Immigration and asylum seeking were among the areas that underwent drastic changes during the former President Donald Trump’s administration. As Pierce and Botler note, within four years of being in office, he transformed the US immigration and asylum system “in bold brush, sweeping ways, but also in small technical details across the immigration portfolio.”1Sarah Pierce Jessica Bolter, “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalogue of Changes under the Trump Presidency,” Migration Policy Institute, July 2020, https://www.immigrationresearch.org/system/files/MPI_US-Immigration-Trump-Presidency-Final.pdf. Driven by the “America First” catchphrase and a rather strong dose of nativism, Trump’s immigration regime marked a departure from previous administrations that prioritized immigrants’ family reunification, safety, and well-being. The Trump era saw the centering of American workers and industries in immigration policy as it was believed that immigrants were a “threat” to American values and security. To this end, most of the changes in immigrant and refugee policies were adopted through executive orders and existing laws, and not through traditional congressional approval. A number of them were challenged in courts, while several were upheld leading to further securitization of immigration.
The policies mainly targeted issues ranging from refugee settlement and welfare, travel advisories, asylum granting and deportation, and restrictions of the number of legal immigrants. Interestingly, these changes treat both legal and illegal migration to the US as threats to the state’s security. Beginning with a single 2019 regulation, the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds Final Rule, from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) barring foreign nationals who receive or are deemed likely to receive public benefits from becoming legal permanent residents, the administration significantly changed the face of US immigration.2Anthony Akaeze, “Trump’s Parting Gift Echos His Immigration Policies Toward Africa,” Baptist News Global, January 12, 2021, https://baptistnews.com/article/trumps-parting-gift-echos-his-immigration-policies-toward-africa/. This is because the “public-charge” regulation, as it was widely known, put a large share of green-card applicants at risk of denial – especially nationals of developing countries, including Africa.
As the administration pushed ahead with its immigration agenda, resistance seemed in some ways to be losing steam. The first two years of the Trump administration witnessed widespread protests, including against the travel ban in 2017 and family separations at the US-Mexico border in 2018. Some states and localities resisted the administration’s immigration agenda, particularly its enforcement efforts. For example, New York State implemented a law in December 2019 that allowed eligible unauthorized immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. While congressional inaction and resistance thwarted some of Trump’s legislative goals, his administration often found ways around such obstacles. While much global attention has focused on the US-Mexico border, where a mass of mainly Latin American migrants continues to seek refuge in the US, Africans on the continent and in the US have been impacted by Trump’s immigration policies as well. This begs the question: what impact did these changes have on Africa to US migration?
Over the decades, the United States of America, with its prospect of a better life, has been a choice destination for many people, including large numbers of Africans leaving their countries around the world to settle in the US. As mentioned above, Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” anti-immigration program, made securing an American entry visa more difficult than it had ever been. Even Africans who usually relied on naturalized family members in the US to assist them to travel to the country saw their dreams upended. According to the administration, the new executive order, like the previous one, was meant to ensure that American workers did not lose jobs to foreign nationals desiring to migrate to the US. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump’s immigration policies have been particularly felt on the African continent.
A good case in point is Nigeria, which was faced with the ban on visa renewal interview waivers, also known as the “Dropbox process,” that gave applicants the option to not appear in person at the embassy during the application process. This new change was reported to have resulted in many applicants being denied visas. According to Quartz, “data from the U.S. travel and tourism office shows Nigeria recorded the largest global drop-off in visitors to the US. As of October 2019, 34,000 fewer Nigerians travelled to the US compared to the previous year — a 21% drop.”3Yomi Kazeem and Dan Kopf, “Nigeria had the biggest drop in visitors to the US last year as Trump’s visa policies took hold,” Quartz Africa, January 2, 2020, https://qz.com/africa/1778579/nigerian-visitors-to-us-drop-as-trump-visa-policies-hurt/ Ghana was also among the African countries that were on the receiving end of the restrictive immigration policies. For instance, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the deportation of 305 and 243 Ghanaians in 2017 and 2018, respectively. As a result, a diplomatic row ensued between these two countries. Ghanaian government leaders were banned from entering the US for refusing to accept Ghanaian deportees from the US back into their home country. This diplomatic stalemate went on till February 2019 when the US decided to lift the ban.
