What Does it Mean to Be a Black Immigrant in the United States?


June is Immigrant Heritage Month. It’s a time for Americans who are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants to reflect on and celebrate their cultural heritages. Coincidentally, June 19th, or Juneteenth, is the day that many African-Americans mark the end of slavery in the United States. For them, the idea of immigrant heritage can be a painful reminder that their heritage was erased when their ancestors were enslaved and brought to this country. More recent Black migrants may know and be proud of their heritage, but the United States’ legacy of slavery means they face challenges that non-Black immigrants do not. Their immigrant status means they also face challenges that U.S.-born Black Americans do not. Ultimately, like all immigrant groups, Black immigrants from around the world find both challenges and opportunities for themselves and contribute to a stronger United States.

I came here as a refugee but not as a white refugee. My permanent home is the U.S. and my permanent color is Black.

The Invisible Intersection

In 1970, one in 100 Black Americans was an immigrant. Today, they are one in 10.

The presence of Black immigrants is growing in the United States, including regional concentrations such as refugees from Somali and Sudan in Minnesota, Ohio, Washington, Maine, etc., and “Little Haiti” enclaves in Miami, Brooklyn, Atlanta and other cities. Yet Black immigrants seem to be missing from the public consciousness. “Black” and “immigrant” are seen as separate identities. The public discussion of immigration in the United States focuses almost entirely on Latinx immigration, overlooking the 4.2 million Black immigrants currently in the country and ignoring the existence of Black, Latinx immigrants all together. Given this invisible intersection, how do Black immigrants connect to the wider community? 

Black vs & Immigrant

The longstanding racial inequities in the United States combined with history of blaming immigrants for so many societal problems have too often led to Black American and immigrant American communities being pitted against each other. Although there is little evidence to support it, some Black Americans have been led to believe that immigrants are to blame for Black communities’ economic struggles. On the other hand, the discrimination and marginalization that U.S.-born Black communities face can lead some Black immigrants to hold U.S.-born Black communities at arm’s length. In an interview with the Minnesota Digital Library, Somalian refugee Mohamed Jama describes being “warned against mixing with [B]lack Americans,” and first-generation Caribbean immigrant and professor Pedro Noguera writes in an essay that his parents “wanted to be distinguished from [B]lack Americans” to the point of telling him he wasn’t Black. 

In reality, we all benefit more from focusing on our shared experiences, values and goals than on our differences. Black, immigrant and Black-immigrant communities have significant shared interests and a long history of collaboration. Many immigrants are aware of and respect the long struggle for civil rights in the Black community and how it relates to their own struggles. As Haitian-American college student Deborah Alexis put it, I wouldn’t be able to be at this institution today without the work of African Americans who have laid the foundations for me.

In our webinar “Building United Communities of Immigrants and African Americans,” four experts discussed tools for building collaboration and solidarity in Black and immigrant communities:

Economic Disadvantage

Common sense says that economic success is tied to the ability to speak English in the United States. There is plenty of research to back that up. The better a person’s English ability, the more likely they are to be employed and the higher their income. Why is it that Black immigrants have far better English skills yet much lower income than other immigrants? Black immigrant households make $8,000 less than the average U.S. household and $4,200 less than the average immigrant household. They are also more likely to live under the federal poverty line. 

Black Immigrants Are More Likely
to Speak English Very Well

Black Immigrants Have Lower Average Income Than All U.S. Residents and All Other Immigrants

The answer does not lie in education. Black immigrants have similar levels of education as all immigrants on average, and sub-Saharan African immigrants are the best educated of any immigrant group. A partial explanation is that highly-educated immigrants can have difficulty finding work in their field because of barriers to transferring skills and accreditation from their home country. Given that Black people in the United States make less money on average than White people, even while working the same jobs at the same skill level, a more complete answer involves taking a look at the role of racial as well as anti-immigrant bias.

