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USA/Africa: The State of Black Immigrants

AfricaFocus Bulletin
October 11, 2016 (161011)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The high proportion of immigrants with criminal records who are targeted for immigration enforcement is the result of an intentional and pervasive reliance on the machinery of the criminal enforcement system to identify people for deportation. The criminal enforcement system--each stage of which has been shown to target Black people disproportionately--has become a funnel into the immigration detention and deportation system. " - The State of Black Immigrants 2016

A report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the Immigrant Rights Clinic, New York University School of Law, released in September, provides new well-documented data and policy analysis on Black immigrants in the United States, primarily Caribbean and African immigrants. Based on the latest available statistical data and a careful analysis of migration policies and their implementation, this report is a basic resource for scholars and for activists. It includes an informative and detailed glossary that is essential for those of us who are not specialists in immigration law and related issues.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains brief excerpts. The full report, including footnotes, tables, and more detailed analysis and specific policy recommendations, is available in two parts on-line in pdf format ( and

Two recent articles with related reflections on African immigrants in the United States are:

"Intersecting Criminalization: What Killed Ugandan Refugee Alfred Olango," Michelle Chen, Truthout, October 6, 2016

"African immigrants and race in America," Anakwa Dwamena, Africa is a Country, October 9, 2016

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration issues, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

The State of Black Immigrants

Black Alliance for Just Immigration

Immigrant Rights Clinic, New York University School of Law

Juliana Morgan-Trostle, Kexin Zheng, and Carl Lipscombe

[Brief excerpts only: full text available at (Part I) and (Part II)]


In an era where #BlackLivesMatter and #Not1More have become rallying cries for racial justice and immigrants' rights activists respectively, it's important that we uplift the common challenges that cross both movements - mass incarceration, policing, immigrant detention, deportations, deprivation of civil rights and civil liberties, economic inequality, and the destruction of families and communities. These problems are prevalent in all communities of color in the U.S. But unlike Black Americans and immigrants of other backgrounds, Black immigrants face the aforementioned challenges in ways that are unique and consequential.

For over a decade, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has sought to raise the public consciousness around issues impacting Black immigrants through education, advocacy, grassroots organizing, and storytelling. Despite our successes, which include consolidating Black immigrant power and mobilizing the Black diaspora around the human rights issues that transcend our communities, Black Americans and Black immigrants remain at the margins of society.

When it comes to Black immigrants, terms such as "marginalization" and "oppression" understate the difficulties faced by this community. Simply put, Black immigrants are invisible. They are absent from the mainstream and media representation of immigrants. Their narratives are merged with the stories of other communities of color in the United States. Research and readily available data on Black immigrants is scant.

Even the notion of "Black immigrants" as an identity group is foreign to most. For this reason, we recognized that any research report about Black immigrants – and this report in particular – must serve two purposes: (1) to provide basic demographic information about Black immigrants and (2) to highlight the unique social and economic challenges facing this immigrant group.

This report confirms our hypothesis: Black immigrants, one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the U.S., face a myriad of challenges that parallel those of Black Americans. While this report is substantive, it is only the beginning. Our hope is that we will be able to build on the body of research available on the Black immigrant experience in the U.S. and that this report, in particular the recommendations toward the end, will lay the groundwork for a Black immigrant policy agenda over the coming years.

Part I: A Statistical Portrait of Black Immigrants in the United States

The last four decades have represented a period of significant demographic change in the United States. Now more than ever, Black immigrants compose a significant percentage of both immigrant and Black populations in the U.S. overall. This report presents a statistical snapshot of the Black immigrant population, drawing upon recent studies and original analysis.

I. Size and Growth of Black Immigrant Population

Size and growth of the overall population.

The number of Black immigrants in the United States has increased remarkably in recent decades. Population data on Black immigrants is difficult to ascertain, as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not track immigration data by race. Some studies suggest that there are as many as 5 million Black immigrants in the U.S. According to our analysis of the 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) data, a record estimate of 3.7 million Black immigrants live in the United States. While this analysis is conservative, it still represents a four-fold increase when compared to the number of Black immigrants who lived in the U.S. in 1980 (which was only about 800,000) and a 54% increase from 2000 (roughly 2.8 million).

