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Out of Africa

More Africans are now coming to the United States as immigrants than in the days of slavery.

By Sam Roberts


For the first time in history, more blacks are coming to the United States from Africa than during the slave trade: Since 1990, according to immigration figures, more Africans have arrived voluntarily than the total who disembarked in chains before the United States outlawed international slave trafficking in 1807.

More have been coming here annually—an average of 62,000 legal immigrants over the last five years—than in any of the peak years of the slave trade, and more have migrated here from Africa since 1990 than in nearly the entire preceding two centuries.

African immigration is still a trickle compared with the number of newcomers from Latin America and Asia, but in some ways it is redefining what it means to be African-American: As a result of immigration from Africa and the Caribbean (about 30,000 black immigrants come to the U.S. annually from the Caribbean), the proportion of blacks in the U.S. who are foreign-born has risen to 7.7 percent, from 4.9 percent in the 1990s. In New York City, about 1 in 3 blacks are foreign born.

Ethiopia & Somalia

The increased flow of immigrants from Africa began in the 1970s, mostly with refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia, and escalated in the 1990s, when the number of blacks in the U.S. born in sub-Saharan Africa nearly tripled.

The increase coincided with changes in American law and culture that made the U.S. a more appealing destination: The 1965 immigration law made it easier for Africans, along with Latin Americans and Asians, to come to the U.S.; and the passage of civil-rights laws in the 1960s, which aimed to correct historic racial injustices, changed the climate for blacks and other minorities in the United States.

Today, with Europe increasingly inhospitable to immigrants and much of Africa suffering from the ravages of drought, the AIDS epidemic, and severe economic problems, the number of Africans migrating to the United States continues to grow, despite the reluctance of some Africans to come face-to-face with the effects of centuries of discrimination.

In the 1960s, about 29,000 legal immigrants were admitted from all of Africa, a figure that rose to 355,000 in the 1990s. In 2005 alone, 85,000 African immigrants were legally admitted, including about 11,000 from Nigeria, 11,000 from Ethiopia, 6,000 from Somalia, 6,000 from Ghana, and 5,000 from Kenya.

Many of the legal immigrants who come from Africa already speak English, and were raised in large cities and capitalist economies, preparing them for life in the U. S.

And while in Africa the current outflow of immigrants is contributing to a brain drain, African-born residents of the U.S. are sharing their relative prosperity here by sending more than $1 billion annually back to their families and friends.

There is no official count of the many other Africans who entered the United States illegally or have overstayed their visas and who are likely to be less well off. Kim Nichols of the African Services Committee estimates that the number of illegal African immigrants dwarfs the legal ones. "We think it's a multiple of at least four," she says.

Why They Come

Africans' reasons for coming to America echo the aspirations of earlier immigrants. "Senegal became too small,'' says Marie Lopy, who arrived as a student in 1996, worked as a bookkeeper in a restaurant, earned an associate degree in biology from the City University of New York, and now works as a medical interpreter.

After winning a place in an American immigration lottery, Daouda Ndiaye recalls being persuaded by his six children to leave Senegal, where he was working as a financial manager.

"I said, 'I'm 45, I'd have to build a whole new life, I'd have to go to school to learn English,'" he recalls. "They said, 'We want you to go, and we want you to send for us because there's more opportunity in the U.S. than here.' "

His wife and two of his children have joined him in the United States, where he has worked as a sporting-goods store manager and is now a translator.

As with other immigrants, African immigrants can be surprised by what they find when they arrive: They come from countries where blacks are a majority at every level of society, only to discover that whether they are professors or peddlers, they may be lumped together here by whites and even by American-born blacks.

"You have the positive impact that race is not seen to be an absolute definer of people's opportunities," says Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute, "but that begs the larger question of what does it mean to have a black skin in the United States."

Agba Mangalabou, who arrived from Togo in 2002, recalls his surprise when he moved here from Europe.

"In Germany, everyone knew I was African," he said. "Here, nobody knows if I'm African or American."

The steady decline in the percentage of blacks with ancestors who suffered through the Middle Passage (the slave-ship voyage from Africa) and the Jim Crow era is also affecting the debate over affirmative action and other initiatives intended to redress the legacy of slavery.

"I think there is a legitimate set of specific claims by persons born in the United States that don't necessarily apply to Caribbean or African populations that have come here subsequently," says Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

But Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, argues that African immigrants should be entitled to the benefits of affirmative action.

"The issue is not origin, but social practices," he says. "It matters in American society whether you grow up black or white. It's that differential effect that really is the basis for affirmative action.''

'Patterns Of Struggle'

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the son of a native Kenyan, says black descendants of slaves share more similarities than differences with black immigrants and their children. He says his grandfather worked as a servant in Kenya and was described as a "house boy" by whites even when he was a middle-aged man.

"Some of the patterns of struggle that blacks here in the United States experienced aren't that different from the colonial experience in the Caribbean or the African continent," Obama told The Times last year.

Immigration may also shift some of the nation's focus from racial distinctions to ethnic ones. How long might those distinctions between Africans and African-Americans last?

"I guess one of the questions will have to be what happens in the next generation or two," says Professor Eric Foner, a Columbia historian. "In America, marriage is the great solvent. Are they going to melt into the African-American population? Most likely, yes."