African immigration is America's gain, Africa's loss

(Originally published in The Hill.)

Regardless of the exact words that he used, President Trump’s disparaging statement about African immigrants who have come to the United States is at odds with reality.

First, African immigrants to the United States are generally skilled and well-educated. While there are refugees seeking asylum from war and persecution — including recent arrivals escaping the conflict and terrorism in Somalia — a report by the Migration Policy Institute finds that, on average, sub-Saharan African immigrants are more educated than even the U.S.-born population. They are more likely to participate in the labor force, and they enter the management, business, science, and arts fields at the same rate as those born in the United States.

The United States, for example, is a top destination for Nigerian doctors after medical school. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged this when he heard about the president’s offensive remarks on African immigrants. Ryan spoke of African doctors and “incredible citizens” who practice medicine in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.

These professionals are needed here, but also in Africa. They often are not happy to leave home, but they emigrate to find employment opportunities commensurate with their education — opportunities that are unavailable in their home countries.

Second, the percentage of African-born immigrants to the United States is really quite small. Including both citizens and non-citizens, at just under 2 million people, they amount to about one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Foreign-born individuals from Latin America, Asia, and Europe far outnumber Africans in the United States.

It is, therefore, wrong and unconscionable to speak of African immigrants as if they are bad for the United States. On the contrary, highly-skilled Africans emigrating to the United States benefit our country, even though it also runs contrary to our interests for these individuals to leave the home countries that desperately need successful citizens.

African nations are valuable partners and allies to America, and the rise of the world’s fastest growing middle class is in our mutual interest — that is why the United States has provided development assistance to independent African nations since the 1960s.

As part of this effort, the conversation about African immigrants should be about what the United States can do to work with emerging African leaders to improve circumstances on the continent, and provide incentives for skilled Africans to build good governance and economic capacity at home.

Economic deprivation and inadequate education systems have made poor and unstable African regions ripe for recruitment drives by terrorist organizations. With financing from extremist sources in the Middle East, groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram prey on unemployed youths, exploiting their hopelessness to spread their brand of militant Islamism. Recognizing the threat they pose to America, the United States provides over $1.9 billion in aid to African militaries and police forces to prevent terrorist groups from gaining ground. But the underlying issue of desperation for basic human needs persists. Violent conflict and extremism thrive among poverty, famine, drought, and disease.

As the Islamic State has been pushed out of Iraq and Syria, the terror group seeks to gain a foothold in Africa — and its affiliates are happy to help. Military might will only delay their advance. Protecting America is inherently tied to establishing strong relationships with African governments and providing aid and development assistance. Denigrating African nations, and their educated class which could lead the continent to security and prosperity, makes no sense.

President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposed cutting $2.8 billion in aid to Africa, and shifting some of what remains from humanitarian to military assistance. This move may prove popular with his domestic constituency, but quite simply, it is bad for the United States. It denies Americans the numerous economic and security benefits of a prosperous Africa and is sure to expand the type of immigration the president disparages, although for the wrong reasons.

Make no mistake: African immigration is a boon for the United States. And if President Trump is serious about “America First,” he will fight to protect and expand aid to Africa, a no-brainer investment in our shared future.