The rumours began circulating last week. By Friday afternoon, Houston immigration lawyer Ral Obioha said her phone was ringing off the hook, with several of her clients asking a seemingly simple, straightforward question: “How does this affect me?”
But the answer is not clear, Obioha told Al Jazeera, as confusion and uncertainty spread in the hours after Donald Trump issued an expanded travel ban for nationals from six countries seeking to enter the United States.
As of February 21, citizens of Eritrea, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria will no longer be eligible for immigrant visas to the US, the White House announced on Friday afternoon. Citizens from Sudan and Tanzania will also not be eligible to enter a lottery programme to apply for immigrant visas.
The Trump administration’s decision has been widely decried by advocacy and rights groups as an extension of an earlier so-called “Muslim ban”, under which citizens of several Muslim-majority countries were barred from entering the country.
“It really hits us hard right now,” said Obioha, who was born in the US to parents from Nigeria.
Houston, Texas, is home to one of the largest Nigerian diasporas in the country, Obioha explained, and Friday’s announcement threw the community into chaos.
“They’re asking … ‘Does this mean that my husband can never come? Does this mean that my children can never join me? Does this mean I’ll have to give up my job to go back to Nigeria just so that I can be with my family?'” she said, about the questions her clients have asked.
“It’s a lot of fear. It’s a lot of trepidation because people just don’t know what this means practically for them. There’s a lot of disbelief that this administration would go as far as separating families.”
The Trump administration justified the extended ban by saying the countries added to the list did not meet specific security criteria, such as proper identification of US visa applicants, or failed to share information with the US.
“It is fundamental to national security, and the height of common sense, that if a foreign nation wishes to receive the benefits of immigration and travel to the United States, it must satisfy basic security conditions,” the White House said in a statement.
But advocates say the restrictions are the latest step in the Trump administration’s plan to keep Muslims and other racialised people out of the US.
The US president promised during his election campaign to stop all Muslims from entering the country, and in 2018, The Washington Post reported that Trump, in a discussion about protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, had asked: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
In the early days of his administration, Trump passed an executive order that barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from the US, prompting protests at major airports and several court challenges.
The US Supreme Court eventually upheld an amended version of the order in 2018, and the ban remains in place for Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, while some citizens of Venezuela and North Korea also face travel restrictions.
“The reasons keep changing about why it is that the Trump administration wants to keep Black and brown people out. And that’s because there is no honest reason, except for racism and xenophobia,” said Patrice S Lawrence, co-director of the UndocuBlack Network, which advocates for the rights of undocumented black people in the US.
“Behind these bans and visa sanctions are real people with real families – facing the pain and uncertainty that family separation brings,” Lawrence said in a statement.
The Trump administration’s new travel ban does not apply to people from the six countries who are applying for a tourist or business visa to the US.
For people from Nigeria, Eritrea, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan specifically, the restrictions apply to immigrant visas for people who intend on living in the US permanently, including spouses or family members of US citizens, family members of US permanent residents, or workers holding advanced degrees, among others.
For people from Sudan and Tanzania, the ban applies to the “diversity visa” programme.
In 2018, more than 500,000 people from Sudan (entrants and their spouses or children) had registered for that programme, according to US Department of State statistics. Of the total number of applicants, 3,781 Sudanese people were then selected and given a chance to apply for an immigrant visa to the US.
That same year, approximately 14,200 Tanzanian citizens applied to the programme, and 173 got to apply for an immigrant visa.
According to the president’s proclamation, anyone outside the US who does not already have a valid immigrant visa on February 21, when the order comes into force, may be affected. It was not immediately clear if waivers or exceptions would be issued and, if so, when and under what conditions.
“Let’s call it what it is: It’s a Muslim ban,” said Wafa Saeed, executive director of the Sudanese American Public Affairs Association, a non-profit that supports the Sudanese community.
Saeed said people were confused about what the ban means for them and their relatives who may want to apply to the lottery programme.
She said it was even more disheartening that the measure comes after the recent revolution in Sudan, which saw people rise against longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir and demand a civilian-led government and a better future for themselves and their country.
“It’s like a slap in the face to say that you’re doing everything that you’re supposed to in regards to being safe and secure and wanting better for yourselves, but the door is closed,” Saeed told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from Denver, an area that she said is home to about 6,000-7,000 Sudanese families.
Saeed said the ban also sends people a message that they are not welcome in the US no matter how long they have lived in the country. “It really kind of instils that fear that regardless [of whether] you’ve been here a year, or you’ve been here 10 years or you’ve been here however long, even if you are a citizen, you’re not fully accepted,” she said. “I think that really is heartbreaking for a lot of people here.”
Berhane Haile, a board member of the Eritrean Community Center of Greater Boston, said the travel ban has led to confusion within that community, as well. “We don’t know much [about] why is this happening,” he told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview on Friday evening.
He said it was still unclear how many Eritreans would be affected by the new restrictions. “But there are a lot of other issues,” he said, pointing to the repressive conditions inside Eritrea, from tens of thousands of people in jail to forced military conscription and crackdowns on basic human rights.
“People are not free to travel to other countries. They are not free,” he added.
Since 2017 and 2018, Eritreans have been barred from applying for most types of US visas – including non-immigrant visas – after Washington said the government in Asmara had refused to take back Eritrean nationals the US wanted to deport.
Chioma Azi, founder and CEO of Philly Nigerian Professionals, a group that connects and supports African professionals in Philadelphia, said the irony of the travel ban is that many Nigerians, in Nigeria and in the US, support Trump.
While Nigeria has been a longtime US ally, Azi pointed to a recent spat over visa fees as a sign of a strained bilateral relationship.
In August, the US embassy in Nigeria hiked fees for approved US visas, a move that came after the Trump administration said it would issue “reciprocity fees” to make sure visa costs were equal between the US and other countries.
The number of non-immigrant B1/B2 visas issued to Nigerians for tourism or business in the US was down 21 percent between December 2018 and December 2019, US State Department statistics show.
Ultimately, Azi said many people, herself included, have family members in Nigeria who hope to come to the US, and this ban makes that much harder.
But she told Al Jazeera she hoped people would now come together to advocate for their rights. “There are a lot of other communities that have been really good with advocating and speaking out on these issues … We can do the same thing if we just unite and really try to make our voice heard,” she said.
Obioha in Houston said everyone was still speculating about what impact the ban would have – but that fear and anxiety prevailed. “It looks like the administration said, ‘OK well we’ve done a Muslim-majority cleansing, and so now it’s time to do an African cleansing,'” she said.
“That’s what it looks like, and that’s what a lot of people are feeling like right now.”