The Foreign-Born Population from Africa: 2008–2012 American Community Survey Briefs, ACSBR/12-16

Africa Focus

By Christine P. Gambino, Edward N. Trevelyan, and John Thomas Fitzwater
Issued October 2014

[Excerpts only  – for full text, including maps, figures, footnotes, and downloadable tables, and more interesting reading visit]

According to the 2008–2012 American Community Survey (ACS), 39.8 million foreign-born people resided in the United States, including 1.6 million from Africa, or about 4 percent of the total foreign-born population. In 1970, there were about 80,000 African foreign born, representing less than 1 percent of the total foreign-born population (Figure 1).

During the following four decades, the number of foreign born from Africa grew rapidly, roughly doubling each decade. About three-fourths of the foreign-born population from Africa came to live in the United States after 1990.  The timing of this movement was driven in part by historical changes. Outmigration from Africa increased rapidly after World War II, as migrants responded to the pull of educational opportunities and jobs abroad.  While the first waves of postwar migrants went to other African countries and former colonial powers of Europe, migration to the United States increased in the 1970s as economies faltered and new restrictions were placed upon immigration in Western Europe.

More immigrants from Africa were admitted to the United States after the U.S.  Immigration Act of 1965, which replaced the national origin quota system favoring immigration from Europe with a new law prioritizing skilled labor, family unification, and humanitarianism. In addition, nearly a quarter of all immigrants from Africa to the United States in 2010 entered as refugees or received asylum as a result of ethnic conflict or civil war, particularly in countries such as Somalia, Liberia, and Sudan. The rate of African- born immigrants arriving and staying in the United States accelerated further as immigrant networks grew and pathways were established.

This brief discusses the size, place of birth, geographical distribution, and educational attainment of the foreign born from Africa. Data are presented at the national, state, and metropolitan levels based on the 2008–2012 ACS 5-year file. African Regions and Countries of Birth Of the 1.6 million foreign born from Africa in the United States, 36 percent were from Western Africa, 29 percent were from Eastern Africa, and 17 percent were from Northern Africa, followed by Southern Africa (5 percent), Middle Africa (5 percent), and other Africa (7 percent) (Figure 2, Table 1).  Since 2000, the foreign born from Africa increased by over 700,000 persons, up from a total of 881,300. Over 490,000, or about 70 percent of that growth, has been from countries in Western and Eastern Africa.

The largest African-born populations were from Nigeria and Ghana in Western Africa; Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia in Eastern Africa; Egypt in Northern Africa; and South Africa in Southern Africa. Of these seven, the four largest were Nigeria (221,000 or 14 percent of the African-born population), Ethiopia (164,000 or 10 percent), Egypt (143,000 or 9 percent), and Ghana (121,000 or 8 percent), together constituting 41 percent of the African-born total.

Geographic distribution of the foreign-born population from Africa
Four states had more than 100,000 foreign born from Africa: New York (164,000), California (155,000), Texas (134,000), and Maryland (120,000) (Table 2). When combined, these four states represented over one-third (36 percent) of the foreign born from Africa.

Among states with at least 2,500 foreign born from Africa, Rhode Island had the highest percentage of the African born from Western Africa (82 percent), while over half of the Africans born in Massachusetts and New York (each 52 percent) were from this region.

Over half of the foreign born from Africa in three states—Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington—were from Eastern Africa. Minnesota’s Eastern African born represented 61 percent of its African-born population, over double the national percentage and included a Somali-born population of 21,000. Florida and New Jersey (each 33 percent) and Iowa (30 percent) were among the states with the highest percentage of their African-born populations from Northern Africa. California’s large Egyptian-born population (31,000) contributed to its Northern African representation (29 percent), notably higher than the national percentage (17 percent).

The states with the highest percentage foreign born from Africa in their foreign-born populations included North Dakota and Minnesota (both 19 percent), South Dakota (17 percent), Maryland and the District of Columbia (both 15 percent) (Figure 3). Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, and New Mexico each had less than 2 percent foreign born from Africa in their foreign-born populations. Of the ten states with the largest  African-born populations, five had percentages of African born in their foreign-born populations that were at least twice the national percentage: Minnesota (19 percent), Maryland (15 percent), Virginia (9 percent), and Georgia and Massachusetts (both 8 percent).

Distribution by Metropolitan Statistical Area
Metropolitan areas with the largest African-born population included New York, NY (212,000); Washington, DC (161,000); Atlanta, GA (68,000); Los Angeles, CA (68,000); and Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN (64,000) (Table 3). In addition to having a high number of African born, the percentage of the foreign-born population from Africa in the Washington, DC, metro area (13 percent) was more than three times the national percentage (4 percent), and Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN (20 percent), was five times the national percentage.

