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New U.S. Travel Ban Shuts Door on Africa’s Biggest Economy, Nigeria

The newlyweds had already been apart for half their yearlong marriage. Miriam Nwegbe was in Nigeria. Her husband was in Baltimore, and until she could join him, everything was on hold: finding a home together, trying for their first baby, becoming an American family.

Then, on Friday, their lives were thrown into disarray by the expansion of President Trump’s ban on immigration to include six new countries, including four in Africa. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, was one of them.

“America has killed me,” Ms. Nwegbe’s husband, Ikenna, an optometrist, texted her when he heard. “We are finished.”

A year after the Trump administration announced that a major pillar of its new strategy for Africa was to counter the growing influence of China and Russia by expanding economic ties to the continent, it slammed the door shut on Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy.

The travel restrictions also apply to three other African countries — Sudan, Tanzania, and Eritrea — as well as to Myanmar, which is accused of genocide against its Muslim population, and Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet state.

The ban will prevent thousands of people from being able to move to the United States.

The initial ban, which was put into effect in 2017, restricted travel from some Muslim-majority countries as part of Mr. Trump’s plan to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists.” It has already affected more than 135 million people — many of them Christians — from seven countries.

With the new expansion, the ban will affect nearly a quarter of the 1.2 billion people on the African continent, according to W. Gyude Moore, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, a research group, potentially taking a heavy toll on African economies — and on America’s image in the region.

“Chinese, Turkish, Russian, and British firms, backed by their governments, are staking positions on a continent that will define the global economy’s future,” he said, adding, “One hopes that the United States would follow suit and fully engage with the continent — but that hope fades.”

The rationale for the new restrictions varies depending on country, but the White House announcement said that most of the six countries added to the list did not comply with identity-verification and information-sharing rules.

And Nigeria, it said, posed a risk of harboring terrorists who may seek to enter the United States. The country has been hit brutally by the Islamist group Boko Haram, though the extremists have shown little sign that they have the capability to export their fight overseas.

Critics, many of whom also denounced the initial ban, saw something far more venal at play.

“Trump’s travel bans have never been rooted in national security — they’re about discriminating against people of color,” Kamala Harris, the former Democratic presidential candidate, declared on Sunday. “They are, without a doubt, rooted in anti-immigrant, white supremacist ideologies.”

Two Democrats still in the race also weighed in. Elizabeth Warren described the measure as a “racist, xenophobic Muslim ban.” Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called it “a disgrace.”

And Nancy Pelosi, the house speaker, said Democratic lawmakers would push ahead with a measure to forbid religious discrimination in immigration policy.

Beyond those people who may now never make it across American borders, the new ban could also affect millions who have no plans to travel to the United States themselves but may have benefited from the billions of dollars in remittances visa holders send home each year.

The United States may also emerge a loser, studies suggest. Nigerians are among the most successful and highly educated immigrants to America. (Mr. Trump, demanding to know why immigration policies did not favor people from countries like Norway, once disparaged those from Africa and Haiti, and said Nigerians would never go back to their “huts” if they were allowed in.)

Hadiza Aliyu lives in Borno, the Nigerian state at the epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis that has left tens of thousands dead. But she thought she had found a way out.

Ms. Aliyu was preparing to apply to move to the United States, where she once studied and where her two brothers live.

She was furious when she heard about the extended ban.

“Trump has been looking for a way to get at us Africans for a very long time, and finally got us,” Ms. Aliyu said. “To hell with Republicans and their supremacist ideas.”

Mika Moses moved to Minnesota from Nigeria nine years ago to join his mother and siblings, who were allowed entry after the family was attacked in religious riots in their northern city of Kaduna in 1991. His wife, Juliet, and their daughter were planning to join him, but are stuck in Kaduna, where Ms. Moses sells soda in a small store.

She said they were heartbroken by the news that the move would now be impossible.

“I have been struggling to raise our daughter alone,” she said. “Why would Trump do this to us, after we have waited for nine years?”

Nigerians already living in the United States have been calling lawyers to try to figure out whether they will have to leave. Marilyn Eshikena, a biomedical research ethicist, has lived in the United States for the past seven years, but her visa expires this year. Her employer sponsored her application for a green card.