Trump’s 2017 ban on refugees hit Syrians particularly hard. He issued an executive order suspending refugee resettlement to the US for four months, blocking entry of Syrian nationals entirely until further notice, and slashing the country’s total refugee admissions for 2017 by more than half.4Kristy Siegfried, ‘Trump action derails global refugee resettlement efforts’, The New Humanitarian, January 30, 2017, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2017/01/30/updated-trump-action-derails-global-refugee-resettlement-efforts. A recent interactive timeline by The New Humanitarian tracks the deterioration of Syria’s crisis and the sheer volume of need that was compounded by Trump’s decision.
There is no doubt that migration has positive and negative ramifications. But in the African context, migration has an ethnocentric aspect whereby a majority of people believe that moving away from home in the village to live in the city is a sign of success. In the last few decades, Africans have not only sought out to move to cities, but also abroad in search of a better life. Trump’s stringent immigration policies were a major obstacle for most Africans seeking to migrate in search of new opportunities. Take the case of the visa bond pilot program that was adopted in December 2020 requiring that those seeking tourist and business visas pay bonds of between $5000 and $15,000 over and above the regular visa fee.5Ted Hesson, “New Trump rule require some African tourists to pay up to $15,000 in bonds,” Reuters, November 23, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-travel/new-trump-rule-may-require-some-african-tourists-to-pay-up-to-15000-in-bonds-idUSKBN2832IR. The bond, according to the US Department of State was meant to limit the number of visa overstayers. Out of the 23 countries that were enlisted on this program, 16 were African. Among them are Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Cape Verde, Burundi, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, The Gambia, and Burkina Faso. This visa restriction further complicated the quest for US visas for many ordinary African travellers.
While US immigration has always been a lengthy and laborious process for Africans, the impact of Trump’s policies in making visa applications a rather difficult exercise will be felt for some time to come. The good news is that most of the policies and executive orders can be legally reversed. For instance, on his first day in office, President Biden lifted the “Muslim ban” that blocked immigrants from about 12 countries, some of which were African, from entering the United States. This is perhaps a sure sign that there will be more steps towards a paradigm shift in the US immigration and asylum system in ways that reduce the obstacles that lie in the way of African immigrants.
- 1Sarah Pierce Jessica Bolter, “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalogue of Changes under the Trump Presidency,” Migration Policy Institute, July 2020, https://www.immigrationresearch.org/system/files/MPI_US-Immigration-Trump-Presidency-Final.pdf.
- 2Anthony Akaeze, “Trump’s Parting Gift Echos His Immigration Policies Toward Africa,” Baptist News Global, January 12, 2021, https://baptistnews.com/article/trumps-parting-gift-echos-his-immigration-policies-toward-africa/.
- 3Yomi Kazeem and Dan Kopf, “Nigeria had the biggest drop in visitors to the US last year as Trump’s visa policies took hold,” Quartz Africa, January 2, 2020, https://qz.com/africa/1778579/nigerian-visitors-to-us-drop-as-trump-visa-policies-hurt/
- 4Kristy Siegfried, ‘Trump action derails global refugee resettlement efforts’, The New Humanitarian, January 30, 2017, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2017/01/30/updated-trump-action-derails-global-refugee-resettlement-efforts.
- 5Ted Hesson, “New Trump rule require some African tourists to pay up to $15,000 in bonds,” Reuters, November 23, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-travel/new-trump-rule-may-require-some-african-tourists-to-pay-up-to-15000-in-bonds-idUSKBN2832IR.