On Jan. 31, the Trump administration expanded its country-specific travel ban by barring immigrants from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania. When President Trump issued his first travel ban three years ago — commonly called the “Muslim ban” because six of the targeted countries are predominantly Muslim — many Americans took to the streets. The Trump administration revised the ban several times as it worked its way through legal challenges in federal court. On June 26, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of the original travel ban.
If the public reaction to the latest travel ban seems muted in contrast to three years ago, it is likely because people have grown accustomed to Trump’s xenophobic overreaches. Nonetheless, it remains important to ask a few basic policy questions to assess the latest travel ban.
Who is most affected by the ban? Four of the six countries are African; the other two are Asian. The United States currently receives very few immigrants from Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania, and the restriction for the latter two is limited to the Diversity Visa Lottery category. Most who come from Myanmar enter as refugees. As a result, those prospective immigrants most affected by the ban are Nigerians. About 41,000 Nigerians made up 1.2 percent of all immigrants to the United States from fiscal year 2016 through fiscal 2018.
Would-be immigrants from these countries who are close family members of people legally residing in the United States are the largest category of those banned. Prospective immigrants who qualify as persons with exceptional ability, outstanding in their fields, highly trained professionals, entrepreneurs and skilled workers who have vetted job offers in the United States are the other significant group of immigrants from the six countries banned.
What is the stated rationale? The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that the “restrictions are the result of these countries’ unwillingness or inability to adhere to our identity management, information sharing, national security and public safety assessment criteria.” DHS states that it began with an empirical “assessment model that ranks all countries in a consistent way.” It then reports turning to national security and foreign policy considerations to make the final cuts.
What weakens the Trump administration’s rationale is the decision to focus on foreign nationals coming as lawful permanent residents from these countries. Persons coming on nonimmigrant, i.e., temporary visas, are exempt from the ban. The administration claims “individuals who have entered the U.S. on immigrant visas are challenging to remove,” hardly a credible argument for differentiating between immigrants and non-immigrants in the context of the terrorist grounds for removal. This reasoning is further challenged by many years of data demonstrating that consular officers deny many more visas of potential non-immigrants than lawful permanent residents on the grounds of being a risk to national security or public safety.
Undercutting the rationale is that the potential need to broaden the country ban was not raised last fall in the testimonies of administration and expert witnesses during the two House Homeland Security Committee hearings on global terrorism threats. Acting DHS Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, discussed many pressing concerns, but none mentioned in his written statement an impending need to add more countries to the travel ban.
It merits noting that the largest group affected come from a country — Nigeria — that has been issuing biometric passports that conform with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) specifications for international travels for over a decade.
Does it serve the public interest? The new ban specifically targets the African nation with the most robust economy, a baffling decision from an economic perspective. Research from the New American Economy found: “African immigrants earned $55.1 billion in 2015. Their households paid $10.1 billion in federal taxes and $4.7 billion in state and local taxes — giving African immigrants an estimated spending power of more than $40.3 billion that year.” As the largest source country for African immigrants in the United States, Nigerians are driving much of this economic energy.
According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Nigerians are among the best educated new arrivals to the United States and have one of the lowest rates of limited English proficiency. Nigerian immigrants are matched only by Chinese and Indian immigrants in that more than half are employed in management, business, science and art occupations. MPI also found that Nigerians are more likely to have private health insurance and become naturalized citizens.
That the new travel ban focuses largely on successful immigrants from Africa smacks of racism and serves to further inflame the sociocultural tensions that have polarized our nation. The first installment of the travel ban illustrated religious bigotry; the latest version features racial prejudice. An ill-conceived policy that fosters ill-will certainly does not serve the public interest.
*Ruth Ellen Wasem is a professor of policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin, and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.