More Than a Quarter of Black Immigrants Have College Degrees

Black Immigrants are Least Likely to be Home Owners

Becoming a Minority

Immigrants must often adjust to becoming an ethnic minority for the first time when they come to the United States. For many, it is the first time in their lives they face discrimination based simply on their features or skin color, and it can be traumatic. Most Black immigrants come from countries of origin in Africa or the Caribbean, where they are in the racial majority. This can be particularly noticeable in social settings such as school. Many Black immigrant students report struggling with becoming the “other” for the first time. Black immigrants arriving from majority-Black countries may find that U.S.-born Black Americans can help them navigate the new experience of being considered a “minority.”

Being around everybody that’s White, predominantly, and you’re the only person of some type of color in there … I’ve never really done it, so that’s one thing I’ll be kinda nervous about.

Bias in Education

As a group, Black immigrants have a better than average knowledge of English, but four in ten still need help learning the language. The disproportionate focus on Latinx immigrants in media creates a stereotype of English language learners that Black immigrants don’t match, which can make it harder for them to access the resources they need. As an example, an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher described in an interview with Colorín Colorado, another teacher thinking her Black, English language learners were “in the wrong room.”

Research shows that teacher expectations can have a meaningful impact on student performance. Too often, implicit racial bias leads teachers to set lower expectations for Black students. The same is true for bias against students who are not native English speakers. Black immigrant students who don’t speak English well face a double bind of lowered expectations. A report on Black immigrant students found that even high-achieving students were deemed to be “academically inferior” if they were also English language learners. This can translate into measurable differences.

A report from the U.S. Department of Education shows that Black, English language learners (ELLs) perform worse on reading and math exams than either non-Black ELLs or Black native speakers. Bias in schools can have even more serious consequences. Black students are more likely than non-Black students to be arrested for the same behaviors, which in turn funnels them into the criminal justice system.

Bias in Criminal Justice

When the vulnerabilities of race and immigration status intersect, they form prison to deportation pipeline,” a term used to describe a system that works to funnel Black and Latinx immigrants from the criminal court system into Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody. Black immigrants are more likely to be detained, returned to their home country and prevented from returning than immigrants of other races or ethnicities, which is not surprising when you consider the experience of Black, U.S.-born people in at the United States. Black people are equally likely as other Americans to commit crimes, but they are significantly more likely to be stopped, questioned, arrested, charged, denied bail, convicted and serve longer sentences.

Immigrants are actually less likely than U.S.-born people to commit crime, but immigrants of color are still more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. Black and Latinx residents in the United States are more likely to be stopped by police than white residents, and when stopped, police are twice as likely to threaten or use force against them.  

Although they both face increased undue attention from police, the stakes are higher for Black immigrants than those born here or non-Black immigrantsBlack immigrants make up one in five non-citizens facing deportation on criminal grounds, which is close to three times their share of the non-citizen population. Even a minor criminal charge can derail an immigration process or end in deportationIn fact, offenses that are treated as misdemeanors in criminal courts can be cause for automatic deportation in immigration court.



One in five non-citizens facing deportation is Black.

Making Meaning

Although much needs to be done to level the playing field, each person must ultimately decide for themselves what it means to be Black and an immigrant in the United States. Like all immigrants, they come here with a fierce desire to improve their lives and their new homeland, and Black immigrants find ways to make a home for themselves here. Black history is full of stories of great achievement, including luminaries like George McKay, Kwame Ture and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. Currently, Black immigrants contribute $36 billion in tax revenue every year, and they are more likely to start businesses than U.S.-born Americans, creating more jobs for everyone. With some help, they can be even more successful. Here are a few ideas for public servants, teachers, not-for-profits, community organizers and anyone whose work intersects with immigrants.

Get data:

Understand who is in your community and find out what they need. More than just foreign-born or not, try to discover the racial, ethnic, nationality, gender, etc. makeup of your community. Are there immigrants from Nigeria, Haiti or Zambia, for example? How are their needs different from immigrants from other countries, or Black or White U.S.-born citizens? A great source for such data is Immigration Data of Demand, a free service from the Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason UniversityThere are several pre-existing fact sheets available, and you can request a custom fact sheet including the geography and demographic information that’s relevant to you.

