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Trump’s Nigerian Ban Is About Race, Not Security
Nigerian entrepreneurship and creativity have always found a home in the United States—until now.
After winning a court victory with his initial travel ban that targeted some predominantly Muslim countries, U.S. President Donald Trump has followed up with another sweeping measure, this time blocking immigration from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania, Myanmar, Sudan, and Nigeria. None of this is justifiable, but the Nigeria ban is especially egregious. It’s clear that Trump’s new Nigerian immigration ban was not about security issues, as the administration claimed. Save for one incident in 2009, Nigeria has never been named in any terrorism-related threats to the United States—in spite of the challenges the country faces at home from Boko Haram, inflation, and a struggling economy. Even in 2009, the culprit held a visitor’s visa, one of the visa categories not affected by the new visa ban. The sheer level of vetting required for an immigrant visa makes the possibility of someone who wants to harm the United States getting through highly implausible.
If not security, what was it really about? Definitely not about “getting the best people,” as Trump likes to say of the types of immigrants he supposedly wants. Nigerians are some of the best-educated immigrants in the United States, often even ahead of other immigrant groups like Asians and Hispanics. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, about 17 percent of Nigerian immigrants have master’s degrees while about 4 percent have doctorates. Nigerians go to school, get jobs, adapt to the society, pay taxes, write books, raise children, work in the movie and television industry, go into law and politics, and generally contribute positively to American society. In my own field, creative writing, I can point to Teju Cole, Nnedi Okorafor, Akwaeke Emezi, Uzodinma Iweala, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lesley Nneka Arimah as writers rooted on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s not about economics either. Nigerian immigrants sent about $17.5 billion back home in 2019, $6.2 billion of it from the United States, illustrating their success in their adopted country—where they also pay taxes, invest in businesses, pay for goods and services, and pay into Social Security, some of which they don’t end up using because many return home after they retire. Many green card holders who shuttle between Nigeria and the United States also pay taxes in their home country while they continue to pay and contribute to American society.
So what is the ban really about?
Trump gave the game away in 2017 when he asked hypothetically why the United States was not getting immigrants from countries like Norway. Immigrants from Nigeria, he was reported as having said, don’t often return to their “huts” after encountering the American experience. It was always about curbing certain types of immigrants who look a certain type of way coming from a certain type of place. Nothing else makes sense.
That’s a tragedy. I first encountered America at a simpler time, in 2009, when I was selected as a Fulbright scholar to come teach Yoruba to American undergraduates at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. After the program, I stayed for two more years to complete a master’s program in linguistics. During this time, I volunteered for a semester to work at the International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL) to help some of the immigrants who were settling in the United States learn English and adjust to their new society.
The three years I lived in the country were some of the most fulfilling of my life. I discovered a compassionate America, willing to take people from the most disadvantaged places in the world and give them shelter and a new life. Many of the students I worked with were as old as my parents and grandparents. They came from Bhutan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and other places I had never heard of. Many of them were learning English for the first time and were happy to learn, grateful for a new lease of life in a new country. Many of the teachers were volunteers, too. We were as heartened by the zeal of the students as by the possibilities we were making happen. The IISTL, a nonprofit educational institution, also gave citizenship classes and lessons to those immigrants who became assimilated enough to apply for naturalization. The joy we felt each day of class was real.
I returned home, after getting married in 2012, to contribute to Nigeria, where I got a job as a high school teacher of English. I could as well have made a different choice and decided to settle in the United States. My wife is an American citizen. Immigrants finding America secure enough to live and thrive in, safe from many of the troubles they left back home, should make a U.S. president proud. After all, many of the people deciding to settle and work in the country have often benefited from the country’s largesse in some way, either from scholarships or student assistantships or grants. Why would they be a net negative to American society? Now, all immigration visas from Nigeria, including family-based ones, have been suspended.
Nigeria’s dynamic population, unique history, and innovative people have made it a particularly fond of emigration and travel. It is not always about escaping from any particular hurt or running away. In the 1960s, the Nigerian student Adebisi Ajala became nationally famous for riding his scooter around the United States, discovering places and people (he met Ronald Reagan as Reagan was making the transition to politics, and even acted in a Hollywood movie), and later wrote a famous book An African Abroad about his experience. While I lived in the United States, I kept him in mind for my own aspirations to travel. I drove around the country, made friends, pushed myself to limits, fell in love, had exhilarating adventures, and wrote about it.
Nigerians enjoy adventure, trade, and the joy that comes with contact with a different place. A popular saying in Nigeria goes: “If you go anywhere in the world and a Nigerian is not there, you are advised to leave immediately. Something is certainly wrong!” They establish communities and contribute to the social, political, and economic fabric of the place. The current show Bob Hearts Abishola on CBS illustrates some of this trait, along with the humor, optimism, and ambition with which Nigerians have navigated the world. Even the Oxford English Dictionary just added a whopping 29 words and expressions of Nigerian English into its lexicon, showing how Nigerian pragmatism and entrepreneurship reflect the people’s embrace of new things, including language and culture.
But it’s not just about success and innovation. Ordinary families don’t deserve the harm this ban will cause. The New York Times just published an example of family bonds that will be torn apart with this new policy change. Republicans say they are the party of family values, but when a family is separated, it is a lost chance to build a future generation on the generosity of the past.
For many, heading home is a harrowing choice. In 2014, Nigeria successfully passed a law criminalizing same-sex relationships, association, or advocacy. LGBT Nigerians who have looked to the United States for safe haven are returning to a real threat of harm. For others who have progressed in their careers and are on the path to a permanent place in their new adopted society, this setback will take years to recover from.
In some ways, America’s loss may be Nigeria’s gain. In the last 10 years, many young educated Nigerians have returned home to found start-ups and try to change society. There is Andela, co-founded by Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, who had lived in Canada; LifeBank Nigeria, founded by my wife, Temie Giwa-Tubosun; and many others. There will be many more returnees taking on the challenge of turning Nigeria into a better place for them and their children.
But every border closed causes loss. Migration enriches each generation, provides new opportunities, and new ways of seeing the world. As Sen. J. William Fulbright, whose legacy gave me my own chance in the United States, once said, it adds “a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase[s] the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” There might not be a point in appealing to the better angels of the Trump administration since its careful scheming to put this rule in place does not seem based on anything other than selfishness and shortsightedness. But the losers will not just be Nigerians. Another loser is the idea of the United States as a shining city on the hill—an open and tolerant society welcoming of all people willing to embrace it, cherish it, and make a success of that daring adventure.