Percentage of Black population.

The overall growth of the Black immigrant population represents a significant change in the demographics of both the Black population and the immigrant population more broadly in the United States. First, Black immigrants represent an increasing percentage of Black people in the United States as a whole. The ACS data shows that while Black immigrants accounted for only 3.1% of the Black population in the U.S. in 1980, Black immigrants now account for nearly 10% of the nation's Black population. This growth is particularly significant in states with the largest number of Black immigrants. For example 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 seconds the list with over 20% of its Black population being foreign-born. The Census Bureau projects that by 2060, 16.5% of America's Black population will be foreign-born.

Percentage of the foreign-born population.

Second, Black immigrants make up a significant portion of the overall immigrant and non-citizen population in the U.S. According to the 2014 one-year estimates from ACS, the estimated total of foreign-born population in the U.S. was 42 million, within which 8.7% were Black immigrants. In addition, about 22 million of the U.S. foreign-born population were non-citizens, among whom 7.2% were Black.

II. Characteristics of the Black Immigrant Population

Diversity based on country or region of origin.

While Black immigrants in the U.S. come from diverse backgrounds and regions of the world, immigrants from African and Caribbean countries comprise the majority of the foreign-born Black population. According to the 2014 ACS data, Jamaica was the top country of origin in 2014 with 665,628 Black immigrants in the U.S., accounting for 18% of the national total. Haiti seconds the list with 598,000 Black immigrants, making up 16% of the U.S. Black immigrant population.

Although half of Black immigrants are from the Caribbean region alone, African immigrants drove much of the recent growth of the Black immigrant population and made up 39% of the total foreignborn Black population in 2014. The number of African immigrants in the U.S. increased 153%, from 574,000 in 2000 to 1.5 million in 2014, with Nigeria and Ethiopia as the two leading countries of origin. Besides African and Caribbean regions, an estimated 4% of Black immigrants are from South America, another 4% are from Central America, 2% are from Europe and 1% from Asia.

Length of residency in the U.S.

Black immigrants tend to have lived in the U.S. for long periods of time, although there are some regional differences in length of residency. As more African immigrants are recent arrivals, those from the Caribbean have generally lived in the U.S. longer. ...

Geographic dispersion in the U.S.

The geographic dispersion of Black immigrants is highly concentrated. New York State is home to 846,730 (23%) Black immigrants, making it the top state of residence. Florida has the second largest foreign-born Black population (18%), followed by Texas (6%) and Maryland (6%). Some Black immigrant communities tend to cluster together around certain metropolitan areas. For example, according to the Pew study of 2013 ACS data, New York City is home to nearly 40% of all foreign-born black Jamaicans in the U.S.; Miami has the nation's largest Haitian immigrant community; Washington D.C. has the largest Ethiopian immigrant community; and Somalian immigrants concentrate in metropolitan areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

III. Educational Background of Black Immigrants

A significant percentage of Black immigrants have obtained degrees through higher education, but the percentage remains lower than the U.S. population as a whole. 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. However, the proportion with an advanced degree is similar among all Americans (11%) and Black immigrants (10%). When comparing Black immigrants with Asian and Hispanic immigrants, the differences are more apparent. About 30% of Asian immigrants age 25 and older have completed at least a fouryear degree, whereas only 11% of Hispanic immigrants have done so. Within Black immigrants, educational attainment also varies among different regions of birth. About 34% of African immigrants age 25 and older have at least a bachelor's degree, including 14% with an advanced degree. In comparison, only 6.2% of Caribbean immigrants age 25 and older have an advanced degree. Nonetheless, education attainment for Black immigrants from Africa is still lower than those from Europe and Asia, with 16.7% and 18.6% of them have an advanced degree respectively.

IV. Economic Snapshot of Black Immigrants Household income.

Black immigrants have a lower median annual household income than the median U.S. household and all immigrants in the U.S. Based on the Pew study of ACS 2013 data, the median annual household income for foreign-born blacks 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. While 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. ...

