Jonathan P. Baird: Expanding the travel ban to Africans is an election ploy

For the Monitor
Published: 2/23/2020 7:30:10 AM

In a little-noticed move, the Trump administration expanded its contested travel ban to six new countries. Under the new ban, nationals of Nigeria, Eritrea, Myanmar and Kyrgystan will not be able to get visas to live and work in the United States.

Nationals of Sudan and Tanzania will not be able to participate in the diversity visa lottery program, a program that issues up to 50,000 visas a year from nations that send few immigrants to the United States.

The ban, which went into effect on Saturday, is expected to affect more than 350 million people, close to one-quarter of the 1.2 billion people living in Africa. Nigeria alone has a population of over 190 million.

When Trump initiated the original travel ban in January 2017, popularly known as the Muslim ban, it is worth recalling that he said it was a temporary measure until “they figured out what the hell was going on.”

So you have to ask, why has it not been temporary and why is the list of countries expanding? Why is Nigeria on the list, which has the sixth-largest Christian population in the world?

It is a blatant appeal to racism and xenophobia. In an election year it is about throwing red meat to the white supremacists and run-of-the-mill racists who populate part of Trump’s base.

Have any Africans been doing anything that threatens Americans on the home front lately or even in the last 10 years? The answer is “no.”

Between 1975 and 2016, not a single person born in Nigeria, Eritrea, Tanzania or Sudan killed any American in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The same is also true for Myanmar.

Because of the existence of Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria, there is some impression of a possible threat. However, this threat is to the Nigerian state, not the U.S. homeland.

Part of the Trump re-election strategy is to point the finger of blame at immigrants. Needing a group Trump can demagogue about, Africans join Mexican rapists, Central American drug gangs and caravans of refugees. Facts and honesty are of no consequence.

Whatever serves scare-mongering is the agenda. Africans become part of the cavalcade of fantasy suspects who might take jobs from “real Americans.”

Trump’s version of making America great again is about keeping foreigners out, building a wall, saying, in effect, America for Americans. The pitch is a ploy to stoke fear of the stranger, especially of the dark-skinned variety. At the same time, Trump postures as a friend of workers and as someone who can speak the language of the common people.

Trump gets to define who is an American and who is an alien. Race has long been a major factor in separating those who supposedly qualify as legitimate Americans and those who remain suspect.

This is not the first time there has been an African immigration ban. The 1924 immigration act also discriminated against immigrants from Africa. In that era, immigration restrictions based on race were celebrated. Africa’s visas were set at the minimal level of 100 a year.

In the 1920s, immigration policy and law-making were heavily influenced by the famed eugenicist, Madison Grant, who was a racist and an anti-Semite. In his book The Passing of the Great Race, Grant argued Nordic superiority and he opposed interracial mixing. Grant was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt and he was not an isolated voice favoring racism and xenophobia. He was mainstream, just one of many with similar views.

No longer do you hear talk of racial purity but earlier generations of immigration restrictionists supported Jim Crow segregation and the exclusion of Africans, Asians, Jews and Mexicans from eligibility for citizenship.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court gave Trump an assist when it upheld the third version of his travel ban in the case of Hawaii v. Trump. In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the president had authority, in the interests of national security, to suspend entry of any class of aliens.

Interestingly, in her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor invoked the similarity between the Muslim ban and the Japanese-American internment. Both cases featured an ill-defined threat to national security.

The Trump administration is again using national security as the rationale for the Africa ban. They are saying that five of the countries on the list fail to comply with information-sharing requirements so that foreign nationals can be properly vetted for entry into the country.

Trump’s own words belie the national security rationale. When discussing immigration from African countries with a group of senators, Trump asked why America would want immigrants from “all these shithole countries” and said the U.S. should get more people from countries like Norway. He also said, when discussing issuance of visas from Nigeria, that once Nigerians had seen the U.S., they would never “go back to their huts” in Africa.

The African ban needs to be seen in the context of our longstanding xenophobia, which has been a constant thread in American history. There have really been two competing threads since our early history. The “we are a nation of immigrants” thread which is welcoming and the racist xenophobic thread, which is the opposite.

Americans have a history of being wary of almost every group of foreigners who have come to the United States. Germans, Irish, Chinese, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Mexicans and Muslims have all been labeled threatening.

Now come Africans and Burmese. Trump’s xenophobic and racist pitch is in keeping with our historic worst impulses.

It should be remembered that the Rohingya Muslim people have been facing the possibility of genocide. Myanmar security forces have been carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them. Now is a bad time to be closing the immigration door. On a smaller scale, it is reminiscent of past errors when we kept out victims of genocide.

One day, as with the Japanese-American internment, the current effort to use immigration policy to further a racial agenda will again be found to be unconstitutional. It is tragic to see a bad pattern in American history repeating.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)




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