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African Immigrants to US Make Presence Known in Some American Communities

Since the end of World War II, there has been a steady stream of immigrants to the United States from Africa. But in the 1990's their numbers dramatically increased. Now, the presence of these relatively-recent African immigrants is unmistakably visible in some American communities.

When Barack Obama, a little-known state legislator from Illinois, was elected to the U.S. Senate last November, the national spotlight was focused on the new wave of African-American immigrants to the United States, as distinct from African-Americans who are descendents of slaves who were brought to the country generations ago. Senator Obama, son of a Kenyan father and an American mother, became the first first-generation African-American to become a U.S. Senator.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are now close to one million African immigrants in the United States. The Census Bureau says more than 50 percent of them entered and settled in the country between 1990 and 2000.

Khalid El-Hassan, the Program Director of the African Studies Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, says the number of African immigrants in the U.S. is growing by leaps and bounds. "Africans comprise now of more than five percent of the documented immigrants in the U.S. in 2000, which is really up from less than two percent in 1991. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 1997 about 2.2 percent of the foreign-born population in the United States were born in African countries, which is more than twice the estimate a decade earlier which is 1980's. We know also that the number of documented immigrants from Africa arriving annually in the United States rose from under 15,000 in 1980 to over 40,000 by the end of the 90's."

Dr. El-Hassan quotes immigration figures showing that more than 350,000 Africans legally entered the United States in the 1990's. By comparison, nearly 30,000 came in the 1960's, 80,000 in the 1970's and 176,000 in the 1980's. However, many African activists believe the U.S. Census Bureau 2000 report under-reported the number of Africans by hundreds of thousands. Like many other immigrants, activists say, Africans who are in the country illegally are not willing to participate in the census exercise or even seek government help in other matters.

Jill Wilson, a researcher with the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., says once in the country most of the African immigrants are drawn into big cities. "Africans are scattered around the country and the largest concentration are near large metropolitan areas and especially in the northeastern region of the country," she said. "There are four states that have 40 percent of Africans, and these are New York, California, Texas and Maryland, 95 percent of them were living in metropolitan areas. And half of those live in just ten cities, the top five cities are New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Minneapolis."

But Dr. El-Hassan of the University of Kansas says some African immigrants, particularly those who entered the country as refugees from such countries as Somalia and the Sudan in the 1990's, have settled in such areas as the less densely-populated midwest.

Experts say the growth of African immigration to the U.S. in the 1990s resulted from internal strife, natural disasters and economic hardships in some African countries. The calamities forced thousands of people to flee the continent. Many others came through family reunification programs and diversity visas, a lottery for people who come from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

The impact of African immigrants in the U.S. can be seen in the increased number of African churches, mosques and a variety of African-themed businesses in big cities such as New York, Washington, Houston and Chicago.

The Reverend David Gitome is a Kenyan-born minister, who for more than seven years has been heading Umoja (unity) Church, in the Washington suburb of Prince Georges County, Maryland. In recent years his congregation has swelled to about 200 parishioners. On Sundays, one of the masses is conducted in the Swahili language. He says the mushrooming of African churches in the U.S. mirrors the growth in numbers of African immigrants.

"We have had about 21 churches around this community, metropolitan area and Baltimore, but we have so many churches of the African community in every state, like Seattle (Washington) , in Texas, we have Boston and of course in Georgia we also have quite a number of churches. So there is growth. When people learned about this they have come now with their faith, and we feel that our coming here now and the growth of immigrants in the United States is taken care of by this community of churches," he said.

While most Africans entered the country as students in the 1960's and 1970's, a significant number of Africans who arrived in the 1990's were refugees and immigrants seeking better life.

A recent article in the New York Times newspaper noted that there are currently more Africans who have arrived in the United States voluntarily than the total of those who were brought in as captives during the slave trade.