According to a 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Caribbean women earn 8.3% less than U.S. born non-Hispanic white women; African women earn 10.1% less. When we consider subsets of Black immigrants, the differences become even more dramatic. For example, Haitian women earn 18.6% less than U.S. born non-Hispanic white women.

Similarly, Black immigrant men earn lower wages than U.S. born nonHispanic white men. Caribbean men earn 20.7% less than U.S. born non-Hispanic white men and African men 34.7%. Notably, as of 2011 Black immigrant men also earned lower wages than African American males. While earnings for Caribbean men were just 1% less than those of African-Americans, African men earned nearly 15% less than US Born Black men.

Black Immigrants in the Workforce.

Black immigrants are more likely to participate in the labor force than the overall immigrant population. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 70.8% of Black immigrants participate in the civilian labor force.

Black immigrants maintain higher rates of employment in service and sales positions than their counterparts of other immigrant backgrounds. Other areas of employment for Black immigrants include management, finance, and construction.


The percentage of unionized Black immigrants has nearly doubled over the last 20 years from 7% in 1994 to 15.4% in 2015. Black immigrants are more likely than Black Americans to be unionized. 16.9% of Black immigrants are union members, compared to 13.8% of Black Americans. Unionization has proven to have a positive impact on the livelihood of Black workers. On average Black union members, earn nearly $7 more per hour than non-union Black workers. 71.4% of Black union members have employer-provided health care, compared to 47.7% of non-union Black workers. 61.6% of Black union members have employersponsored retirement plans, compared to 38.2% of non-union Black workers.

V. Immigration Status and Means of Entry

The majority of Black immigrants are living in the U.S. with formal immigration authorization. According to a Pew study, about 84% of the Black immigrant population are living in the U.S. with authorization. This section of the report presents details about Black immigrants by immigration status.

Undocumented Community Members

When compared with the overall share of undocumented immigrants in the country--about a quarter of the total immigrant population-- Black immigrants are less likely to be in the U.S. unlawfully. An estimated 575,000 Black immigrants were living in the U.S. without authorization in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center study, making up 16% of all Black immigration population. Among Black immigrants from the Caribbean, 16% are undocumented immigrants and as are 13% of Black immigrants from Africa. ...

When compared with the increase of undocumented immigrant population from other regions of the world, African and Caribbean unauthorized immigrants are growing at a lower rate since 2000 than those from Central America (194% without Mexico) and Asia (202%), but faster than those from South America (39%) and Europe (62%).

Part II: Black Immigrants in the Mass Criminalization System

I. Targeting Immigrants with Criminal Convictions

"Good" vs. "Bad" Migrants

In creating a "good" versus "bad" migrant binary, President Obama sought to justify a detention and removal campaign that oversaw the deportation of a record 438,421 immigrants in fiscal year 2013 --an increase that has led some to refer to President Obama as "deporterin -chief." Since the start of Obama's administration in 2008, 2.9 million immigrants have been deported from the United States, a majority of whom (58%) have a criminal record.

"Felons" vs. "Families"

In a national address in November 2014, President Obama announced that he would focus immigration enforcement resources on individuals with criminal records--"felons, not families." This phrase has been widely criticized as devaluing and dehumanizing individuals with criminal convictions. After all, "felons" have families, too.


The government's increasing focus on immigrants with criminal records disproportionately impacts Black immigrants, who are more likely than immigrants from other regions to have criminal convictions, or at least to be identified through interactions with local law enforcement, because of rampant racial profiling.

Tougher Enforcement

President Obama's address to the nation coincided with the Department of Homeland Security's release of a memo outlining new immigration enforcement priorities. DHS noted that it would continue to prioritize national security, border security, and public safety, and went on to rank certain classes of immigrants in order of enforcement priority, with a significant focus on targeting people with criminal records.

