Immigration in America has never been more contentious a topic. The recent protest culture that has emerged from the Occupy movement and student-fueled immigrant rights campaigns such as the DREAMers have forced politicians’ hand on the issue of immigration reform. On the dawn of Barack Obama’s second term in office, it appears as if immigration reform for this country will finally be tackled.
Perhaps to capitalize on the political opportunity or perhaps because people are finally listening, significant attention has been granted to the challenges and troubles of immigrants in America.
In this context, I’ve decided to focus on a specific group of immigrants in America, that of the Congolese, a Diaspora population seemingly poised to expand dramatically in the next few years due to renewed fighting between the government and a group of rebels known as M23 in their native DRC.
So why is it so hard to track down this community in my own backyard?
The U.S. Census, indisputably the most comprehensive source of population and demographic information in the country, has only the most general statistics on Congolese in America. From the Census’ “American Factfinder” website I was able to find that as of 2010, 11,000 Congolese-Americans lived in the United States. Eric Newberger, lead researcher at the American Community Survey, says this number has a large margin of error. The number could be as small as 9,400 or as large as 12,600.
Newberger did, however, help me understand just how “new” the Congolese Diaspora was: of the total in America with Congolese ancestry, a full 80 percent were foreign born. This means that only 2 out of 10 Congolese Americans have been born in the United States – the rest have immigrated here this generation.
Census information from 2000 substantiates this idea. According to this census, 3,886 people in the United States claimed ancestry of the Congo or the DRC (however, this number is skewed as 3,886 claimed DRC ancestry and 1,602 claimed ancestry from Zaire. It was only in this current Census that the two were combined into one ancestry group), meaning the majority have come since the 2000 Census was administered.
Despite the relatively small population of 11,000, the recent events in the DRC point to an increase in refugees and overall Congolese-American population in the near future. Fronteras claims that in 2010 alone over 3,000 Congolese refugees arrived in America, and Senior Resettlement Officer of UNHCR, Larry Yungk, estimates that this number will grow by 10 to 20 percent over the next two to three years.
Apart from the national statistics from the American Community Survey, I have been unable to find a source that specifies the Congolese population of individual states. “The Congolese population in the U.S. is too small to be broken out separately,” explains Michelle Mittelstadt, the Director of Communications for the Migration Policy Institute, in an email. Instead, the Census breaks down the populations by state into ancestral categories such as Eastern Africa, Northern Africa, Western Africa, and Middle / Southern Africa.
Both the Congo and the DRC, of which Diaspora would be considered to be Congolese, are located in this latter category. (Also in this category: “Middle Africa” includes Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe. “Southern Africa” includes Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland.)
The American Community Survey has data for this “Middle / Southern Africa” category for the year 2011. Of the total 172,922 in the country, 5,821 were from Massachusetts, 3,099 from Connecticut, 799 from Rhode Island, 779 from New Hampshire, 350 from Vermont and 184 from Maine.
If the proportions stay consistent across states (and the 11,000 Congolese refugees consistently equal 6.36 percent of the total Middle/Southern Africa population), the populations in each New England state would equal: 370 in Massachusetts, 197 in Connecticut, 51 in Rhode Island, 50 in New Hampshire, 22 in Vermont and 12 in Maine. There are flaws to this logic, as I know from my reporting in New Hampshire that there are over 150 Congolese-Americans in New Hampshire alone.
The statistics that the 11,000 Congolese ancestry number came from in the Census provided very useful social data. Here is what I know about the Congolese American population as of 2010:
- 58.8 percent live in a house with children under 18 years old
- The population of those aged 65 and older is only 0.8 percent of the entire population
- The average household size is 3.83 people
- 5,463 are enrolled in school
- 2,181 of the total population are elementary school aged (grades 1-8)
- 10,831 have been in the U.S. for over one year (only 997 came over from abroad)
- 1,980 entered before 2000 (22.4 percent of total population)
- 2,088 are born in the U.S. and 8,820 are born outside the US (foreign born)
- 1,221 are naturalized U.S. citizens
These statistics are fascinating, and bring up a lot of questions I will dive into for my future reporting. Fully half of the entire Diaspora population is enrolled in school of some kind, the majority in elementary school. How does this imbalance play out in Congolese communities? Is there a focus on services for the well-being and education of children, considering almost 20 percent are aged 6 to 13? What are the differences between the population that have been here since 2000 (22 percent of the total) and those that have arrived after 2009 (less than 10 percent)? What are the differences between the attitudes and lifestyle of the naturalized population (11 percent) and those not naturalized (89 percent)?
In the coming months I hope to fill in the gaps of knowledge about the U.S.-Congolese Diaspora and, along the way, do my best to answer some of these questions.