Earlier this year, the then White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, argued that the 109 airport detentions authorised under the first Muslim ban were a “minor inconvenience” to keep America safe. I was among those 109 people who were detained, questioned, handcuffed and body searched under the ban, and nothing about our experiences could be characterised as minor or inconvenient.
An Iraqi man who was detained with me at John F Kennedy airport in New York on the evening of January 27 had waited for two years to receive a visa that would reunite him with his wife and child. As his family waited on the other side of the airport border, I watched him grow increasingly anxious and distraught as he was denied a translator and told that he could be deported back to Iraq. A few hours later, a 76-year-old Sudanese man with health issues was detained in the same terminal and held for 30 hours without medical attention.
At Dulles Airport, some 400km away, a five-year-old boy with a US passport was detained and separated from his Iranian mother for several hours.
For every one of us who was detained at a US airport, many more were prevented from boarding their planes at terminals around the world. In total, more than 100,000 visas were revoked with the stroke of US President Donald Trump’s pen, and with it, hundreds and thousands of lives were altered and disrupted. In many ways, the mainstream media’s somewhat myopic focus on our detentions, particularly on the detentions of doctors and researchers like myself, masked this reality.
Thousands were separated from their family members, were forced to postpone weddings and important medical procedures, interrupted their studies and lost employment and life savings as a result of the first ban. Because the Muslim ban is also a refugee ban, thousands of refugees, who risked their lives to flee wars and political persecution, were denied safety and refuge after years of navigating a scrupulous, bureaucratic US visa process.
The irony, of course, is that the Trump administration intended to ban citizens of seven countries where US military interventions and policies have created some of the conditions that are forcing people to become refugees.
The curious case of Sudan and Chad
As the Trump administration attempted to implement the third version of the “Muslim ban” in mid-October, it intended to continue disrupting the lives of thousands with no regard for their safety, dignity or well-being.
But this latest iteration of the ban brings something else into focus as well, namely that this administration and its corporate partners intend to use citizens of the eight banned countries as bargaining chips to punish or blackmail their governments into playing by their rules.
The curious addition of Chad to the list of banned countries and Sudan’s removal from it highlights this point quite clearly.
On September 24, the Trump administration announced it would be suspending all non-immigrant and immigrant visas for citizens of Chad, which took Chadian officials and analysts by surprise. In a statement, the White House claimed that Chad “does not adequately share public safety and terrorism related information” and that “several terrorist groups are active within Chad or in the surrounding region, including elements of Boko Haram…”
This past March, Chad hosted the annual US-led Flintlock military exercise in West Africa, aimed at expanding the US’ military presence in Africa and at strengthening “joint counter-terrorism efforts against groups like Boko Haram”. Given Chad’s active role in leading counterterrorism efforts in partnership with the US and in facilitating the expansion of the US military in central Africa, one might ask, why was it added to the list of banned countries?
Regional experts have speculated that Chad fell into the bad graces of the US, and its Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in particular, after it attempted to demand a $74bn fine from the US oil company Exxon Mobil, for not meeting its tax obligations. Tillerson left his post as CEO of Exxon to join the Trump administration while the company was still embroiled in a prolonged dispute with Chad over a court ruling regarding its tax payments.
While Exxon later reached a settlement with Chadian officials to avoid paying the hefty tax fine, Tillerson’s role in crafting the newest iteration of the ban was likely shaped by the three-year dispute over it. If anything, the dispute called Chad’s loyalty as a US ally into question and paved the way for the US government and its corporate partners to begin looking elsewhere in the region for business partnerships around mineral and oil exploration and allies in its “war on terror”, which brings us to Sudan.
It is deeply concerning to me that a policy as inhumane and unjust as the Muslim ban is being used by the Trump administration as a bargaining chip to punish, shift alliances and extract favours from foreign governments.
While the Sudanese regime has very little lobbying power in Washington, it has diligently cultivated its relationship with US allies in the Middle East in order to attract foreign investment in its agriculture, mining and petroleum sectors, after the oil-rich South seceded.
Since 2015, the Sudanese regime has sent thousands of combat soldiers to Yemen, where the US government is supporting UAE and Saudi-led efforts against the Iranian-backed Houthis. In return for providing the kind of “boots on the ground engagement” that the Saudis and Emiratis are unwilling to risk themselves, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba has been “putting his substantial diplomatic weight behind the Sudanese government”.
This past June, as the Trump administration was scheduled to make a decision about whether or not to lift its sanctions against Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir’s regime increased the number of Sudanese combat soldiers in Yemen to 8000.
This move gave the UAE the push it needed to step up its lobbying efforts in Washington, which in turn led the Trump administration to postpone its decision on whether or not to extend sanctions against Sudan. In August, the Deputy Commander of the US Africa Command, General Alexander Laskaris, visited Khartoum as both countries worked on resuming military cooperation after Sudan severed its ties with North Korea.
In September, Sudan was quietly removed from the Muslim ban list, and on October 6, after 20 years of imposing sanctions on Sudan, the Trump administration lifted them. To be clear, the lifting of US sanctions comes as a relief to most Sudanese who have borne the brunt of its effects.
What I aim to draw attention to here, is the heavy price being paid for this shift in US policy towards Sudan. Sudanese soldiers are dying in an unjust war that has killed over 10,000 Yemeni civilians. The gradual thawing of the relationship between Sudan and the US is also lending legitimacy to the Bashir regime, which continues its assault on communities in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains.
This is to say nothing of the impact US corporate and military expansion is having on communities across the region. Chad’s addition to the list of banned countries, for instance, highlights the way US corporate partnerships with foreign governments are shaping and driving US policies in troubling ways.
It is deeply concerning to me that a policy as inhumane and unjust as the “Muslim ban” is being used by the Trump administration as a bargaining chip to punish, shift alliances and extract favours from foreign governments. There is simply put, nothing minor or justifiable about playing with people’s lives in such a cruel manner.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.