Intensification of ICE Removals

Following the November 2014 DHS memo, ICE implemented the revised Civil Immigration Enforcement Priorities (CIEP) in FY 2015, which intensified the focus on removing people with criminal convictions and recent entrants. The highest priority for enforcement resources, known as "Priority 1," groups together immigrants "engaged in or suspected of terrorism or espionage" along with individuals "apprehended at the border while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States." This includes asylum seekers, immigrants convicted of a felony offense and immigrants convicted of an "aggravated felony" as defined in section 101(a) (43) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The term "aggravated felony" includes offenses that are neither aggravated nor felonies and has been expanded over time to include, for example, a single theft offense with a suspended one-year sentence involving no actual jail time. The memo's secondhighest priority for detention and deportation, "Priority 2," includes immigrants convicted of three or more misdemeanor offenses, individuals with a "significant misdemeanor" including drug "distribution" offenses, and people who entered the United States unlawfully after January 1, 2014. The final category, "Priority 3," includes immigrants who were ordered deported after January 1, 2014. ICE continues to remove individuals who do not fall under these revised categories if their removal would serve an important "federal interest."

Blacks are Disproportionately Represented in the Criminal Enforcement System

Black people are far more likely than any other population to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned in the U.S. criminal enforcement system--the system upon which immigration enforcement increasingly relies. Black people are arrested at 2.5 times the rate of whites. They are more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison, and less likely to be sentenced to probation. According to the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division, of the total individuals arrested in 2014, 69.4% were white, 27.8% were Black or African American, and 3% were of another race. These arrest rates demonstrate that Black and African American individuals are arrested at a higher rate than their overall percentage in the population. These disparities exist even when crime rates are the same; for example, although Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, Black people are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Targeting Immigrants with Criminal Records

Despite racial disparities in criminal enforcement, the federal government prioritizes the deportation and detention of individuals with criminal records. In FY 2015, ICE deported 139,368 people with criminal convictions, which represented 59% of all ICE removals. The percentage of people targeted for deportation by ICE based on their criminal records rose from 82% in FY 2013 to 91% in FY 2015. Many of their records involved drug-related convictions. In FY 2003-2013, drug offenses, including simple drug possession, accounted for almost a quarter of all criminal removals.

Three federal agencies are tasked with enforcing immigration laws: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Although immigration law is federal, the U.S. government has instructed state and local law enforcement agencies to assist with immigration enforcement.

The high proportion of immigrants with criminal records who are targeted for immigration enforcement is the result on an intentional and pervasive reliance on the machinery of the criminal enforcement system to identify people for deportation. The criminal enforcement system--each stage of which has been shown to target Black people disproportionately--has become a funnel into the immigration detention and deportation system.


Immigrants are exposed to more risks and vulnerability when they are stopped by the police for minor offenses, such as broken taillights and traffic violations. When the police decide to take on the duties of federal immigration enforcement, they often use these stops to question people about their immigration status and to turn immigrants over to ICE. Several federal programs have made it easier for police to expose immigrants with past criminal records.

Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to partner with state and local law enforcement agencies. The 287(g) Program's Jail Enforcement Teams interview arrestees regarding their immigration status. ... The National Fugitive Operations Program (NFOP) was established on January 25, 2002. Immediately following the events of September 11, 2001, the Justice Department increased efforts to deport immigrants with old removal orders. ... Many individuals identified and deported through this program lived in the United States for many years and have significant family and community ties. NFOP also dispatches Fugitive Operations Teams (FOTs) across the country to arrest "fugitives" and specifically focuses on "residential operations." In late 2006, FOTs began conducting raids more aggressively and demanding document checks on long-distance buses and trains. They also arrest people on the streets, in their homes, and at their workplaces if they cannot produce status documents. FOT practices have been challenged, especially for home raids, based on the lack of judicial warrants or probable cause. The program was still in effect at the time of this report's publication.


When an individual is arrested and booked by a police officer, his or her fingerprints are sent to the FBI. Through the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), state and local law enforcement agencies share data with immigration enforcement. PEP replaced its predecessor program, Secure Communities, in July 2015. Under PEP, this same information is sent to the Department of Homeland Security, which checks its own databases to determine whether the individual is a "priority for removal" as described in Secretary Jeh Johnson's November 20, 2014 memorandum. ICE will then ask the law enforcement agency to notify ICE of the individual's release--or detain the individual past the time that he or she otherwise would have been released--so ICE may pick the individual up, resulting in his or her immediate transfer to ICE custody. ...

