Trump’s clampdown on US visas for Nigerians is cultivating fear—and “fake news”

“I’ve got my eyes on you.”
“I’ve got my eyes on you.”
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Few things unite Nigeria’s middle classes like anxiety over international visa application processes—and none more so than for the United States.

Depending on social class and income, the visa can mean anything from facilitating a business trip or a summer holiday to being a chance to chase the American dream. But, as hundreds of thousands of Nigerians apply annually, rejection rates and a lack of clarity over what consular officers base their rejection on has resulted in a reality where the process has been mystified as a high-stakes game of chance.

The Trump administration’s policies clamping down on visa applications from Nigeria is stoking even more fear and triggering waves of apprehension-fueled rumors. Or as Trump himself would call it: fake news.

Just last month, the United States embassy in Nigeria was forced to deny a widespread rumor that it had placed a ban on issuing student visas to Nigerians. The rumor took off and seemed believable for many Nigerians especially given recent policies by the Trump administration.

After reportedly considering visa clampdown measures including issuing visas for shorter validity periods for countries whose nationals have high rates of overstaying visas (Nigerians were the highest ranked African country for US visa overstays in 2018), the US indefinitely suspended its interview waiver process for visa renewals for Nigerian applicants. The waiver process previously allowed holders of two-year visas, usually frequent travelers, to renew them by submitting their passports and supporting documents for review rather than going through in-person interviews for every application.

The rumors have seeped through since Trump got into office: in the wake of the controversial Muslim ban, tales of Nigerian travelers being questioned at American points of entry also made the rounds. While some were genuine, like in the case of one of Nigeria’s most prominent software engineers, many others were likely oversold with Nigerians deliberately avoiding flights with stopovers in countries believed to be cross-hairs of Trump.

Regardless, the fear-fueled rumors and the administration’s policies are having an effect on potential travelers, says Ola Oni, an Abuja-based travel and visa consultant who’s worked in space for almost a decade. As the process becomes more stringent, Oni says anecdotal evidence from applicants who have been through the visa process recently suggests there are already higher levels of application denials. The net result is that more people, including some who have successfully obtained visas in the past, have become “jittery” about the prospect of interviews and, in some cases, prefer to change travel plans rather than risk a rejection. “The situation can be conceived as a reflection of the Trump administration’s policies,” he says. By itself, stopping the interview waiver process already “sends a message,” he adds.

But the allure of an American visa means that the embassies in Nigeria will still receive thousands of applicants. For his part, after being rejected last year while applying for a short-term visa to allow his young family go on holiday together for the first time, Ebenezer, a Lagos-based sports presenter, says he will apply again this year albeit halfheartedly.

“Trump’s policies have had an impact on me and will be at the back of my mind during the interview,” he says. “If we get rejected, I most probably won’t apply anymore until Trump leaves office.”

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