Black Immigration Part 1: A Primer

Part 1: What Does Black Immigration Look Like?




Immigration is a hot topic. People talk about it in classrooms, at work, and at happy hour. But most people aren’t fully informed about what immigration is, means, and looks like.

When most people hear the word “immigration,” they imagine the U.S.-Mexican border; calls for the building of a “wall”; terms like “stolen jobs”; and most importantly, they imagine a distinctly Brown, Latinx face. This is understandable--most of the national dialogue about immigration focuses on undocumented, Spanish-speaking Latinx people. There are multiple local and national organizations fighting for the rights of Latinx migrants, field workers, farmers, and the like.  When we decide that the only immigrants deserving of our activism are strictly Latinx, we leave out an extremely important demographic: Black immigrants. People don’t think of Black folks when they hear the word “immigration,” unless you hail from Florida, New York, or somewhere else with a large, proud contingent of Black folks from other countries. People also forget that Black folks can be Latinx, too: various countries in Latin America have populations of Afro-Latinx people. It’s complicated, I know.

In this series, I distinguish Black Americans from Black immigrants. When I say “Black Americans” I refer to people who have a history of enslavement in the U.S., those whose ancestors did not choose to come to America.  Black immigrants, however, are those Black folks from other countries who have chosen to emigrate from their home nation to the U.S. for a multitude of reasons. My parents are immigrants from Jamaica; they came to the U.S. in the 1980’s, gained citizenship, and have lived here ever since. I’m the first American-born person in my family.

What I want to do, over the next few weeks, is introduce readers to the concepts and issues that affect Black immigrants, and by extension, all Black people in America (Black people aren’t a monolith, but until all Black people are free, none of us are free). Black immigrants are here, and we are routinely left out of national dialogues about discriminatory immigration policies and practices. Especially now, when major immigration policy changes are being issued and enforced in every state under the new administration, people need to hear from Black immigrants. That’s what this series aims to do.

This is Part One: What does Black immigration look like?  Who are Black immigrants? Where are they coming from? Where do they settle? How do they fare in America?

Last year, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) published the first report of its kind, called The State of Black Immigrants. BAJI partnered with the New York University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic to publish a report that gives us a full picture of what Black immigration looks like in the U.S. BAJI is the only national organization fighting for the rights of Black immigrants and Black undocumented people. BAJI is, in a word, phenomenal.

Not to mention, BAJI’s Executive Director is Opal Tometi, one of the three Black queer women who co-founded of Black Lives Matter. Do you remember Tia Oso, the Black woman who interrupted Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley at the Netroots Presidential Town Hall in 2015, demanding that they acknowledge #BlackLivesMatter more directly and openly? Yeah, she’s BAJI’s National Organizer. Follow them on Twitter, read their work.

BAJI is full of #BlackGirlMagic. Get familiar.

Here are some key takeaways from BAJI’s report.


We out here, in large numbers:

  • Some studies suggest that there are as many as 5 million Black immigrants in the U.S. According to BAJI’s analysis of a 2014 data survey, a record estimate of 3.7 million Black immigrants lives in the U.S.
  • In 1980, there were only about 800,000 Black immigrants living in the U.S., and only about 2.8 million in 2000. Black immigrants now make up about 10% of the Black population in the U.S.

We are drawn to the East Coast:

  • In New York, Black immigrants make up almost 30% of the total Black population in the state, making it the top state for Black immigrants in the U.S. Florida comes in second, with over 20% of its Black population identifying as foreign-born.

We’re taking over:

  • The Census Bureau predicts that by 2060, 16.5% of America’s Black population will be foreign-born.
  • We come from (roughly) the same two regions: Most Black immigrants hail from African and Caribbean nations, and Jamaica tops the list with more than 650,000 immigrants in the U.S. Haiti comes at a close second, with almost 600,000 immigrants. *waves Jamaican flag*

We’re fairly educated:

  • According to the ACS 2014 data, more than a quarter (27%) of Black immigrants age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, three points below the percentage of the overall U.S. population.

We’re struggling economically:

  • Black immigrants have a lower median annual household income than the median U.S. household and all immigrants in the U.S. According to data from 2013, the median annual household income for Black immigrants was $43,800. That’s roughly $8,000 less than the $52,000 median for American households and $4,200 less than that of all U.S. immigrants.
  • Although the median household income for Black immigrants is higher than it is for Hispanic immigrants ($38,000), both groups’ numbers are substantially below that of Asian immigrants, whose median household income is $70,600. The poverty rate among Black immigrants is higher than it is among all Americans but similar to that for all U.S. immigrants. One-in-five (20%) Black immigrants live below the poverty line, according to the Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data, a rate that falls between that of Asian immigrants (13%) and Hispanic immigrants (24%).

We work hard:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 70.8% of Black immigrants participate in the civilian labor force.

We tend to have some form of legal status, but we’re also undocumented:

  • According to a Pew study, about 84% of the Black immigrant population are living in the U.S. with authorization. An estimated 575,000 Black immigrants were living in the U.S. without status in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center study, making up 16% of the Black immigrant population. Among Black immigrants from the Caribbean, 16% are undocumented, and 13% of Black immigrants from Africa are undocumented.

For more details, read BAJI’s report about Black immigrants. It’s thorough and easy to read and gives you a better idea about who Black immigrants are. Next time, I’ll walk you through some of the problems Black immigrants face. You guessed it; the criminal justice system and the immigration system work together to keep Black immigrants in the crosshairs of mass incarceration, mass deportation, racial profiling, and more. Later, I’ll talk about our new president’s executive orders, and why and how Black immigrants have been affected by the #MuslimBan. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but I hope you’ll stick with me!



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