Many jails and prisons also participate in the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), which seeks to identify, arrest, and deport individuals who are incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons and jails, as well as "at-large criminal aliens that have circumvented identification." Law enforcement agencies notify ICE's office of Detention and Removal Operations, which administers CAP, of foreign-born detainees in their custody. ICE then attempts to secure their final orders of removal before they are released from criminal custody.

The programs described in this section employ the use of "detainers," also known as "immigration holds," to facilitate ICE's capture of the immigrants that the agency identifies. Detainer use peaked in March 2011 and then fell steadily; however, it stabilized as of October 2015, with ICE issuing approximately 7,000 detainers per month. ...

Criminal Charges and Disposition

Immigration enforcement is increasingly present in local jails. Often, an ICE officer will try to interview noncitizens while in custody and then initiate paperwork for the removal process if an individual is determined to be deportable. After an individual or person charged with a crime, he or she may be confronted with a choice to plead guilty to a lesser offense. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to guilty pleas that may later lead to removal proceedings. ...

A criminal conviction could trigger mandatory detention, deportation and ineligibility to reenter the United States. It may also serve as a bar to U.S. citizenship, eligibility to obtain a green card, and various forms of relief from deportation, such as asylum or withholding of removal. A conviction will remain permanently in an individual's immigration file unless it can be "vacated," that is removed, by a judge on the basis of some error in the underlying criminal proceeding.


Serving a sentence may result in further immigration scrutiny or even removal prior to release. The Institutional Removal Program (IRP) is a nationwide Department of Homeland Security initiative that purports to identify removable immigrants who are incarcerated, ensure they are not released into the community, and remove them upon completion of sentences. IRP has the effect of forcing incarcerated noncitizens into deportation proceedings from within the very prisons to which they are confined, often in the form of "video hearings" that take place from a room within prison. As a result, inmates are isolated from all other parties, including the judge, the prosecutor, the interpreter, witnesses, and sometimes even their own lawyer. ...

IV. Recommendations

We have concluded from the overwhelming amount of data that the racialized criminalization evident in the immigration enforcement system has an acute impact on the state of Black immigrants in the U.S.. This result is partially due to discriminatory policing practices and criminal penalties that adversely affect all Black people. Simultaneously, our analysis of the data suggests that racial inequities, evidenced by disproportionate, negative outcomes for Black people, in removal proceedings, also persist in the immigration enforcement system.

It is the Black Alliance for Just Immigration's view that the immigration system must be upended and redesigned to ensure that those entering the U.S. seeking work, refuge or reunification with their families and communities, are treated fairly and with dignity. This transformation can begin by divorcing the U.S. mass criminalization and immigration enforcement regimes. For this reason, the repeal of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act ("IIR-IRA") and Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), commonly known as the "1996 immigration laws," in favor of policies that shift the focus away from criminal contact as the deciding factor as it pertains to one's immigration status in the US by Congress, is BAJI's primary policy recommendation.

The 1996 immigration laws expanded the grounds for deportation, broadened classes of mandatory detention, stripped away judicial discretion and the right to due process and retroactively punished those who already served time for their offenses. As this report has highlighted, Black immigrants have been disproportionately affected by these laws. The 20th anniversary of IIR-IRA and AEDPA, along with the current political climate, presents an opportunity to reinvigorate the movement to upend the nation's immigration enforcement system.

V. Conclusion

Just as African-Americans suffer disproportionately high arrest, prosecution and incarceration rates, so too are Black immigrants. This occurs despite no evidence that they engage in more criminalized activities in comparison to any other racial group. Black immigrants are also disproportionately impacted by the compounding impact of the immigration enforcement system. Numerous federal agencies and programs work in conjunction with local law enforcement to criminalize, detain and deport immigrants. The racism present in the criminal legal system spills over and informs the immigration enforcement system, and thus it naturally and unjustly targets Black immigrants at all stages of the process. As the number of Black immigrants living in the United States continues to rise, debates around immigration must acknowledge and rectify the injustice inherent in these enforcement and deportation systems.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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