The American Visa Palaver ~ By Olusegun Adeniyi
Last week, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation listing Nigeria among six countries whose nationals would be subjected “to certain restrictions, limitations, and exceptions” regarding emigration to the United States. Justification for the decision, according to the White House, is that Nigeria does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria, does not adequately share public-safety and terrorism-related information, and “also presents a high risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States.”
While the restrictions do not apply to regular visitors, students or officials, the impact is nonetheless significant. In 2018 alone, 7,922 Nigerians were granted American immigrant visas. A breakdown reveals that 4,525 were through ‘immediate relatives’, 82 were of ‘special’ status, 495 were for employment and 2,820 were by ‘family preference’. These categories of Nigerians will now forfeit opportunities to unite with families, receive health care or obtain employment simply on account of their nationality. As of 2018, no fewer than 2,019,000 immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa were resident in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). While this represents a mere 4.5 percent of the total 44.7 million American immigrants, the current discrimination against our country is quite telling as Nigeria accounts for a significant percentage of that population of African immigrants.
Quoting data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the MPI report stated that there were 130,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants as at 1980. These are people who were born in their respective countries before emigrating to the United States. A decade later, the number had more than doubled to 265,000 and by the start of the new millennium in 2000, the number had more than quadrupled to 691,000. Ten years later in 2010, the number had jumped to 1,327,0000. By 2018, the number had risen to 2,019,000. With 375,000 immigrants, Nigeria accounts for 18.6 percent of this population. These are Nigeria-born citizens who emigrated to the United States through any of the earlier stated grounds. This number does not include persons of Nigerian descent who were born in the United States.
For an administration that came to power with an agenda to curtail immigration, it is no surprise that President Trump would include on his restriction list a country he has disparaged in the past. Nigeria is also one of the countries whose nationals frequently overstay short-term visitor visas, according to the Department of Homeland Security data. However, it is important for us to examine the stated grounds for the decision. One of the first set of executive orders President Trump signed on assuming office in January 2017 was titled ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’ which states that “The visa-issuance process plays a crucial role in detecting individuals with terrorist ties and stopping them from entering the United States…”
What that suggests is that visa and passport requirements for countries America deals with would have to be more rigorous. Yet, there has always been a question mark regarding the integrity of Nigerian passports and visas. On 15th August 2015, for instance, a suspected Lebanese terrorist, Ahmed al-Assir, was arrested at the airport in Beirut while on his way to Nigeria via Egypt. He had a forged Palestinian passport and a genuine Nigerian visa. Accused of committing terrorist operations, murdering soldiers and instigating sectarian warfare, Assir was on 28th September 2017 sentenced to death in Lebanon. There is no information as to how he procured the Nigerian visa nor has any official been brought to account for the sordid affair. That is just one of numerous examples of the way our visa and passport processes have been corrupted. American authorities must have been taking notes.
What compounds the problem for Nigeria is the quality of our representation in Washington. If we had an active ambassador in the United States, there would have been a more robust engagement that could have helped to resolve concerns. According to a White House statement, all the seven countries involved, including Nigeria, had been informed since March last year of a change in performance metrics for identity-management and information sharing criteria. “A number of foreign governments sent senior officials to Washington, D.C., to discuss those issues, explore potential solutions, and convey views about obstacles to improving performance”, said the statement which added that “as a result of this engagement, one country made sufficient improvements in its information-sharing and identity-management practices and was removed from consideration for travel restrictions.”
The country that was ‘removed’ from the list happens to be Chad and we can hazard a guess as to why. Mahamat Nasser Hassane, who has been the Chadian ambassador to the United States since 2014 is 55, holds a first degree in geology and a Ph.D with specialization in public rights and African oil law from the University of Nantes in France. Urbane and cosmopolitan, it is no surprise that Hassane could lead the engagement that secured reprieve for his country. In contrast, though Nigeria is a dynamic country with a predominantly young population, an 85-year old man was saddled with being our face in Washington!
To be effective, an ambassador must be strong both in body and mind aside being a skilled negotiator. If the qualities of a diplomat are therefore “sleepless tact, unmovable calmness, and a patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunders may shake,” as envisaged by Benjamin Franklin, then members of the Nigerian Senate Foreign Relations Committee who screened and twice rejected Ambassador Sylvanus Nsofor saw the danger coming. The old man was said to be irritated by every question put to him, and spent most of the time lecturing the Senators on where he was before they were born! It was therefore obvious from the outset that sending such an old man to Washington as our ambassador would be a great disservice to Nigeria.
In his book, ‘The Ambassador: Inside the Life of a Working Diplomat’, John Shaw wrote: “For nearly a decade, I’ve been writing about Washington’s diplomatic community and have become increasingly intrigued by the role of the ambassador. Most countries send their most experienced, savvy, and polished diplomats to Washington.” While I am always hesitant to criticise people on the basis of age, this is an assignment that requires certain attributes that may not be available to everybody. President Muhammadu Buhari will do well by replacing Nsofor with a young and cosmopolitan ambassador in Washington.
So while President Trump has not hidden his disdain for immigrants, especially of a certain colour, we should come to terms with the fact that fewer and fewer Nigerians will be able to access the United States, even as regular visitors or students. Anyone who is paying attention to the growing number of stories of rejection of visa applicants at the American embassy will already be aware of that. But since immigration is tied to population control, it is also important to understand that the cultural and belief systems that promote irresponsible procreation in Nigeria is a disincentive, especially for many western countries. And it cannot escape their attention that four wives have already “produced 27 kids” for the majority leader in Nigeria’s House of Representatives. And he is “still counting”!
For sure, President Trump has his copious negatives on matters of race and open disdain for cultures he neither understands nor is ready to tolerate. Yet the point he made in this latest immigration proclamation on Nigeria falling short of best practices in matters of identity management cannot be easily dismissed. The inconvenient truth is that nobody knows how many Nigerians there are. Worse still, we do not have a credible identity management system. Our borders remain porous and open to elements who of late have rubbished our national security. If Nigeria insists on not taking itself seriously, we cannot expect the rest of the world to lower standards to accommodate our lapses.
Therefore, one of the challenges of the US visa ban is for us to get our acts together. This is not in order to qualify our citizens to continue to flock to the US that has its own challenges, however attractive the country may seem to some of our citizens. Rather, running a serious country ought to be a national imperative and the minimum expectation of every Nigerian. While we need to emphasize the freedom of our people to travel wherever in the world they may choose, we also need to increase the competitiveness of our country to reduce the urge for the kind of mass emigration of some of our brightest citizens witnessed in recent years.
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