Get trained:

There is a wealth of resources to help educators teaching immigrant students and address implicit bias in schools. The Immigrant Learning Center has eight years’ worth of recordings and resources from our free, online Educator Workshops.

Joseph Ngaruiya, winner of The ILC’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Business Growth Award in 2019, immigrated to America from Kenya as a child. He brought with him a traditional Kenyan reverence for elders and their wisdom, which motivated him to start his homecare business, A Better Life Homecare. Joseph is passionate about providing elderly and disabled people with dignified, in-home care, regardless of income level.

Know Your Rights” trainings can help Black immigrants navigate encounters with the police, decreasing the likelihood that they will be sucked into a criminal justice system that could endanger their immigration status.

Get together:

Immigrantserving organizations must form stronger coalitions with racial justice organizations, recognizing the shared goals and needs of the two movements. The history of coalition building between immigrant and racial justice organizations shows that such cooperation is not only possible but powerful.  

In The Immigrant Learning Center’s recent conference on uniting immigration with other social causes, Dr. Kim Tabari, Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California presented on the intersection of race and immigration. The video is cued to start when she offers six strategies for collaborative action:

More Resources

It Takes Courage to Write From the Heart

Learning a new language as an adult is hard. It not only takes hard work, it takes courage. You have to be willing to make mistakes, a lot of them. You are going to say and write things wrong, and you have to be willing to look foolish in order to improve.

We recently heard from one such hard-working, brave student, Yvens. He had never studied English before coming to the United States from Haiti. Not knowing English was a big obstacle. When he started at The Immigrant Learning Center, he was struggling to find work. As his English improved, he found a job, earned a promotion and entered an academic program designed to help him transition to college. He’s now working toward a nursing degree.

Research shows that when immigrants and refugees learn English, their employment and wages increases. More than economic and academic success, learning English allows immigrants like Yvens to share their unique perspectives with other English-speakers, and we all benefit. The following essay is a perfect example. Yvens shared it with us to inspire other students like himself.

Writing with My Heart is Better Than Writing with My Brain.

Former The ILC student, Yvens, writes about writing in his new language, English.

It was a Monday morning, and I had my first writing class. Although the classroom was big, I sat in a small corner right next to the board because, at the time, all my classmates were strangers to me. That morning, my Professor came a bit late. I still remember his face with sweat all over, wearing a red shirt with a small backpack on his back. He reminded me of my brother when he is going to school. As he was approaching the teacher’s desk, he started to apologize for being late. In that little corner where I leaned on my desk, I was thinking of the reason why would he apologize for it? “He is the Professor, “I said to myself. “Doesn’t he have the right to be late? ” After a few seconds I realized why I was thinking that? I was impatient. I wanted him to start teaching so I could see what he had for us. When he finally started, he wrote ” WRITING” on the board and said, ” As many of you may have thought before, writing is not a thing, it is a process.” To this day I have the sound of his voice, and the gestures he made with his hands in my mind. That phrase has since then made me believe that using my heart when I’m writing is way better than using my brain.

I asked myself one question to see how true this statement is. I said,” why do writers follow the same rules, but each have their own style? How come they sound different”? I’m a horrible writer. You can see that as you are reading this paragraph; however, I love reading. I read lots of books, but they all have something different. It is not about grammar, the structure of the sentences, or the style per se. It is about an ingredient that the author puts in the writing that makes it natural and unique. That ingredient comes from the heart not the brain. When you write with your heart, you spend time reading and rereading your thoughts. You become passionate about it. You naturally have the patience to polish it. Artists, musicians, and poets have to love their work because it takes them time to design or create a great piece of art. It takes Stevie Wonder time to write a great song. It takes Maya Angelou time to write a great poem. However, they have all become great writers because they write with their hearts.

