to the United States: A historical perspective. Western Journal of Black Studies, 19(1), 20.Find this resource:

Takougang, J. (2003). Contemporary African immigrants to the United States. Ìrìnkèrindò: A Journal of African Migration, 2. Retrieved August 2, 2007, from this resource:

Takyi, B. K. (2002). The making of the second diaspora: On the recent African immigrant community in the United States of America. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 26(1), 32–43.Find this resource:

Unger, S. (1995). Fresh blood: The new American immigrants. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. (1993). 1992 Statistical year book of the immigration and naturalization service. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.Find this resource:

Watson, M. A. (2002). Africans in America: The unfolding ethnic identity. Monmouth Junction, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Adunga, G. (1998). African immigration in the modern era. Retrieved November 21, 2006, from∼mdd1mdd1/791/communities/html.africanmd.html

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.Find this resource:

Department of Homeland Security. (2004). 2003 Yearbook of immigration statistics. Retrieved June 30, 2007, from

Ibrahim, R. (1991). The changing lives of Somalian women. In T. Wallace (Ed.), Changing perceptions (pp. 132–136). Oxford: Oxfam.Find this resource:

Omar, H., & Richard, J. (2004). Cultural sensitivity in providing reproductive care to adolescents. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 16, 367–370.Find this resource:

Pobst, K. (2002). The after effects of September 11th: What the polls tell us. Social Education, 66(2), 103.Find this resource:

Rumbout, R. (1989). Origins and destinies: Immigration to the United States since World War II. Sociological Forum, 9(4), 583–622.Find this resource:

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.Find this resource:

Wachtler, C., Brorsson, A., & Troein, M. (2005). Meeting and treating differences in primary care: A qualitative interview study. Family Practice, 23, 111–115.Find this resource: