(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This column will not render a verdict on whether the White House decision last week to suspend immigration from Nigeria — the world’s seventh most-populous nation — and five other countries was mainly an expression of bigotry from an administration led by a man who once likened African nations to latrines, or if it was a legitimate reaction to security concerns. It will, however, tell you some things you might not know about Nigerian immigrants in the U.S.
To start, there’s a fair number of them (which is why I’m focusing on Nigeria and not Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Sudan or Tanzania, the other five countries hit by the new ban). An estimated 374,311 Nigerian-born people were living in the U.S. in 2018, which put the country in 27th place as a source of foreign-born Americans, behind Pakistan and ahead of Japan. These and a lot of the numbers to follow are based on the American Community Survey that the U.S. Census Bureau sends out to 3.5 million households every year, so they’re subject to margins of error (19,648 for the number cited above), plus the inevitable strengths and limitations of self-reported statistics.
For example, the Census Bureau says there were an estimated 462,708 people of Nigerian ancestry in the U.S. in the 2018, but that’s based on what people put on the survey, not the sort of genealogical investigation that would surely reveal that there are millions of Americans whose forebears were brought across the Atlantic against their will in past centuries from the region of West Africa that is now Nigeria. Still, for our purposes the census survey is probably better, in that it restricts the scope mostly to recent immigrants and their kids. The members of this group have more than doubled in number since 2007, and they are for the most part doing quite well.
The median income for households led by someone of Nigerian ancestry, for example, was $68,658 in 2018, compared with $61,937 for U.S. households overall. Here are a few other informative comparisons:
Nigerian-Americans are more likely to have jobs than the rest of us, and much more likely to have college degrees. They’re also much less likely to own their homes, and slightly more likely to be below the poverty line — although they’re less likely to collect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits commonly known as food stamps. Nigerian-Americans are younger (median age is 31.6, compared with 38.2 for the U.S. overall), more likely to live in big cities (at least, that’s how I interpret the relatively high share of public transportation users), more likely to work in education and health care (there are a lot of Nigerian-American doctors) and slightly more likely to be married.
The percentage of Nigerian immigrants 16 and older with jobs ranked them 10th among immigrant groups in the U.S. in 2017 (the Census Bureau’s new data portal is still going through some growing pains that prevented me from assembling these rankings for 2018).
Nigerian immigrants also came in 10th place for the percentage with college degrees.
Australia, Bulgaria and Nigeria are the only countries to make it into the top 10 on both rankings, which to me indicates a sort of integration sweet spot. Nigerians who come to the U.S. usually speak English before they get here, they tend to be well educated or in the process of becoming so, and they don’t seem to have much trouble getting jobs or otherwise fitting in. I don’t think these are the only things immigrant success should be judged by, and there’s something more than a little creepy about passing such judgments upon people by their country of origin. But since immigration policy in general and the new immigration bans in particular do just that, it does seem relevant that Nigerian-Americans are clearly among the most successful immigrant groups in the U.S.
Also relevant is that Nigerians feature prominently on the Department of Homeland Security’s rankings of people who stick around longer than their visas allow. Here are the numbers for business and pleasure visas:
Among those with student and exchange-program visas, the numbers are smaller, with 1,664 Nigerian students suspected of overstaying their visas in fiscal year 2018. But that makes for an even higher share (18.6%) of those that U.S. authorities had expected to depart. (Nigeria has been moving up in the ranks of countries sending students to U.S. colleges and universities, to 11th place in 2018-2019, according to the Institute for International Studies.)
One way to look at this data is that Nigerians need to be kept out of the U.S. or they’ll never leave. This has in fact been the reaction of the current administration, which in March of last year suspended a visa-interview waiver program that allowed Nigerian applicants for some visas to apply by mail, and in August jacked up visa fees for Nigerians. Big surprise: The number of Nigerians visiting the U.S. fell by 21% in the first 10 months of last year, the biggest drop of any country, according to Quartz Africa, which has been all over this story.
Another way to think about the visa-overstay phenomenon, though, is that the U.S. isn’t supplying nearly enough immigrant visas to Nigerians. The demand is clearly there, and Nigerian immigrants have a track record of great success here. I would guess that those who stick around after their visas expire are less successful than those who come on immigrant visas, but in theory at least they too are represented in all the above statistics from the American Community Survey, which don’t differentiate by visa status. And yes, if the U.S. allowed a big increase in the number of immigrants from Nigeria, their education levels and success rates might fall. But banning immigration from Nigeria outright, as the administration has now done, seems like a pretty big step in the wrong direction.
This step was taken, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf said Friday, because Nigeria and the other five countries subject to the new ban “lack either the will or the capability” to adhere to new screening and vetting criteria imposed by the U.S. government since March 2017. Now, I am perfectly willing to believe that the Nigerian response to U.S. demands has been somewhat shambolic, especially given how some Nigerian officials reacted to the news. “The travel ban is a wake-up call, a rude one at that, on the need for us to be alive to our responsibility to our people and ensure that we have citizenship integrity,” Ajibola Basiru, chairman of the Nigerian Senate Committee on Diaspora Affairs, told the Punch (a leading Nigerian newspaper) over the weekend. “At the moment, we are a nation of anonymous citizens. We don’t have records of our citizens and anybody can claim to be a Nigerian.”
The Nigerian government will now surely react with more alacrity to the U.S. push for information-sharing, and may well succeed in getting this latest visa ban revoked — as occurred with neighboring Chad in April 2018. But resolving this situation ought to be a policy priority for the U.S. as well. Nigerian immigrants are great. We need more of them, not fewer.
(Corrects sixth and seventh paragraphs of article published Feb. 4, as well as the description on the charts titled “High-Employment Immigration Groups” and “High-Education Immigrant Groups,” to reflect that the data are reported by country of birth.)
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Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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