By Ishaan Tharoor, with Ruby Mellen(*) – The Washington Post
It says a lot about this fraught moment in U.S. politics that President Trump’s move to slap immigration restrictions on almost a quarter of Africa’s population transpired with little more than a murmur in Washington. But amid the final throes of the Senate impeachment trial and the chaos of the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, the White House reinforced its virtual border wall Friday when it added six countries to the administration’s list of nations subject to either sweeping travel bans or strict immigration limits.
Trump’s proclamation would “bar most citizens of Nigeria, Eritrea, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan from coming to work and live in the United States,” reported my colleagues. “Two nations, Tanzania and Sudan, would be banned from applying for the visa lottery, which issues up to 50,000 visas a year worldwide to countries with historically low migration to the United States.” The six newly designated countries join seven other nations — most of which are majority-Muslim — already subject to travel bans. The nations on the current list encompass close to a quarter of the more than 1.2 billion people living in Africa. Nigeria happens to be Africa’s most populous country, as well as its largest economy.
The Trump administration justifies these maneuvers as “common-sense” steps to protect U.S. national security, arguing that the vetting procedures in place in these countries are insufficient in helping U.S. officials determine security risks such as passport fraud or links to extremist groups. However, it leaves open the possibility of rescinding the bans should those countries do enough to satisfy American requirements.
Curiously, the bans bar migration to work and live in the United States but not tourist visits — though those admissions have dropped, too, under the Trump administration — which calls into question the administration’s logic in restricting travel on national security grounds. The president’s critics see this as part of a thinly veiled white-nationalist, immigration-restrictionist agenda championed by the White House since Trump took office.
“Trump’s travel bans have never been rooted in national security — they’re about discriminating against people of color,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said Sunday on Twitter. “They are, without a doubt, rooted in anti-immigrant, white supremacist ideologies.”
In remarks that reverberated in 2018, the president disparaged Haiti, El Salvador and several African nations as “shithole countries.” According to the New York Times, in a 2017 private meeting aimed at reducing immigration levels to the United States, Trump noticed the considerable number of Nigerian immigrants on visa overstays and mused to his advisers that they would never “go back to their huts” if permitted to enter the United States. That casual bigotry belies the fact that African immigrants to the United States, and especially Nigerians, rank among the most highly educated arrivals.
On Tuesday, standing alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama told reporters in Washington that his government was working to satisfy U.S. criteria. “We have been able to tick most of the boxes with regards to lost and stolen passports,” as well as beef up information-sharing with Interpol, Onyeama said at a briefing.
Pompeo said he was “optimistic” that Nigeria could be removed from the restrictions list and indicated that U.S. concerns were stoked in part by the prevalence of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, whose insurgency has destabilized parts of the country and neighboring regions in Cameroon and Niger.
In Nigeria, however, there’s more pronounced anger and disbelief. “We are a giant of Africa — the biggest population of black people in the world,” Nigerian Sen. Mohammed Sani Musa told my colleague, Danielle Paquette, “so this is unfortunate. It’s harsh. And I hope it’s temporary.”
On Twitter over the weekend, Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and a political rival of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Trump “to consider adopting measures that individually target those in government who have failed in their duties, rather than target the entire Nigerian population,” echoing a grievance among some in Nigeria that local authorities gave the Trump administration enough cause to impose such tough measures.
But the ban poses risks for the Trump administration, too, which earlier appeared eager to bolster ties with Africa’s major economies. “Banning immigration from Nigeria while at the same time working for closer economic ties with Africa to counter Russian and Chinese influence indicates policy incoherence within the Trump administration,” noted John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is bound to have a dampening effect on the development of closer economic ties between the United States and the Giant of Africa.”
And then there are the tens of thousands who, overnight, found their lives upended and dreams dashed by the stroke of a presidential pen. Hadiza Aliyu of Nigeria’s insurgency-plagued Borno state was planning on applying to move to the United States to join her two brothers. Those plans have been cast aside. “Trump has been looking for a way to get at us Africans for a very long time, and finally got us,” Aliyu told the New York Times. “To hell with Republicans and their supremacist ideas.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor. Ruby Mellen Assistant Editor, Foreign Desk at The Washington Post