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CIANA Explains: Black Immigrant Communities in the United States

There are about 4.6 million Black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and other parts of the world living in the U.S., about 10% of the total of Black American population. Yet despite being a core part of the U.S. immigrant experience and essential members of the population, their communities, cultures, and stories are often overlooked.

In celebration of Black History Month, we at CIANA want to highlight Black immigrant communities, starting with a quick look on who Black immigrants are, where they come from, and why.

History of Black Migration to the U.S.

Throughout European colonization of the Americas and in the earliest years of the United States, from the 1600s until the mid 1800s, millions of Africans were brought over as slaves. Because they did not come of their free choice, they should not be considered immigrants.

However, after the abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, there was a steady influx in newcomers to the U.S. from descendants of formerly enslaved populations in the Caribbean and Latin America. Since the mid-to-late twentieth century and especially in recent years, the number of Black immigrants from the Caribbean as well as newcomers directly from Africa has nearly tripled.

While a majority of Black immigrants to the U.S. continue to arrive from the Caribbean, Jamaica and Haiti in particular, the fastest growing Black immigrant demographic is newcomers from Africa, specifically Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Like most immigrant groups, Black immigrant communities are mainly located in cities, with New York being the number one destination at 1.1 million. Immigrant neighborhoods from all over the West Indies and Africa can be found throughout the City, but especially in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem, each with their own distinctive markers of cultural heritage, such as language, food, and celebrations.

Migration Factors from Africa and the Caribbean

Many Black immigrants come from nations that have undergone a variety of troubles, ranging from political instability, poverty, hunger, disease outbreak, and natural disasters. These uninhabitable conditions have driven many citizens of these countries to seek refuge in other African countries, Europe, and the United States.

African refugees in the U.S. come largely from countries in East and Central Africa, such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, fleeing gender violence, religious discrimination, human trafficking, and even attempted genocide. As of May 2021, the plurality of refugees in the U.S. in the past year came from Democratic Republic of the Congo, nearly 3,000.

Many newcomers seeking shelter come from the Caribbean as well. Since the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, and numerous other natural disasters, political conflicts, and disease outbreaks since, more than 50,000 Haitians have come to the U.S. seeking Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Institutional Challenges & Systemic Discrimination

Immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa were not immune from the anti-immigrant policies put in place during the previous presidential administration. In 2017, President Trump announced he would end TPS for immigrants from a number of countries, including Haiti and Sudan. Around that time, Trump was reported to have referred to TPS holders’ countries of origin as “s-hole countries,” referring in particular to Haiti and countries in Africa.

About 400,000 TPS holders, including over 50,000 Haitians and nearly 1,000 Sudanese, stood to lose their legal status in the U.S. and faced a forced return to their countries of origin, which were and are still suffering the effects of natural disasters and political turmoil.

This move was challenged in a number of lawsuits throughout the country, including a case in Brooklyn filed in 2019 by and for the large Haitian community there. They argued that Trump’s decision not only harmed Haitian families by sending them back to a country not yet ready to receive them, but was motivated by anti-Black prejudice, proven by his vulgar comments about Haiti and other developing countries.

While Trump’s termination of TPS for all four countries was upheld nationwide in September 2020 after an appeal in California, the ruling had still not yet gone into effect by the time Trump left office the following January. In May 2021, President Biden, four months into his term, reinstated TPS for Haitians, Sudanese, and other groups targeted by Trump’s 2017 decision.

Celebrating Diversity & Looking Ahead

It is important to not exclusively associate Black immigrants with poverty and desperation. The Black immigrant story is the traditional immigrant story- people seeking a new life in the U.S. where they and their families will not only be able to survive, but thrive due to the abundance of resources that our country offers.

Black immigrants attain higher education, professional advancement, and financial stability at similar levels to other immigrant groups. Nevertheless, there are still challenges that persist.

Like many native-born Black Americans, Black immigrants face severe income equality, racism, as well as systemic issues, such as poor housing conditions, including those that led to the tragic Twin Parks fire in the Bronx in January 2022 that killed 17 people, including eight children, most of whom were of Gambian descent.

The success and recovery that these communities achieve is in large part due to immigrant-focused community-based organizations and advocacy groups, which aim to provide members of their communities with resources they need in their daily lives but might have trouble accessing, as well as advocating on their behalf to people in power.

Although Black immigrant history may seem like recent history in the U.S., the contributions of Afro-descendant cultures in the Americas dates back centuries, and deserves to be celebrated all year round, not only in February. We're thankful to live alongside and serve communities that embody American diversity.


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