Africans wary of US travel after series of border denials
(CNN)Nigeria is not on the list of countries affected by the US government’s temporary travel bans. But several Nigerian citizens claim to have been denied entry since they were introduced.
Real estate businessman Femi Olaniyi travelled to Los Angeles on February 21 with a two-year multiple entry visa. He says the experience proved to be an ordeal.
“When I got to the point of entry at Los Angeles Airport, an immigration officer interrogated me,” he told CNN. “He said I should come for biometric (tests) to check whether I have any criminal offence. I told him that I’m not a criminal and that he should go ahead.”
“Later, he brought some documents for me to sign and I told him that I would need to read before I sign. He quickly withdrew the document and put me in a cold cell. From there he held me for four days. He collected all my phones so that I would not get access to my family. He later revoked my visa and sent me back to Nigeria.”
Olaniyi was not the only Nigerian to be rejected at the US border.
Lagosian Francis Adekola, who recently completed a PhD in Canada, was stopped at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport en route to a friend’s wedding.
“I was asked to step aside at the check-in counter by an armed border protection officer,” Adekola recalls. “He walked me to the luggage section and searched my wallet and bag. He also collected my mobile phone and went through the contents. He read my messages, chats, checked my pictures and everything.”
Adekola says the officer denied him entry, suspicious that he might not return to Nigeria. He was promptly flown back to Abuja — some 460 miles from his home in Lagos.
Nigerians have also reported problems during preclearance to the US at Abu Dhabi International Airport, where bank executive Popoola Olayemi was prevented from travelling to Florida along with his pregnant wife and two children.
“Our passports were seized and we were handed over to an Etihad Airline crew,” he says. “We were not even informed that we were being sent back to Nigeria. It was at Lagos that I discovered that our visas had been cancelled. One of the immigration officers told my wife to go and deliver her baby in Nigeria and that she can visit the US afterwards.”
In all three cases, airport authorities referred CNN inquiries to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which indicated the denials were down to established practice rather than new policies of the Trump administration.
“Having a “valid visa” does not guarantee a foreign national entry into the US,” a spokesman said. “A valid visa allows a foreign national to come to an international US airport and present themselves for inspection where a CBP officer will determine the traveler’s admissibility.”
The spokesman would not comment on the individual cases but he pointed to an official list of more than 60 grounds for inadmissibility including security and health reasons, including stipulations over pregnancy and associated costs.
The CBP also provided figures for the number of Nigerians denied entry to the US each month since January 2016. The figures show that 319 of 23,671 Nigerians were denied entry in February and March 2017, compared with 306 of 26,387 Nigerians in February and March 2016 — an increase from 1.16% to a 1.35% rejection rate.
February, the first full month after the Executive Order, saw a higher rejection rate than any of the previous months provided of 1.53%.
Official statements from Nigerian authorities have led to further confusion.
The first statement from the Nigerian government was issued by special adviser to the president on foreign affairs, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who advised Nigerians to consider delaying their US travel plans.
“In the last few weeks, the office has received a few cases of Nigerians with valid multiple-entry US visas being denied entry and sent back to Nigeria,” she said. “Nigerians without any compelling or essential reasons to visit the U.S. should consider rescheduling their trips until there is clarity on the new immigration policy.”
This was swiftly contradicted by Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister George Onyeama, who told the Premium Times:
“On the issue of Nigerians being turned back from the US, this is not the case,” he said. “I am in touch with the US embassy and the ambassador said no, there was nothing of such nature. I can tell you to ignore any call or advice to reconsider travelling to the US because there is no basis for that.”
The US embassy in Abuja released its own statement supporting Onyeama’s position, affirming that the travel ban did not apply to Nigerians with valid visas or other US government authorization, and urging them to travel as normal.
Africans of other nationalities are also facing new difficulties with US immigration.
Kenyan Ednah Chepkoton reported a rejection at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in which she was detained for several hours before being flown back and having her valid multiple-entry visa cancelled. US CBP does not dispute these details.
Others have experienced greater problems obtaining visas. The African Global Economic and Development Summit in Los Angeles went ahead this year without African guests for the first time, as every one of their applications was rejected, including nationals from Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the summit’s organizer.
New Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has directed embassies to apply stronger scrutiny to visa applications of certain groups, and summit organizer Mary Flowers believes that Africans, even beyond the nationalities covered by the Executive Order, have fallen victim to the new policy.
“Usually we average 40% rejections,” says Flowers. “I’m sure it has a lot to do with the travel bans and the new administration.
But Flowers adds that African nationalities have also faced strict vetting in previous years, and this episode may represent an extension of pre-existing practices.
Rejections and harassment at the border are creating a deterrent for African visitors, according to immigration lawyer Allen Orr Jr, founder of the Orr Immigration Law Firm.
“I have Nigerian clients that are here and afraid to leave, and clients in Nigeria fearful of coming,” he says. “There is a chilling effect — they are not looking to travel and they don’t want to go to conferences right now.”
The ambiguity around vetting procedures adds to the tension and opens space for abuse, the lawyer said.
“Tillerson has sent memorandums to the State Department on extreme vetting but no-one knows what it is and it opens you up to the discretion of the officer,” he says. “Officers are now empowered to make decisions that in the past they wouldn’t make because there might be repercussions for them.”
Orr says that visitors are being subjected to interviews at airports without attorneys present. He adds that Africans with Muslim-sounding names are having worse experiences, and that students are the group most wary of travelling to the US now.
This tallies with recent research from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) which found a steep decline in applications to US colleges from foreign students. The group’s figures for African students are relatively stable thus far, but 26% of 250 surveyed institutions reported concerns from African students over discrimination and visa issues.
“This is the first time I have been concerned based on American politics,” says AACRAO Deputy Director Melanie Gottlieb. “The past seven, eight years we have seen 7% annual growth of international students…but I wouldn’t be surprised if when the numbers come through for fall 2017 we see a drop.”
Cases such as Femi Olaniyi’s appear to have declined in recent weeks. The American Civil Liberties Union told CNN it is not handling any cases for Africans outside of those designated in the travel ban, and the Airport Lawyer volunteer group, established to support vulnerable immigrants, believes the worst may be over.
“Things have calmed down quite a bit since last court order, to the extent that we will scale back our Airport Lawyer efforts,” says Diane Butler of the Lane Powell firm in Seattle, and a volunteer for Airport Lawyer.
But Nigerians remain wary, and several based in the US told CNN they are changing their plans.
“I wanted to visit my parents living in Akure in March before but they are even the ones asking me to suspend my travel plans until there is a clear-cut explanation of what is going on,” said New York-based Nigerian immigrant Taiwo Adewale.
The Pew Research Center recently published its latest report on African immigrants living in the US, which estimated the total number at 2.1 million, up from 881,000 in 2000 and just 80,000 in 1970. Nigeria accounts for the largest share with over 327,000.
Until there is further clarity from the White house over immigration policy, insecurity will remain rife among these communities.