In-Depth

Nigerian Couple ‘Heartbroken’ As Families Face Indefinite Visa Ban

The Trump administration has expanded its travel ban to six more countries, including Nigeria — the largest economy in Africa. While Nigerian students and travelers are still welcome to visit — it’s family members immigrating to the U.S. who are blocked from coming here. 

Saheed and Azeeza celebrate their surprise engagement in Nigeria.

Saheed had seemingly simple plans for life with his wife Azeezat: buy a house in Houston, move in together and eventually have children.

He is 32, a United States citizen, and has lived almost half his life in this country. He met Azeezat through his aunt who lives in Nigeria. They first bonded over the fact that he’s a pharmacist and she’s a doctor.

“It's just a friendship that blossomed into love and led to marriage,” he said.

After getting married in Nigeria a year ago, they applied for Azeezat's visa to join Saheed in the U.S. Their paperwork was in order, and all they had to do was wait.

Saheed holds a photo of him and his wife. He plans to hang the picture in his new house one day.

Then, on Jan. 31, the Trump administration added Nigeria, Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania to the ongoing travel ban. The policy now affects 13 countries.

The move blocks thousands of immigrants, like Azeezat, from coming to the United States. Saheed said he and his wife are still reeling.

(Saheed asked not to use his last name, out of fear it could hurt his wife's immigration case.)

“Going from something that was certain to something that is uncertain, and there's a possibility that we may never be together in the United States — it is just heartbreaking,” Saheed said. “There's nothing more important for newlyweds than to be together.”

“Blindsided”

Many Nigerians were surprised by the news, including Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama.

“We were somewhat blindsided with the announcement of the visa restrictions by the U.S.,” Onyeama said at a press conference last week with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo responded, saying, “President Trump announced the suspension of immigrant visas for Nigerians because Nigeria has room to grow in sharing important national security information. I'm optimistic that's gonna happen.”

Though Pompeo's comments offer some hope, Houston-based immigration attorney Busayo Fasidi said, many Nigerians are right to worry about the ban.

“Most of my clients are trying to bring in their family members from overseas,” Fasidi said. “Those ones that are trying to bring in their family members will be gravely impacted.”

Busayo Fasidi practices family immigration in Houston. Most of her clients are Nigerian and she said many are impacted by Trump’s expanded travel ban.

A ban on family and spouses

Many people file for elderly parents and spouses, according to Fasidi, who said she's been bombarded with phone calls and messages about the ban.

Fasidi said she was also shocked when she heard about the ban, but also thinks the Nigerian government is partially to blame. She doesn't see this particular policy as discriminatory, arguing that Nigeria should improve its security measures to protect not only the United States, but also Nigerians.

“I think I'm going to lean towards the side of the U.S. government on that point,” she said.

But others, like Texas Southern University media professor and Nigerian community leader Chris Ulasi, have their doubts.

"I don't buy the reasoning,” he said. “Countries don't normally ban or place undue restrictions on the countries they have good relationships with."

Texas Southern University media professor Dr. Chris Ulasi said he doesn’t understand the reasoning behind the ban on Nigerian visas.

Houston’s Nigerian community

Nigeria is one of the United States' top trading partners in Africa, exporting millions of barrels of oil to the U.S. each month.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, nearly 300,000 Nigerians live in the United States, including 41,000 in the Houston metro area.

And the institute’s senior policy expert, Julia Gelatt, said many of these immigrants are quite successful.

"They have pretty high rates of educational attainment, they're more likely to have a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree than U.S.-born people," Gelatt said.

Nearly half of Nigerian immigrants in the United States have either a bachelor’s or advanced degree, according to the think tank New American Economy. The group also found Nigerian immigrants in Texas earned $2.6 billion in household income in 2018.

While the Trump administration may be justified in citing security concerns for the visa ban, there's good reason to be skeptical, Gelatt said.

"What's interesting about this version is that it doesn't block those temporary visas for tourists or business travelers or students or temporary workers,” Gelatt said, “and what that suggests is that the government doesn't see an imminent travel threat from any of these countries.”

Gelatt added that blocking permanent visas could be a way for the U.S. government to pressure other countries to change their policies.

While Nigeria and the United States negotiate over these alleged security concerns, thousands of people's lives are on pause.

People like Azeezat, who is studying to one day validate her medical degree in the United States, and Saheed, who is saving up for a house where he hopes they'll someday live together.

"As it is with the travel ban right now, our future is really not certain," said Saheed.

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Elizabeth Trovall

Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino...

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