Africans wary of US travel after series of border denials

Protest against the immigration ban issued by President Donald Trump at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. African nationalities not included in the ban fear they are also being targeted.

Story highlights

  • African nationalities not covered by Trump's immigration ban fear they are being targeted
  • Rate of Nigerians being rejected has increased since the ban
  • Immigration experts say ban has a deterrent effect for African visitors

(CNN)Nigeria is not on the list of countries affected by the US government's temporary travel bans. But several Nigerian citizens claim to have been denied entry since they were introduced.

Real estate businessman Femi Olaniyi travelled to Los Angeles on February 21 with a two-year multiple entry visa. He says the experience proved to be an ordeal.
    "When I got to the point of entry at Los Angeles Airport, an immigration officer interrogated me," he told CNN. "He said I should come for biometric (tests) to check whether I have any criminal offence. I told him that I'm not a criminal and that he should go ahead."
    "Later, he brought some documents for me to sign and I told him that I would need to read before I sign. He quickly withdrew the document and put me in a cold cell. From there he held me for four days. He collected all my phones so that I would not get access to my family. He later revoked my visa and sent me back to Nigeria."
    Olaniyi was not the only Nigerian to be rejected at the US border.
    Femi Olaniyi's cancelled US visa.

    Flown home

    Lagosian Francis Adekola, who recently completed a PhD in Canada, was stopped at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport en route to a friend's wedding.
    "I was asked to step aside at the check-in counter by an armed border protection officer," Adekola recalls. "He walked me to the luggage section and searched my wallet and bag. He also collected my mobile phone and went through the contents. He read my messages, chats, checked my pictures and everything."
    Adekola says the officer denied him entry, suspicious that he might not return to Nigeria. He was promptly flown back to Abuja -- some 460 miles from his home in Lagos.
    Nigerians have also reported problems during preclearance to the US at Abu Dhabi International Airport, where bank executive Popoola Olayemi was prevented from travelling to Florida along with his pregnant wife and two children.
    "Our passports were seized and we were handed over to an Etihad Airline crew," he says. "We were not even informed that we were being sent back to Nigeria. It was at Lagos that I discovered that our visas had been cancelled. One of the immigration officers told my wife to go and deliver her baby in Nigeria and that she can visit the US afterwards."
    Nigerians have faced difficulties with US customs at Abu Dhabi International airport.

    Denials increase

    In all three cases, airport authorities referred CNN inquiries to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which indicated the denials were down to established practice rather than new policies of the Trump administration.
    "Having a "valid visa" does not guarantee a foreign national entry into the US," a spokesman said. "A valid visa allows a foreign national to come to an international US airport and present themselves for inspection where a CBP officer will determine the traveler's admissibility."
    The spokesman would not comment on the individual cases but he pointed to an official list of more than 60 grounds for inadmissibility including security and health reasons, including stipulations over pregnancy and associated costs.
    The CBP also provided figures for the number of Nigerians denied entry to the US each month since January 2016. The figures show that 319 of 23,671 Nigerians were denied entry in February and March 2017, compared with 306 of 26,387 Nigerians in February and March 2016 -- an increase from 1.16% to a 1.35% rejection rate.
    February, the first full month after the Executive Order, saw a higher rejection rate than any of the previous months provided of 1.53%.
    US Customs and Border Protection report a higher rate of rejections of Nigerians since the government's Executive Order.

    Mixed messages

    Official statements from Nigerian authorities have led to further confusion.
    The first statement from the Nigerian government was issued by special adviser to the president on foreign affairs, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who advised Nigerians to consider delaying their US travel plans.
    "In the last few weeks, the office has received a few cases of Nigerians with valid multiple-entry US visas being denied entry and sent back to Nigeria," she said. "Nigerians without any compelling or essential reasons to visit the U.S. should consider rescheduling their trips until there is clarity on the new immigration policy."
    This was swiftly contradicted by Nigeria's Foreign Affairs Minister George Onyeama, who told the Premium Times:
    "On the issue of Nigerians being turned back from the US, this is not the case," he said. "I am in touch with the US embassy and the ambassador said no, there was nothing of such nature. I can tell you to ignore any call or advice to reconsider travelling to the US because there is no basis for that."
    The US embassy in Abuja released its own statement supporting Onyeama's position, affirming that the travel ban did not apply to Nigerians with valid visas or other US government authorization, and urging them to travel as normal.

    Beyond Nigeria

    Africans of other nationalities are also facing new difficulties with US immigration.
    Kenyan Ednah Chepkoton reported a rejection at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in which she was detained for several hours before being flown back and having her valid multiple-entry visa cancelled. US CBP does not dispute these details.
    Others have experienced greater problems obtaining visas. The African Global Economic and Development Summit in Los Angeles went ahead this year without African guests for the first time, as every one of their applications was rejected, including nationals from Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the summit's organizer.
    New Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has directed embassies to apply stronger scru