When President Donald Trump reportedly made crude remarks about African countries during a meeting on immigration policy earlier this month, Democratic opponents and journalists rushed to point out that immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are actually a relatively high-skilled group.
In particular, they noted that educational attainment among sub-Saharan African immigrants is, on average, higher than among the native-born population. The claim is backed by government data — just over 40 percent of all African immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent of all native-born Americans, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
But that single statistic doesn’t tell the entire story about immigration from sub-Saharan Africa over the past 30 years. The average education level of African immigrants has declined steadily as their numbers have increased, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
As Camarota notes, the population of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa has exploded since 1980. That year, there were about 130,000 African immigrants of all ages living in the U.S. By 2016, that number had risen to almost 1.8 million, a 14-fold increase.
Over the same period, the percentage of sub-Saharan immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree has declined noticeably. In 1990, about 49 percent of all African immigrants had a college degree. By 2016, the share of degree-holders had fallen to 40 percent.
The diminished educational profile is the result of chain migration replacing self-selection as the primary mechanism of African immigration, Camarota says.
“In those days most came as foreign students or to fill skilled jobs. This produced a population much more educated than native-born Americans,” he wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “Over time, as family-based chain migration began to dominate the flow of new arrivals, along with the visa lottery and refugee resettlement, the education level of this population declined dramatically relative to the native-born.”
Sub-Saharan Africa has also been one of the top refugee-sending regions in the world, which has contributed to the drop in average education level and rise in welfare use among African immigrants. Though sub-Saharan immigrants have for many years had higher educational attainment — and less poverty and welfare use — than average, that could change as chain migration brings in a greater share of poor and low-skilled immigrants.
“There is nothing surprising about this finding. How immigrants enter the United States has enormous implications for their likely skill levels and how they will do once here,” Camarota wrote. “It seems likely that if chain migration, the visa lottery, and refugee resettlement continue to dominate Sub-Saharan African immigration, the education level of immigrants will continue to decline relative to the native-born.”
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