“If it turns out that everything needs to stop, they will feel cheated, because they spent a lot of money on this process,” Ms. Eshikena said. “I will also feel cheated, because all the time that I spent working here will ultimately be for nothing. I can’t even imagine what packing up and leaving will mean for me.”

Her departure may also have serious consequences for her brother, who is studying in Canada. Ms. Eshikena has been sending part of her earnings to help pay his rent.

Some Nigerians praised Mr. Trump for his decision, arguing it might make it more difficult for those responsible for stealing government money back home to find cover in the United States, and force the country’s leaders to be more honest and work harder to develop Nigeria.

In 2018, 7,922 immigrant visas were issued to Nigerians. Of these, 4,525 went to the immediate relatives of American citizens, and another 2,820 to other family members. An estimated 345,000 people born in Nigeria were living in the United States in 2017, according to the census bureau.

If the visas are coveted in Nigeria, they are just as prized in African countries like Eritrea, where government repression is rampant and those who try to leave face obstacles and danger. With more than 500,000 refugees living outside the country, Eritrea was the ninth-largest source of refugees in the world in 2018, according to the United Nations, but fewer than 900 Eritreans received immigrant visas to the United States that year.

Abraham Zere, a journalist who moved to the United States from Eritrea in 2012, had dreamed of living in the same country as his mother since leaving home. On Saturday, he said his plans to bring her to the United States had been thrown into disarray. His family has been in constant communication on the messaging platform WhatsApp trying to understand what the ban will mean for them.

“This decision complicates everything and creates fear,” said Mr. Zere, 37, a doctoral candidate at the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University.

Mr. Zere and other Eritreans say they can’t go back. They fear they will be punished for criticizing the government or leaving without approval.

“If I can’t be reunited with my mother,” Mr. Zere said, “it nullifies the whole notion of protection and punishes innocent citizens for reasons they had no slightest part in.”

With nine siblings scattered across Europe, Africa, and the United States, Mr. Zere said their family has never had a full family portrait taken.

The economic consequences of the ban could be far-reaching, experts said.

“Being cut off from the largest economy in the world systematically is problematic,” said Nonso Obikili, a Nigerian economist.

The biggest impact, he said, could be on remittances.

Nigerians abroad send home billions of dollars each year, $24 billion in 2018 alone, according to the accounting firm PwC. With Nigeria’s economy highly dependent on oil and its unemployment rate at 23 percent, this money provides a lifeline for millions of its citizens.

The new restrictions come at a time when the United States says it wants to jockey for power in Africa, particularly through its “Prosper Africa” initiative announced last summer, which aims to double two-way trade and investment.

“If on the one hand you’re trying to make a push into Africa, and on the other hand you’re barring the largest African country by population from moving to your country, then it does send mixed signals,” Mr. Obikili said.

In January 2017, Mr. Trump’s travel ban targeted several other African nations, including Chad, Libya, and Somalia. Chad was later removed from that list, but the executive order halted the plans of thousands of Somali refugee living in camps in Kenya who were about to travel to the United States and start new lives.

According to the United States Department of Homeland Security, nearly 30,000 Nigerians overstayed their nonimmigrant visas in 2018. The number of Nigerians visiting the United States dropped sharply after the Trump administration made it harder for visitors to obtain visas last summer.

The new restrictions affect those who want to move to the United States, not visit it.

The six countries newly added to the immigration ban are not easily categorized together by religion. Nigeria, for exampleis thought to be home to more than 200 million people, roughly half of them Muslim and half Christian. Of the four African countries newly singled out, only Sudan has a significant majority of Muslims.

The United States has left Sudan on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, even as the country works to reverse decades of authoritarian rule under President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was deposed in April.

“This ban contributes to the overall impression that Sudan remains a very fragile state,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a research group.

Many people from the countries newly targeted by the ban said the uncertainty was the hardest thing to bear. Ms. Nwegbe, the newlywed, who works as the chief operating officer of a tourism company that tries to encourage people to visit Africa, said the ban came as she and her husband were building their future.

“We’re in limbo and our relationship is suffering,” she said. “This is unnecessary hardship.”

Ruth Maclean reported from London, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya. Reporting was contributed by Zolan Kanno-Youngs in Washington; Eromo Egbejule from Lagos, Nigeria; Isaac Abrak from Abuja, Nigeria; Ismail Alfa from Maiduguri, Nigeria; and Emmett Lindner from New York.

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