In January 2018, President Donald Trump referred to African nations as “shit hole countries.” Fast forward to January 2020 and Trump used his executive powers to issue a ban on visas for six countries, most of which are in Africa. Immigrants from Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, and Kyrgyzstan are banned from entering the United States, while citizens of Tanzania and Sudan are now ineligible to apply for the green card lottery. Media outlets have primarily framed this as a “new U.S. travel ban” or a “travel ban extension,” but Black immigrants are calling it what it is: an Africa ban.
“This is an Africa ban and we need to talk about it that way,” said Zack Mohamed, a queer Somali immigrant who works as both an organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and as a steering committee member for the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP), two of just a handful of Black-led immigrant rights organizations. “This ban stops Black people’s ability to move freely and this latest Africa ban yet again sends the clear message that Black immigrants are not welcome in the U.S. Their religion is not welcome. They are not welcome.”
In the weeks since the Africa ban was announced by the Trump administration, Black immigrants’ rights groups have been responding to the panic and uncertainty roiling their communities. Advocates are particularly concerned about the consequences the ban will have for already marginalized LGBTQ+ migrants.
Imperialism, neocolonialism, homophobia, and transphobia
Homosexuality is illegal in most African countries. As a result, there is an unmistakable overlap between the groups of people the Africa ban bars from entering the U.S. and the people fleeing their home countries because of laws that criminalize their sexual orientation or gender identity. Chad, Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan have been affected by various iterations of the Trump administration’s travel bans, and many asylum seekers from these countries are fleeing anti-LGBTQ+ laws and resulting human rights violations.
Johannesburg-based social and political commentator Tafi Mhaka wrote for Al Jazeera that many anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Africa today were “promulgated by colonial governments and supported by the growing influence of Catholic and Protestant evangelism and an increasingly conservative and rigid interpretation of Islam.” In Chad, sexual relations with someone of the same sex is punishable by prison time. The same is true of Eritrea, Nigeria, and Somalia. In Sudan, various convictions for “same-sex relations” can result in the death penalty. As Mhaka noted, there was an upsurge in “missionarism” in the 1990s and an increase in the number of Pentecostal churches across Africa, promoting a fundamentalist reading of the Bible that rejects homosexuality. Since around 2009, the Christian right in the United States has helped usher in the “onslaught” of anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Africa.
Mohamed said that if he were to return to Somalia, which was included in the first travel ban, he would be imprisoned for life—or worse.
“People in my home country could take actions against me. They could kill me and get away with it,” Mohamed said. “We also really need to talk about the ways African countries are being targeted by this administration, after already being impacted by imperialism and colonialism and after being delegitimized and displaced by Western powers. These are the forces coming together pushing people to flee their home countries and take a long, dangerous journey.”
From the border to the ban
Advocates with BLMP said they encounter many Black immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border who are in desperate need of support. In some instances, they have trekked thousands of miles through multiple countries, fleeing not only anti-LGBTQ+ laws, but also political persecution, U.S.-backed military forces, human rights abuses, civil wars, and ethnic conflicts. While they are aware of the anti-immigrant atmosphere in the U.S. and its ever-shifting policies, they have no choice, Mohamed said.
“They know they are not welcome in the United States, but they’re not safe in their home countries,” the organizer said. “They are holding so much trauma and we are always trying to figure out how to support them. I’m personally always thinking about how we can do better to support Black LGBTQ folks showing up at the border.”
According to Mustafa Jumale, BAJI’s policy manager, Black LGBTQ+ asylum seekers appear to experience prolonged detention at higher rates than other migrants. Broadly, undocumented Black immigrants in the US. are more likely to be funneled into the “crimmigation” system—the intersection of criminal law and immigration law—and are more likely to be detained for criminal convictions than the immigrant population overall.
By banning African people from traveling to the U.S. and further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration has effectively halted African people’s ability to step foot on American soil, which makes it impossible for them to apply for asylum. That appears to have been the goal all along. In April 2017, Trump endorsed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, a bill that BAJI called “inherently racist” and “one of the most disgusting attacks on Black immigrants to date.” The legislation would have cut legal immigration by nearly 50%, primarily impacting African immigrants.
While the RAISE Act did not come up for a vote in the Senate, the Trump administration’s immigration policies have gone a long way in halting non-white migration to the U.S. The administration’s complete upheaval of the asylum system is a primary example.
The only way to request asylum is by reaching U.S. soil and applying from within the country, so typically when we think of asylum seekers, we think of those who enter the U.S. through a port of entry or without authorization, navigating the increasingly dangerous borderlands. However, people who cross the border aren’t the only potential asylees: visa-holders who overstay are also present on U.S. soil, which means they may also be able to request asylum. But it’s tricky.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick is Policy Counsel at the American Immigration Council, where he works primarily on immigration court issues and the intersection of immigration law and policy. Reichlin-Melnick said that although the U.S. does not grant people visas for the purpose of applying for asylum or fleeing anti-LGBTQ+ laws, he has definitely encountered instances in which people have requested asylum after overstaying a visa. They wouldn’t have been able to mention their intent to apply for asylum on a visa application, because doing so would likely lead to the application being denied.
“If you told a consular officer that you intended to apply for asylum when you arrived in the U.S. you’d almost certainly be denied a visa for expressing ‘immigrant intent’ and therefore not be[ing] qualified for a ‘non-immigrant’ visa,” the attorney said.
Several of the countries on January’s Africa ban list also have visa overstay rates higher than 10%.
BAJI assisted on the case of Oumar Yaide, who arrived in the U.S. from Chad in 2009 and requested asylum because he was a member of a “disfavored group,” but federal authorities denied his application in 2014, and a judge denied his final appeal in December 2018. While Yaide was detained, he filed a motion to reopen his asylum case based upon new information: Chad criminalized homosexuality in 2016 and Yaide came out as gay in 2019. If deported to his home country, Yaide feared “torture and death.” But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported Yaide anyway.
“Imagine fleeing your country of origin because of the persecution and violence you were facing because of your sexual orientation—and then you are returned to that country. Imagine the fear and anxiety,” said Jumale. “That is Omar’s life right now. He is trying to keep a very low profile until we can bring him back.”
On February 12, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary voted to advance the NO BAN Act (H.R. 2214), a bill that would immediately end the travel ban and also close loopholes in immigration law to prevent future presidents from enacting similar, discriminatory religious or nationality-based bans. Jumale is heartened to see that the bill gained traction, but he’s reserving his excitement and choosing instead to focus on “community education.” Later this month, BAJI will have a webinar for community members to learn about the specifics of the ban and how it impacts their individual countries of origin.
“I have no hope the Senate will take action on [the NO BAN Act], even though these travel bans have been blatantly racist and deeply xenophobic,” Jumale said. “I never thought in my lifetime I would see a Muslim and Africa ban enacted, and the silence around the Africa ban is absolutely because of anti-Blackness.”
The ban goes into effect this Friday.