Another reason why I believe writing with your heart is better, with your heart, you cannot be wrong. You can misspell words, or not respect grammatical rules. Sometimes, you can even sound incoherent, but still, if it is coming from your heart that means it is true. I never realized that until I failed one of my essays last semester. My final test was to write a persuasive essay on abortion. I spent a lot of time researching; I read more than five articles on the subject. In other words, I had enough facts to even convince Congress to pass a bill against abortion. But one thing was missing: I failed to put my input in the writing therefore, the professor didn’t feel convinced enough to give me a good grade. I believe that my essay was well written, but it was not natural. It was not unique. I was focusing too much on getting a high grade instead of analyzing the issue from my perspective.

My brain, as the organ of intelligence, plays a significant role in the writing process. How would I be able to write these few paragraphs without using it? How would I process my thoughts? I would be wrong to think that I only use my heart in the writing process. I use my brain to structure the writing process, to make writing looks and sounds intelligent. But remember, as I mentioned before, great writers develop a great relationship of love with their work. This love for their writing would have never been possible if they didn’t put their heart in it. Oprah Winfrey is not known as a writer, but I still see the need to use her as an example for always saying,” If you do it with your heart, you will be successful.” And that is exactly why she is so successful in life.

I wrote this piece without thinking whether I can be wrong or not. To be honest, I’m not even trying to convince anyone anything except for this one, of course. I’m just sharing my thoughts on how simple the process of writing can be if teachers, professors, educators, or even parents make our children believe that the process of writing is simple. They just need to have something to say; whether it is wrong or right, whether the rules are respected or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters the most is just say it with your HEART.”

She fled the Holocaust as a child, and now helps others become Americans

In another time and another place, Diane Portnoy and her parents would have been called “illegals,” and the truck driver who hid them beneath a tarp as they rumbled across the border of their homeland would have been called a “coyote.” As an American immigrant, Portnoy has founded The Immigrant Learning Center, won the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, been given the keys to the city of Malden, edited “Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts,” and shows no signs of slowing down.

Thanks to you, another new American aces the test


When Elena came to the United States from Colombia six years ago, she knew she wanted to become a citizen of our “accepting, free country.” She came to The Immigrant Learning Center to conquer her main obstacle: the civics portion of the citizenship exam.

After just a few months in Citizenship Class, studying hard when she wasn’t working at a local restaurant, Elena passed the citizenship test with flying colors. She’s excited to take her oath and gives The ILC’s teachers and volunteers credit for her success. We share that credit with you because your support makes it all possible.

While taking the test, Elena didn’t just know the civics, she knew it better than the test administrator. When she told him that “Pueblo” was a Native American tribe, he said, “You’re wrong. Next question.” She politely stood her ground saying, “No, Officer, I’m not wrong. I am right.” He looked it up. She was right. Her classmates applauded when Elena returned to class the next day to tell them about her experience.

Elena is not done studying. She intends to continue learning English and accounting at Bunker Hill Community College. If she does as well there as she did on her citizenship exam, we’re sure she’ll blow them away!

Your generosity makes stories like Elena’s possible. Thank you for your ongoing support,

Diane Portnoy
Founder and CEO
The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc.

Immigrant ValentinesThank You For Showing Immigrants Love

We appreciate everyone who contributed to our “Show Some Love” Valentine’s Day fundraiser. Your welcoming messages and contributions of over $2,700 help us give immigrants and refugees a voice.

The ILC Golf Classic

June 8, 2020

Tickets and sponsorships are now available for The ILC’s annual Golf Classic! Tickets sell out every year, so organize a foursome today if you want to join. When you sponsor events like these, you help to change the lives of our immigrant and refugee students.

The Immigrant Learning Center®, Inc. (ILC) of Malden, MA, is a not-for-profit organization that gives immigrants a voice in three ways. The English Language Program provides free, year-round English classes to immigrant and refugee adults in Greater Boston to help them become successful workers, parents and community members. The Public Education Institute informs Americans about the economic and social contributions of immigrants in our society, and the Institute for Immigration Research, a joint venture with George Mason University, conducts research on the economic contributions of immigrants.

