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Trump’s Travel Ban ‘Causing Chaos’ in New York’s Nigerian Community

Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chair of the Nigerian government's Diaspora Commission, Feb. 28, 2020.
Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chair of the Nigerian government’s Diaspora Commission, Feb. 28, 2020. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

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It was all supposed to happen this year for Oliver Anene.

He was going to become an American citizen, almost eight years after coming to the country as an asylum seeker. And his mother back in Nigeria was finally going to be able to get a visa through him, so she could see New York City for the first time.

In preparation for the reunion — the first time the two would see each other since Anene left Nigeria in 2012 — the green card holder saved thousands of dollars and readied to move out of his studio apartment in Harlem. She would be here a few months, and they would need the space.

Before he could sign a lease on a bigger apartment, however, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that Nigeria had been added to a list of countries from which travel to the United States would be restricted.

U.S. officials said on Jan. 31, citizens from Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania, would now be barred from entering the country — all because their governments “failed to meet a series of security criteria.”

The expanded policy took effect three weeks later, on Feb. 21.

“I’ve been avoiding my mom, because I still don’t know how to explain,” Anene, a program specialist at the Open Society Foundations, told THE CITY.

He has since renewed his lease on the studio in Harlem and is unsure when he will see his mother. Returning to Nigeria for him, as an openly gay man, is still “very risky,” he said.

“This was something we discussed only a couple of weeks ago, in January,” he said of his plan to bring his mother to New York. “And then this happened.”

A Large Community

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest economy. Nearly 400,000 first- and second-generation Nigerians are estimated to be living in the United States, according to a 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank that studies immigration.

New York City boasts the nation’s largest Nigerian immigrant population, with 35,000, followed by Houston and Washington, according to the Institute.

A man walks into the Nigerian embassy in Murray Hill, Feb. 20, 2020.
A man walks into the Nigerian embassy in Murray Hill, Feb. 20, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“This is a massive expansion of the previous versions of the ban,” said Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together, a civil rights organization for African immigrants.

“African countries were targeted in the very first version of the ban, like Somalia and Sudan,” Kassa added. “But they’ve gone after the largest country on the African continent and the country with the largest diaspora.”

Nigerians are also a highly educated group of immigrants: Between 2008 and 2012, more than 60% of those with Nigerian ancestry who were 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus just 28.5% of all Americans, the Census Bureau found.

“Everywhere you go, Nigerians are at the top of their game,” said Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chair of the Nigerian government’s Diaspora Commission, a federal entity responsible for connecting with the estimated 17 million Nigerians she said are living outside the country.

She told THE CITY that, given the contributions of many Nigerians in the United States, the Trump administration’s decision felt especially vicious — particularly as the expanded ban most “affects those who are already here.”

In one case Dabiri-Erewa has been following, a Nigerian-American man living in America has been unable to bring his wife to the U.S. It’s a frustrating challenge for the pair, who recently married after five years of dating from more than 6,000 miles apart, she said.

‘A Lot of Fear’

There are many other stories like this one, Nigerian New Yorkers who spoke with THE CITY said.

“It’s causing chaos,” Kassa said of the travel ban.

“I don’t think people believed that this could happen to them,” he added. “There is a lot of fear. People have family members, husbands, wives, children, parents, who they had planned to help bring to the U.S. They now don’t know if that’s going to be impossible, or what.”

Dabiri-Arewa said she is “optimistic that the ban will not last for too long.”

The Nigerian government has set up a committee to examine the exceptions raised by U.S. officials, who contend the ban targeted countries that have “deficiencies in sharing terrorist, criminal or identity information.”

Nigerian officials said they also have started rolling out point-of-entry “biometric verification” in major airports, to collect information on those entering the country.

“We are hopeful the president will listen,” said Dabiri-Arewa.

DHS officials have said that the 13 countries now facing immigration restrictions will undergo regular review to ensure they are complying with the imposed vetting requirements.

Some observers thought the ban might be retracted after a federal judge on Sunday nullified President Doinald Trump’s appointment of Ken Cuccinelli as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. But, while a few of Cuccinelli’s orders are expected to be retracted or at least delayed, the travel ban is exempted because it was enacted through a presidential executive order, advocates noted.

Meanwhile, Kassa said his organization is exploring ways to challenge the ban through litigation and legislation.

“We’re not just sort of sitting quietly while this happens,” he said.

Even if the Nigerian government complies with the Trump administration’s demands, Kassa is “doubtful that after jumping through hoops this is gonna go away.”

“Anyone who thinks this is a bureaucratic problem as opposed to a political one is not being realistic,” he added.

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