The term “African American” has become a catchall to describe black Americans in the United States. But it obscures the more nuanced realities of black immigration to the United States.
Black immigrants, whether they hail from Latin America, the Caribbean or the African mainland, often come to the United States to escape poor conditions and find economic opportunity. As this nation struggles with immigration reform, the black immigrant community will play a prominent role in developing a socially just immigration policy.
About eight percent of black immigrants are Afro-Latino. Many Spanish-speaking countries have massive Afro-Latino populations, including Brazil, Columbia, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba. These Latinos are diverse not only in their history and background but also in their struggles, and their reasons for migrating to the United States vary. However, the majority of them make the move to seek better economic opportunities for themselves and for their families.
Afro-Caribbeans also immigrate to the United States to seek expanded opportunity. The term applies to people with African ancestry whose native countries are located in the Caribbean. The first wave of Afro-Caribbean voluntary migration to the United States began in the 1930s and has continued to this day. According to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, this growth can be attributed to “the increasing economic hardship and disenchantment in the British West Indies and the simultaneous expansion of the U.S. economy with its relatively high wages and growing employment opportunities.”
Finally, the rate of African immigration to the United States has steadily increased. According to figures from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of African immigrants to the United States more than quadrupled in recent years, from just over 100,000 in the 1960s and 1970s to more than 500,000 in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today’s African migrants are increasingly interested in establishing permanent residency in the United States, a stark contrast to immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s who often intended to return home and contribute to nation-building efforts after acquiring an American education.
It is no coincidence that black immigration to the United States greatly increased after the 1960s, whether from the Caribbean, Latin America or Africa. Just as blatant racially discriminatory laws in the United States limited the progress of African Americans throughout the history of the United States, blatant racially discriminatory immigration policies limited the numbers of people of color who could legally immigrate to the United States.
The great influx of black immigrants in the latter half of the 20th century is largely attributed to the liberalizing of immigration policies that occurred during the height of the civil rights movement. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, one of the lesser-known civil rights bills from that era, ended the national origins quota system and opened the door for large-scale Asian, African and Latin American immigration.
Over the last 50 years, the children of black immigrants have become a growing part of the African American population. This can be seen in the election of the first African American president, himself the son of an African immigrant.
The diversity of the black community will continue to grow in 21st century America. As we continue to make advances against racial inequality in the United States, the connection between today’s black freedom struggles will necessarily be connected to immigration and immigration policy.
Dedrick Muhammad is the senior director of the NAACP Economic Department.