A Better Life Homecare is immigrant entrepreneur’s dream come true success story

In December 2001, then-16-year-old Joseph Ngaruiya migrated from Nairobi, Kenya, to the eastern Massachusetts city of Lowell with his mother, Salome, to join his father, Stephen, who had arrived six months earlier. He grew up to become a successful entrepreneur, founding A Better Life Homecare and winning The ILC’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Award for Business Growth.

Daughter of Holocaust Survivors Built Program That Has Helped Over 10,500 American Immigrants

The ILC founder and CEO, Diane Portnoy, was just three years old when she arrived at Ellis Island in 1949. As an adult with multiple degrees in education, she founded The ILC to help immigrants like her and her parents build a better life for themselves in America.

Your support helped Daphne “very, very, very much”

Did you know the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated 2020 as the “Year of the Nurse and Midwife,” in honor of Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday? Maybe I’m biased, but when I think of nursing, I think of immigrants and The ILC students. In fact, without immigrants, our nursing shortage would be a full-blown nursing crisis.

In particular, Daphne comes to mind. She was a nurse in Haiti, and her dream was to practice in other countries. If she could become a nurse in the United States, she would get the international experience she wanted, and it would be easier to work in more countries. So, in 2016 she moved here. Daphne knew some English, but not enough to get a job until she came to The Immigrant Learning Center. Not long after she started, she got her first job as a home health aide. Later she obtained her driver’s license and a second job, and eventually a third job.

“It’s not very easy, but I’ll do it. If you want something, you have to make some sacrifice,” Daphne said about working three jobs and coming to class five days a week. “I’m so, so happy because when I came here I had a little, little English. Now I have more vocabulary, more grammar. Now I can move within United States. I can speak with American people. I can understand them. I can speak a little bit clearly. The ILC helped me very, very, very much.”

While she is no longer one of our students, Daphne is still working three jobs and studying. She is studying for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is required for college admission, and working with the Welcome Back Center for nurses at Bunker Hill Community College. Although she still has a long road ahead of her, I’m sure she’ll make it, and it wouldn’t be possible without English and supporters like you.

Thank you for your ongoing support,


Diane Portnoy
Founder and CEO
The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc.

Learn more …

Understanding Immigration Today: Current Events in the Classroom

Register now or tell a friend about this free webinar for educators and the public hosted by The Immigrant Learning Center Public Education Institute on Wednesday, February 12, 2020, from 3:00 to 4:00 PM EST.

Enterprising Women

Diane Portnoy will be speaking about The Founding of The Immigrant Learning Center on February 4, 6:30 to 8:00 PM as the first speaker in the “Enterprising Women” series presented by The House of the Seven Gables in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

The Immigrant Learning Center®, Inc. (ILC) of Malden, MA, is a not-for-profit organization that gives immigrants a voice in three ways. The English Language Program provides free, year-round English classes to immigrant and refugee adults in Greater Boston to help them become successful workers, parents and community members. The Public Education Institute informs Americans about the economic and social contributions of immigrants in our society, and the Institute for Immigration Research, a joint venture with George Mason University, conducts research on the economic contributions of immigrants.

Implicit Bias in Schools: How to Level the Playing Field for Immigrants and Other Minority Students

Bias Post Cover Picture

In our annual, free online workshop Immigrant Student Success, educators from across the country often mention the importance of addressing implicit bias to create safer and more welcoming classrooms for immigrant and refugee students. But what is implicit bias, and why is it so important? To answer those questions, we look to presenters Stacy Davison, formerly with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and social worker Alaisa Grudzinski, who explained why this is such an important concept in school environments.

What is implicit bias?

Screenshot from New York Times video on bias
The New York Times‘ video series “Who, me? Biased?” explores these concepts in depth

Stacy gives the ADL definition of implicit bias as “the unconscious attitude, stereotypes and unintentional actions (positive or negative) toward members of a group merely because of their membership in that group.”

