The Black Diaspora Matters: Why the Black Immigrant Experience is Central to Lasting Social Change

Opal Tometi
Strategist, Writer and Community Organizer
Co-founder #BlackLivesMatter

The 21st century has ushered in vehement civic consciousness and engagement around the state of immigration and immigrant rights in the United States. Whether at the polls, on the House and Senate floors, or the studios of major news media outlets, the meaning and function of citizenship has been and will continue to be highly debated by all members of our society—from the most conservative to the most radical of perspectives. As we move forward in dialogue and action, as we question the legitimacy of documents, policies, and practices that render some bodies legal and others “alien.” We must also push ourselves to acknowledge and address the intersections of immigrant identities. 

Over the past decade, as the immigrant rights movement in our country has expanded, our understanding of immigration has narrowed to the non-Black Latino experience. The Black immigrant presence, one that begins with the early migration of West Indians in the mid-1800s, disrupts common understandings of what it means to be Black and immigrant in a nation founded on the principles of freedom and democracy, but is corrupted by racism, nativism and other societal ills. The Black immigrant experience is multifaceted, and shaped by racism and nativism, yet it is a beautiful convergence, adding richness and diversity to the native Black and overall immigrant communities. 

Since the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—legislation that significantly shifted immigration policy to the benefit of immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America—the Black immigrant population has grown to nearly four million, with the fastest growing group of Black immigrants coming from the continent of Africa. The 2016 State of Black Immigrants report published by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and New York University,  provided a much-needed, nuanced demographic overview and political analysis of the Black immigrant community. The report abandons the tokenizing and divisive rhetoric often used within academic research and journalistic circles to drive a wedge between African-American and Black immigrant communities.

Focusing in on a holistic description of the current state of the Black immigrant community, we learn just how interwoven the Black immigrant community is within the larger Black community and the immigrant community in the United States. As is reported, Black immigrants account for nearly 10% of the nation’s Black population and 8.7% of the nation’s immigrant population. In descending order, the top ten nations of origin within the Black immigrant community are: Jamaica, Haiti, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Trinidad and Tobago, Ghana, Guyana, Kenya, the Dominican Republic and Somalia—diversifying our nation’s ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic make-up. 

The Black immigrant community is also diverse with respect to entry into the U.S. and immigration status. Sixteen percent of the Black immigrant community is undocumented, living in the U.S. without authorization. During fiscal year 2014, of the lawful permanent residents within the Black immigrant community 36% had immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens, 27% gained status through refugee and asylee adjustment, 23% were family sponsored, 10% were beneficiaries of the Diversity Visa program, and 3% were employer sponsored. 

Data shows that not only are Black immigrants growing in size and diversity, but that Black immigrants are also living in neighborhoods, cities, and districts/counties that have a long history of African-American residency. With regard to geographic dispersion, the majority of Black immigrants live in New York (23%), Florida (18%), Texas (6%) and Maryland (6%). Due to an immigration spike in the late 1960s, the majority of Caribbean immigrants have longer lengths of residency in the U.S. than African immigrants whose spike in immigration increased significantly in the 1990s. 

Similar to the African-American experience, educational attainment has not proven to be the great equalizer for Black immigrants. A Pew Research Center report shows that while 27% of Black immigrants over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, Black immigrants have a lower annual median household income than the overall median household income; the lowest annual median household income among all immigrants; and are least likely to be homeowners, when compared to citizens and all immigrant groups. Moreover, Black immigrants have the highest unemployment rates among all immigrant groups and nearly one out of five Black immigrants live below the poverty line. 

As a result of pervasive racism embedded in U.S. institutions, Black immigrants are also forced to navigate society’s biased notions of inherent criminality, experiencing hyper-surveillance and hyper-policing in their communities. As introduced in part two of the State of Black Immigrants report, anti-Blackness and xenophobia converge to create policies and programs that disproportionately impact Black immigrants. The compounding result is that Black people are arrested 2.5 times more than whites, with incarceration rates nearly six times the rate of whites. Black immigrants’ detention and deportation rates mirror racial disparity within the criminal justice system with Black immigrants representing 5.4% of the unauthorized population in the U.S. but comprising 20.3% of all immigrants facing detention on criminal grounds. The same racialized criminalization that fuels the prison industrial complex feeds into the immigration industrial complex, with profits made from the exploitation of Black bodies. 

Dispelling the notion of Blackness and immigrant identity as monolithic, the Black immigrant experience encapsulates the intricacies of both Black and immigrant life in the United States. As a result of our many languages, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities—because of our Black skin and our fluid immigration status—our communities are as intertwined with the African-American experience as the immigrant experience. Now more than ever, as we stand witness to the priorities, policies and programs of a regressive political regime, we must be mindful of the many ways in which Blackness is both celebrated and condemned. We must recognize and draw strength from the diversity of the diaspora—and never give in to divisive rhetoric. We brook no heed to the divide and conquer strategies of the right wing that attempts to define who belongs and whose lives matter. The growing numbers Black immigrants comprises an increase our collective power. If we harness our demographics and cultural vibrancy, and build a comprehensive political framework, we can all thrive. At the end of the day, Black immigrant and African-American destinies are entwined, and together we can ensure lasting social change and justice for all.

[1] In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, Caribbean Migration

[2]  Black Alliance for Just Immigration & NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic (2016), The State of Black Immigrants,

[3] Anderson, Monica. 2015. “A Rising Share of the U.S. Black Population Is Foreign Born; 9 Percent Are Immigrants; and While Most Are from the Caribbean, Africans Drive Recent Growth.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.: April.

[4] Christopher Hartney & Linh Vuong, Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, National Council on Crime &

Delinquency 3 (March 2009).

[5] NAACP, Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2017, from


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