Petros Kusmu is an Eritrean-Canadian management consultant and recent Action Canada Fellow.
Understanding the news that came from the White House on Jan. 31 was an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
Earlier that day, President Donald Trump proclaimed February as National African-American History month. "Through bravery, perseverance, faith and resolve – often in the face of incredible prejudice and hardship – African-Americans have enhanced and advanced every aspect of American life,” he said.
But just a few hours later, his administration announced the latest round of travel bans, which will affect four African countries – Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania – that contain nearly a quarter of the continent’s entire population (a continent he previously referred to as containing “shithole” countries). The various restrictions – the suspension of visas for people sponsored by family members and, for some, green card (i.e. diversity visa program) applications – go into effect on Feb. 22.
The Trump administration cites national-security concerns for those bans, including potential slips of aging identity-management systems and overall “elevated risk and threat environments”; past White House officials and current legislators have called the bans nonsensical and cruel. Indeed, those issues offer the government thin cover to arbitrarily target potential immigrants, most of whom are free to apply for a temporary visitor visa (which would theoretically nullify any security precautions) but are barred from the labour-intensive process of applying for an immigration visa that often requires years of intense vetting.
So if security seems like an unlikely motive for the administration’s latest move, what is? While there is some speculation it may be a play for diplomatic bargaining chips with those countries, the more probable motivator is Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration base as a presidential election looms. Unlike the 2017 Muslim ban, which garnered widespread condemnation and scrutiny, a craftier approach – targeting mostly African nations under the pretense of national security – has been adopted. (Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan were also included in this round of bans.)
What Mr. Trump and his supporters may not realize (or, more likely, care about) are the economic and moral consequences of this decision. Banning immigration from Nigeria, one of Africa’s fastest-growing and most dynamic economies, would essentially close America off to a demographic that has proven to be some of its most educated and, with it, direct access to what Newsweek named a growing global “economic superpower” – ironically, on the same day the bans were announced.
The graver implication is that this policy will bring ruin to the lives of the more than 12,000 potential immigrants expected to apply next year and the thousands more relatives and loved ones. The fact that families who are awaiting to permanently reunite with their aging parents or their distant partners on American soil will know that this is impossible, at least for now, is heart-wrenching. To make matters worse, Eritrea and Myanmar (where the Rohingya population is under threat of genocide) are experiencing outsize refugee crises, demonstrating yet again the cruelty of this measure.
Countries continue to erect walls against migrants, from the United States to Greece, which recently announced a (widely ridiculed) plan to create a floating barrier to block refugees on boats. Leaders continue to employ racist rhetoric; Mr. Trump, for instance, previously cited concerns that Nigerians visiting the U.S. would never “go back to their huts” in Africa. And this represents an opportunity for Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Canada will likely witness a large increase of immigration applications from the countries affected by Mr. Trump’s ban. As a country, we will be all the better for such waves, particularly since the infusion of new Canadians can help us offset the challenges that come with our increasingly aging population. And so Mr. Trudeau can counter Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and policies by announcing measures to directly increase immigration to Canada from those countries. If nothing else, it could serve as a last-minute rallying point to bolster his government’s campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, especially as he embarks on an outreach tour of Africa this month.
But perhaps, more poignantly, this move could serve as a much-needed act of atonement to Canadians of African descent, for whom the memories of Mr. Trudeau’s blackface scandal from the 2019 federal election campaign are still fresh. Just as Mr. Trump’s Black History Month actions were telling about his government’s approach, there might be few better ways for Mr. Trudeau to signal his support of Black History Month in Canada this year.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.