Chasing the Dream: The Black Immigrant Experience

Chasing the Dream: The Black Immigrant Experience is a three part series, written jointly by Isabel Lorenzo and Yehwroe Sinyan of the NAACP Economic Department.  As children of black immigrants, we felt it was important to provide insights into the migration experiences of this unique demographic. The three articles of the series will highlight the following: 1) An introduction to the Black Immigrant 2) An evaluation of the challenges that Black Immigrants face in the 21st century, and 3) Recommendations on how all people of African descent can work collectively to advance social and economic justice in the 21st century. 

The overall purpose of these pieces is to help the audience realize how universal the Black struggle is. It is our hope that through increased understanding, all people of African descent can work to build better communication channels, trust, and the spirit of collaboration to tackle the obstacles to progression.

Part I: Introduction to the Black Immigrant


Black Immigrants are foreign-born blacks that have migrated to the United States. As Continentals and representatives of the African Diaspora - which refers to the historic movement of Africans and their descendants to places outside of the African Continent, they are diverse, belonging to a plethora of nationalities, ethnicities, religious beliefs and socio-economic statuses. 

The three main regions that have a high concentration of Blacks (outside of the United States) are: Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.  They are subcategorized by their region of origin. Africans refer to natives of the continent of Africa.  Afro-Latinos refer to natives of countries located in Latin America (but have African Ancestry). Afro-Caribbean’s refer to people with African Ancestry that are natives of countries located in the Caribbean.

There are a myriad of reasons why Blacks migrate to the United States.  Generally speaking, Continental and Diasporian Blacks migrate to America to seek better educational and or economic opportunities. Also, a great number of Black immigrants enter the U.S. seeking political asylum as a result of political and economic turmoil in their homelands.

Afro-Latinos are a people with an untold history. Many in the U.S. are unaware of the massive Afro-Latino populations in many Spanish speaking countries.  About 8% of Black immigrants are Afro-Latinos. The top five countries with the largest Afro-Latino presence are Brazil, Columbia, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba. Latinos are diverse not only in their history and background but also in their struggle so their reasons for migrating are equally diverse. The majority; however, make the move seeking better economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

The journey of Afro-Caribbean people to the United States began long ago and was largely involuntary. The first wave of Afro-Caribbean voluntary migration to the U.S. began in the 1930’s and is continued today. According to the African American Experience report from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, “The significant growth of the Caribbean community in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century is easily explained by the increasing 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.” About 80% of recent Black Caribbean immigrants have entered the US to be reunited with family. Many make this transition because they have family members already working and living here in the United States.

For African immigrants, levels of migration to the United States are steadily increasing. According to figures from the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), the number of African immigrants to the United States more than quadrupled in the last two decades from 109,733 between 1961 and 1980 to 531, 832 between 1981 and 2000.  The cause of this great influx is largely attributed to the drastic changes in U.S. immigration policies which made the process easier for Africans in particular, and people of color in general. Today’s African migrants are increasingly interested in establishing permanent residency in the United States, which is a stark contrast from those of the 1960’s and 1970’s whose intentions was to return to their homes after acquiring an American education to contribute to nation-building efforts (Takougang, J., 2003).

Black immigrants can be found in any town, city or state throughout the U.S. However, they have the highest concentration in major cities like New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Boston, and the like.  They often seek out cities where the job prospects are plentiful and the availability of both skilled and unskilled labor is high.

Most are unaware of the significant role that Civil Rights and Post Civil Rights policies have played with respects to the migration of continental and diasporian blacks. These policies helped to make racially discriminatory immigration practices illegal.   We close this article by outlining below exactly how the above mentioned policies have helped to facilitate the path to America for Blacks born in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

  • 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments

---“Fundamentally altered the racial and ethnic make-up of the United States”

  • Hart Cellar Act

---Loosened restrictions on immigration based on geography

---Instituted policies that encouraged family reunification and professional qualifications

---Allowed US born children to file petitions for legal admission for their foreign parents Amended in 1976

  • October 20, 1976 amendments to Immigration and Nationality Act

--- Made it easier to obtain visas to study, reunite with family, and market their skills

  • Refugee Act of March 17, 1980

--- Changed to Conform with UN protocol

---Not only admitted refugees from communist countries but also thousands of Africans where civil and international conflicts were raising turmoil in their homelands

  • 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

---Made it possible un documented immigrants living in the US to apply for legal status

  • 1990 Immigration Act

---Increased number of immigrants coming to US on the basis of US job’s skills

---Diversity Visa

---Admits immigrants from countries underrepresented in the US

The prospect of a better life and access to the perceived “American Dream” propels most immigrants to embark upon their respective migration journeys. However, for Black immigrants in particular, escaping the economic challenges of their homelands is often met with unimagined economic difficulties that comprise their realities as new arrivals to the U.S. We will explore these challenges in our next article entitled “The Economic Challenges that Black Immigrants Face in the 21st Century”.