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What the ‘s—hole’ debate gets wrong about Africa

- January 18, 2018
President Trump and Sen. Dick Durbin, left, listen as Rep. Steny Hoyer speaks during a meeting on immigration at the White House. 
(AFP/Getty Images)

Americans from across the political spectrum were quick to respond to President Trump’s alleged reference last week to Haiti and nations in Africa as “shithole countries.”

Democrats called it a new low, even after the president’s long history of bigoted statements. A few Republicans criticized the president for violating American ideals, but most avoided comment or excused the president’s remarks as a poor choice of words.

On Tuesday, the White House released a report linking immigrants to terrorism, though critics quickly noted its selective and misleading interpretation of available data.

There’s been a lot of coverage of the president’s comments, but far less analysis of some key assumptions about immigration to the United States from African nations. Here are three points to consider:

1) A limited number of Africans actually immigrate to the U.S.

There are fewer than 2 million Africans in the United States, less than 4 percent of the total immigrant population. In fact, as one of us has examined elsewhere, far more Africans migrate to other countries within Africa than to the United States and other Western countries.

Africans immigrate to the United States as refugees, relatives of U.S. residents and via the Diversity Visa Program — which has come under increasing White House scrutiny. Since the Diversity Visa Program started in 1990, the number of African immigrants in the United States has roughly doubled each decade, reflecting the program’s intent to balance immigration from countries underrepresented in the United States.

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The program has an annual global cap of 50,000 immigrants, so diversity visa recipients represent a small fraction of the more than 1 million immigrants from around the world who become U.S. lawful permanent residents each year. In 2015, the program awarded visas to fewer than 20,000 Africans.

Trump has criticized this program as a lottery system that brings in “the worst people” — but these views align with the worst myths about the alleged security threats posed by immigrants, particularly refugees. “Lottery” also is a misleading term, because applicants must have a high school diploma, or experience in designated occupations, to apply for these visas. In sub-Saharan African countries, where just 45 percent of men and 39 percent of women complete lower secondary education, this basic criterion limits the pool of eligible individuals. Once people are selected for visas, extensive vetting also takes place.

2) African immigrants to the U.S. tend to be highly educated

Some of Trump’s critics argue that we need low-skilled workers to clean hotel rooms and work in restaurants, suggesting that African immigrants have few skills to offer the U.S. economy.

But African immigrants are more educated, on average, than U.S.-born Americans. According to estimates for 2012 to 2016 from the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, 41.5 percent of African-born immigrants have bachelor’s, graduate or professional degrees — a higher percentage than immigrants from Europe (40.4 percent) or Latin America (12.4 percent), but lower than those from Asia (50.3 percent). Just 30.5 percent of U.S.-born individuals have such degrees.

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Education levels are even higher among immigrants from specific African countries that are top sources of migration to the United States: 63.1 percent of immigrants from Egypt, 59.5 percent from Nigeria and 50.7 percent from Kenya have bachelor’s degrees or higher. In comparison, 43.1 percent of immigrants from Norway have similar degrees.

The same U.S. Census Bureau survey shows that African immigrants have a higher rate of participation in the labor force than any other group (74 percent versus 62.9 percent for native-born Americans), but many are underemployed. With limited professional connections, and facing racism and other challenges, many African immigrants who were doctors, accountants or lawyers at home end up working as taxi drivers, cashiers and cleaners. As a result, their median household income of $50,239 lags behind other groups, exceeding only that of immigrants from Latin America.

Even so, Africans in the United States and elsewhere send billions of dollars annually to friends and family back home. One study showed that in 2010 African countries received more remittances from abroad than actual foreign aid, and remittances to Africa have continued to rise. These remittances, other researchers point out, help foster economic growth and political reform.

3) American stereotypes of “Africa” are largely inaccurate

In focusing on Trump’s offensive language last week, critics also have avoided discussing the conditions within Africa that drive out-migration. Many Americans rely on narrow, conventional views of Africa as a continent of exotic animals, starving children and primitive traditions. These stereotypes tend to create an image of a continent plagued by poverty, corruption and conflict — conditions most people, given the opportunity, would certainly flee.

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Economic development in Africa has been a perennial preoccupation of social scientists, as many African states fall near the bottom of human development indices. But Africa is home to 54 diverse countries, including some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. In many of these countries, poverty rates have declined substantially.

Studies of corruption, patronage politics and uneven democratization highlight ongoing challenges in the region. Yet while the Democratic Republic of Congo backslides and Zimbabwe recently experienced a coup d’état, successful elections in places such as Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria reflect the continued push for democracy across the continent.

A final point: Although political violence continues in parts of Africa, including Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia, Africa’s conflicts have declined as a proportion of global conflicts since a peak in the 1990s. The African Union also has developed increasingly robust responses to regional insecurity.

Trump’s recent comments suggest that Africa continues to be a low priority for his administration. This approach echoes the Trump transition team’s skepticism last year about America’s economic and military interests in Africa, as well as the selection of Chad, Libya and Somalia as countries to place on the administration’s indefinite travel ban.

But calling the countries of Africa “shitholes” misses important points on the overall U.S. immigration program, and ignores a long U.S. history of welcoming vulnerable populations living in poor conditions who seek better lives in the United States. After all, similar conditions brought earlier waves of immigrants — Irish, Italians, Germans — to America from what might then have been denigrated as “shitholes.”

Beth Elise Whitaker is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Christopher Day is an assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston.