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The travel advisory brouhaha

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Abike Dabiri-Erewa

There is undoubtedly the need for coordination in the Federal Government. The kind of open repudiation of public statements Nigerians have witnessed earlier in the week is in very bad taste. It is even more embarrassing when the import of the subject is put into account—the trending immigration palaver of the United States. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, known for unremitted application to duty and to any assignment she may have at hand, got her office to issue a statement urging prospective Nigerian travellers to the United States to tarry awhile except there was a pressing need to jet out, until the picture of the Trump Administration Immigration Reform gets clearer.

The Department of Home Security who are the enforcers of the fresh Executive Order issued on Monday, March 06, but this time presented by the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Attorney- General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Secretary John Kelly, have been saying that anyone with valid visas or necessary travel documents has nothing to fear about their dragnet in the U.S. Presumably, Mr. Trump’s aides spared him the odious presence to make the announcement himself, not wanting him to shoot out of control as is his custom and thus squander a golden opportunity for an important pronouncement to straighten things. The Executive Order comes in a revised language. They know their principal for his proclivity to throw punches at the Press as his first task and a jab at “the so-called judges” and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that is “frankly in turmoil.”

However, the assurances by the American officials have been ringing hollow in view of tales of woe by those who are in possession of the prized visas to the American Nirvana. Abike Dabiri, anyone who knows her well will tell you, has all the information on the experiences of Nigerians who have ventured to cross the United States frontiers, approached from any parts of that country. A Nigerian software engineer, Celestina Omin, for example, who works at a project linked with Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, had reported that Customs and Border Protection officials detained him for many hours. He was asked several software engineering questions to prove the authenticity of his claims, although the Border Protection spokesman rejected the report, saying his agency was not in the practice of administering tests to check travellers. We know whom to believe. Here is a report about another Nigerian.

The Nigerian lady was said to have been held for more than 12 hours at JFK Airport even though she appeared armed with a valid two-year visa. In the end she was deported with a five-year ban. She flew Qatar airline. And that was said to be the red flag. The Immigration officials wanted to know why she would not fly from Nigeria through Europe to the United States. They also wanted to know her contacts in Qatar. They searched her phone, checked all her contacts and called her office back in Nigeria. Her explanation that flying through Qatar afforded her a cheap ticket fell on deaf ears.

She was given two options: It was either she elected to be returned to Nigeria or kept in a U.S. detention centre while further enquiries progressed. She opted for the former. The report came with the admonition not to accept unknown letters or packages for people should you wish to travel to the U.S., and that in fact, the famous Green Card is worthless without citizenship status. The JFK Airport is abuzz with activities by lawyers pacing up and down ready to offer legal support. The report was made by a Nigerian, himself an attorney and a pastor who was among the hordes of lawyers at the airport.

Abike Dabiri was that diligent reporter popping her chubby face at NTA 9 o’clock news. That was the time the television station did not have much of Channels, AIT and Galaxy to contend with and CNN had not perfected the art of intruding into our lives in our closets. She was to bring her information gathering skills and speech delivery mastery to bear on her work in the National Assembly, the skills stamping her contributions as informed whether these had to do with oversight functions of the hallowed chambers or during simply their talk shop. She was there for upwards of 12 years. Incidentally, her last roll call in the National Assembly had to do with foreign affairs, what put her in a position to worry over Nigerians in Diaspora.

The External Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama waking up from his long slumber, rushed in to dismiss Mrs. Erewa’s travel advisory as non-sense as there was no basis for it. Whoever wishes to go to America is free to do so, no problems at all, said he, waving assurances from our Embassy in America and proudly brandishing a clearance certificate from Mr. Trump himself, having called President Muhammadu Buhari, praising him for his good works, giving him words of encouragement for a speedy recovery and pledging weaponry support in the war against Boko Haram insurgency. It must be a welcome part of the reforms sweeping through our land if Nigerian embassies and High Commissions now keep track of Nigerians under their watch to know their plight or the experiences of those coming in to be admitted into the spheres of their jurisdiction. If you asked me, Nigerians are more likely to line up behind Abike Dabiri-Erewa than joining Mr. Onyeama to give him kudos for his good consular services. While the minister was busy consulting ambassadors, Abike Dabiri-Arewa preoccupied herself with gathering reports from the victims, the underclass and the not-so underclass.

Anyone who has been following developments since the advent of the new Administration in the U.S. would say the immigration situation is still confused. It is one thing for senior officials to allay fears; experiences in the hands of enforcement border guards are another. United States Immigration published 37 Questions and Answers which encapsulate what may be regarded as travel guidelines. The answers hammer on possession of valid papers. In the face of assurances, there have been rallies in several places, among them Virginia Beach, Michigan, Indiana state House in Indianapolis, North Carolina, Miami, Colorado, New York and Washington with the battle cry: “We’re gonna take our country back and we are gonna establish borders and have legal immigration and law and order.” In Berkeley where President Trump himself addressed rallies, violence erupted.

Despite a court halt to the Executive Order, Mr. Trump has proceeded to issue memos on 21 February, giving bite to his approach on immigration. It is reported that it is only Obama Action for Childhood Arrivals that is spared in the sweeping guidelines. That aspect of Obama policy allows people who entered the United States as children, to receive education and work. Immigration agencies have been directed to hire thousands of new agents to arrest undocumented immigrants in furtherance of Mr. Trump’s crackdown. This is going hand in hand with the campaign, “Immigration Reform—Good for Economy.”