In several metropolitan areas with relatively small African- born populations, the African born nevertheless represented a high proportion of the total foreign born. These included Columbus, OH (23 percent); Baltimore, MD (13 percent); and Providence, RI (11 percent), with between 20,000 and 35,000 African foreign born.

Most metropolitan areas with a high percentage of African born in their foreign-born populations were in the Midwest and Northeast regions in states such as Minnesota, Ohio, and Maine (Figure 4). It is notable that in many metropolitan areas in the western half of the country, the concentrations of African born were well below the national average. These included Los Angeles (1.5 percent), San Francisco (1.8 percent), and San Diego (2.2 percent).

With the exception of Nigeria, there was considerable variation in the top countries of birth in metropolitan areas with the largest African-born populations (Figure 5). For example, both Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston showed large numbers of Nigerians and Ethiopians. Chicago, Columbus, and New York had significant Ghanaian populations, while foreign born from Cabo Verde figured prominently in Boston and Providence (half of the African born in Providence). The largest African-origin countries for Washington, DC, were Ethiopia and Nigeria. The largest African-born populations in Minneapolis-St. Paul were from Somalia and Ethiopia. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, leading African countries of birth included Egypt, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The largest African-origin countries in the New York metropolitan area were Egypt and Ghana, each composing just under 20 percent of the total African born.

Educational Attainment
Compared with the overall foreign- born population, the foreign born from Africa had higher levels of educational attainment (Figure 6). High levels of educational attainment among the African born are in part due to the large number of educated Africans who have chosen to emigrate and to many who come to the United States to pursue academic studies. Forty-one percent of the African-born population had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2008–2012, compared with 28 percent of the overall foreign born. Egypt (64 percent) and Nigeria (61 percent) were among the African countries of birth with the highest proportion of bachelor’s and higher degrees.

Nearly one-third of the overall foreign-born population (32 percent) had less than a high school education. This contrasts with only 12 percent for the African-born population, as represented by such countries as South Africa (3 percent), Nigeria (4 percent), and Egypt and Kenya (each 5 percent).

The difference in educational attainment among the populations from different African countries in part reflects how they immigrated to the United States. A relatively high proportion of immigrants from Africa entered the United States on diversity visas (24 percent as compared with 5 percent of the overall foreign born), which require a high school diploma or equivalent work experience.  The foreign born from Somalia, who mostly entered the United States as refugees or asylees (82 percent in 2010), not as diversity migrants (1 percent in 2010), were an exception to this overall pattern. Forty percent of the Somali born had less than a high school education.

The foreign-born population from Africa is small relative to other foreign-born groups, but has experienced rapid growth in the last 40 years. Among the African- born population, the majority were born in Western Africa (36 percent), Eastern Africa (29 percent), or Northern Africa (17 percent). While traditional immigrant destinations such as New York and California have attracted the largest number of African immigrants, they account for a relatively small percentage of the total foreign born in those states. Higher
concentrations of the African born in a state’s total foreign-born population are instead found in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Compared with the overall foreign-born population, a higher proportion of African born have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education.

What is the American Community Survey?
The American Community Survey (ACS) is a nationwide survey designed to provide communities with reliable and timely demographic, social, economic, and housing data for the nation, states, congressional districts, counties, places, and other localities every year. It has an annual sample size of about 3.5 million addresses across the United States and Puerto Rico and includes both housing units and group quarters (e.g., nursing facilities and prisons). The 5-year file of the ACS is designed to provide reliable statistics for small populations and small geographical areas of the United States. For information on the ACS sample design and other topics, visit .

African-Born Population by Metropolitan Statistical Area: 2008-2012
Top Twenty Metropolitan Areas
Area                                                        African born
United States                                           1,581,970
New York-Northern New Jersey-
Long Island                                               211,735
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria                160,820
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta                    67,770
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana             67,505
Minneapolis-St Paul-Bloomington                 63,885
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington                          60,905
Boston-Cambridge-Quincy                           59,985
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown                      50,380
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington                 47,580
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville                              42,510
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue                            38,735
Baltimore-Towson                                      31,065
Columbus                                                 29,000
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont                23,205
Providence-New Bedford-Fall River             22,410
Denver-Aurora-Broomfield                         20,460
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach    20,335
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale                          17,125
San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos             15,980
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario             14,740
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2008-2012 American Community Survey, 5-year estimates, Supplemental Table 3 to Brief cited above.
Ten Largest African-Born Countries of Birth in the United States, 2008-2012
Nigeria                     221,075
Ethiopia                   164,045
Egypt                      143,085
Ghana                     120,785
Kenya                       95,125
South Africa               83,300
Somalia                     76,205
Liberia                       71,060
Morocco                    58,730
Sudan(including South Sudan)       41,070
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2008-2012 American Community Survey, 5-year estimates, Supplemental Table 2 to Brief cited above.
Migration Population Institute, Diaspora Profiles