How does this happen? The human brain is capable of processing about 11 million pieces of information at a time but can only give conscious attention to a handful of those. To handle the rest, your brain categorizes information into groups and assigns an instinctive reaction.  That’s why the word “jelly” automatically comes to mind when you hear someone say “peanut butter.” It may also explain our unconscious reactions to people of different ethnic backgrounds or immigration status. Bias can often overrule rational thought, causing well-meaning and intelligent people to react in ways that are at odds with their conscious intentions. It’s tempting to believe that implicit bias is only a problem for other people, but people often overestimate their own ability to relate to those who don’t share their background.

Watch Stacy’s full presentation, “Patterns and Perceptions: Breaking Down Implicit Bias.”

How does implicit bias affect immigrant students?

As a group, American teachers are less diverse than the students they teach. As of 2014, about one out of every four, almost 19 million, school-aged children were either first- or second-generation immigrants. This number is increasing every year. Although foreign-born teachers play a crucial role in our education system, only about one in 10 education professionals is an immigrant, and the numbers drop even lower for first through 12th grade teachers and special education teachers. This means that teachers are likely to come from different racial, ethic and socio-economic backgrounds than many of their students. This lack of diversity creates a challenge for students of color, who perform better with teachers of the same background. To mitigate divisions and stereotyping in diverse classrooms, teachers must become aware of implicit bias in themselves and others.

Alaisa notes, “Our own racial identities are framing the way that we perceive students’ racial identities, students’ experiences.” Even the best intentioned of educators can make generalizations about their students’ ideas, experiences and abilities. One common problem she noted was based on a positive association, the belief that Asian students are better at math. Asian students who struggle in math often don’t receive the help they need because teachers assume they don’t need it. Teachers who are aware of such potential subconscious biases can find a way to counteract them and see past the stereotype to extend a helping hand to their students.

How do you examine implicit bias?

Having a thorough understanding of how implicit bias works is essential. Stacy recommends watching a short series of videos from The New York Times called “Who, Me? Biased?” that breaks down common forms of bias and the reasons why people are susceptible to them.  One form of bias mentioned in the series is called a blind-spot, the tendency for individuals to see prejudiced action in others not in themselves. To learn about your own bias, try taking some of the Implicit Association Tests developed by Project Implicit, an international network of researchers investigating implicit social cognition. Educators and school districts may consider an in-depth training on implicit bias offered by organizations like the ADL or Teaching Tolerance.

The best thing you can do to counteract biases is to build relationships across ethnicity, age and immigration status. If you have immigrant students in your classroom, make a habit of going to events in those students’ communities. Reach out to your peers or community leaders in different ethnic, immigration status or cultural groups. If you’re used to mostly being with people who are like you, it may sound uncomfortable to go places where you are the minority. Research suggests you can reduce the awkwardness by addressing it head-on. Making a genuine effort to better understand your students will be seen as a sign of respect.

What other strategies can combat implicit bias?

Examining your own perceptions and the influences that form them is an ongoing challenge. However, once you take the first step in recognizing that bias is an inherent part of human thinking, it gets easier to build patterns of perception and reaction that accurately represent your values and your care for your students. Remember that having biases doesn’t make you a “bad” person. So let yourself relax, especially since it’s been shown that humans are more likely to show bias when they are tired, hungry or stressed!

Your most important tool, real relationships with diverse people, is something that will gradually become a part of your daily routine and patterns of thought. It’s also a good idea to stimulate positive associations. Stacy brought up a sign at the entrance of her son’s elementary school that reads “Respect, Responsibility, Regard,” and showed how it helped the community to remember those values.

More resources

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We offer our previous webinars for educators free and on-demand. We also offer a library of resources designed for educators.

Courageous Conversation about Race offers many resources for ending the race gap in education and reducing bias in schools.

The classic book on prejudice in schools Why are the All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria takes on big questions of diversity, equity and bridging divisions.

In Table Talk: Family Conversations About Current Events, the ADL tackles different forms of implicit bias and offers prompts for starting conversations on these tough topics.