Whistleblowers are to text a certain security number to report undocumented immigrants. The Department of Home Security said that it would faithfully execute the immigration laws and the President’s Executive Order, although it would “treat all of those we encounter humanely and with professionalism.” To further embolden President Trump, Harvard-Harris Poll survey says Mr. Trump’s effort at overhauling immigration laws receives unequivocal endorsement with 77 per cent of Americans saying they go for a comprehensive reform and 23 per cent disagreeing. He also has broad support to move against states that have been described as Sanctuary Cities. These are cities with considerable immigrant population.

The cities numbering 10 are required to turn over illegal immigrants failing which Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is directed, backed by an Executive Order, to starve them of federal funding of $2.27 billion which is for their public health services and early childhood education. A man called Glenn Spencer of Arizona relocated from California to help secure U.S.-Mexico border with a drone he constructed by himself. Apparently some immigrants are already victims of the aggressive drive by Mr. Trump to boot out immigrants. One is a single father of three who has lived in the United States for 19 years. A woman, Francisca Lino, was told by immigration that she could stay for another year only for her to be informed minutes later to get ready to be sent away come July. A mother of two, she has lived in the United States for 18 years. A Mexican immigrant, Jeanette Vizguerra, was sent packing, saying in palpable agony, “It’s difficult, my family is my life; my kids are my life.”

Think Progress, an online publication, in its report captioned “The mass deportation of black immigrants that you haven’t heard about,’’ says that last month the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency quietly deported dozens of Africans who were trying to seek asylum in the United States. Quoting a source within Immigration, the newspaper says 63 men to secure visas on basis of humanitarian relief were sent back to Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, and another source among Immigration Activists who spoke to those being deported said the figure was close to 90. They were deported even after they had passed what has been described as their credible fear interviews, the first phase in asylum process to determine if grave danger awaits such immigrants should they be sent back to their countries. Two Sundays ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported 130 people to Senegal with coordination with the Senegalese Authorities.

Of course, President Trump is not having a smooth sail. The revised new Executive Order issued last week Monday, (06 March), is being vigorously challenged in court. Hawaii has already filed her action, urging the court to stop Mr. Trump’s Executive Order from going into effect midnight today; at precisely 12.01 a.m. Hawaii Attorney-General argues that the travel ban would damage the state’s tourism industry and business and harm its educational institutions. Hawaii is joined by five other states: Washington, New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Oregon. New York Attorney General argues that the latest Executive Order is the same first ban by another name, “imposing policies and protocols that once again violate Equal Protection Clause and Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.’’

Massachusetts Attorney-General Maura Healey dismisses the order as discriminatory and unconstitutional. The six states are praying the court to reaffirm its decision on the first Executive Order to keep it intact. Muslim women students, taking up the gauntlet as well, say they see ‘Books Not Bombs’ as a way to fight for a better future. Colorado Muslim Society kicks the Order as a violation of their rights as Americans and ‘’as folks or refugees who are seeking asylum in the United States and wishing to become Americans. Just like all Americans, Muslims are also Americans and just like Americans are concerned with their safety, Muslim Americans are concerned with safety as well.’’

In the face of these unsettling and frightening developments, with Department of Home Security and Department of State brandishing the Sword of Damocles, and Mr. Trump breathing down the neck of his officials—ask Acting Attorney –General Sally Yates—it would be irresponsible of our Federal Government not address the nation to allay the fears of Nigerians on travelling to America at this time. All was disturbingly quiet. The statement the American Ambassador issued in February assuring Nigerians that the travel ban did not affect Nigeria was not enough. What would have been more reassuring was a pronouncement by a high-ranking Federal Government official. Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Arewa giving manifest thought to the imperative of Nigerians being addressed and a travel advisory issued by their own government was a welcome relief. Indeed, visas are held at the pleasure of the United States Department of State. Under Section 221(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Department of State has this general authority to revoke visas. That is the situation and I trust Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa would have all the reports tucked in her bag.

However, whether it is Mrs. Erewa herself who should have issued such an important travel advisory is a different matter. I cannot claim familiarity with the brief of her office. I believe the proper high ranking functionary to issue such a weighty statement should have been the Minister of Foreign Affairs in line with tasks apportionment as I understand this to be, the President’s spokesman or the Minister of Information. Abike Erewa does not have at her beck and call a pool of seasoned diplomats that the minister has at his disposal for advice and appropriate policy methodology to employ. That said, it needs to be stated, too, that Mr. Onyeama was wrong in publicly upbraiding and putting down a high ranking government functionary of the caliber of a Senior Special Adviser to the President the way he did, countermanding Mrs Erewa’s statement, no matter what.

His action smacked of lack of decorum and polish with which diplomats are associated and for which they are regarded. The Minister’s action gave the impression of a divided house. That cannot augur well for cohesion in a government. All he could have done, with Mrs. Erewa flanking him along with a senior Ministry official at his Press conference, was to state that his office had worked all through the last 24 hours picking developments after the statement by the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs, and gathering updates from our Embassy.

The comforting development from all that was that from now on Nigerians were free to travel to the United States once they had their valid papers. They are assured of protection at American airports. Telephone numbers of embassy officials they could call in the event of difficulties might also be made available temporarily at the port of entry. Such an approach would have evinced disarming maturity. All this could have cost the minister nothing, but harmonious working together in government like the five fingers of one hand.


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Abike Dabiri-Erewa

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