Over the weekend, the Trump administration floated its latest crackdown on immigration, both legal and illegal: According to the Wall Street Journal, the administration is considering placing travel restrictions on countries whose citizens have a high rate of overstaying their visas in the United States.
Because of the countries they would target, the proposed visa sanctions (which could find their way into a presidential proclamation within the week, a Department of Homeland Security official told Politico) have drawn attention to some of President Donald Trump's earlier comments: In an Oval Office meeting in January of 2018, the president reportedly scorned the idea of providing immigration protections for people from Haiti and some African nations, asking why the U.S. should accept people from "shithole countries" instead of places like Norway. Trump's alleged comments, which were decried as racist at the time (and which the White House refused to confirm or deny), resurfaced over the weekend, as the new visa sanctions would likely affect some of the same places Trump disparaged.
The proposed travel restrictions would not specifically target countries because of their domestic conditions or the race of their inhabitants, but rather based on the percentage of visitors who overstay their tourist or business visas in the U.S. However, many of the countries whose citizens have the highest rates of overstaying their visas are African nations, like Chad, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia, and South Sudan. (Some of these countries are dealing with widespread armed conflict or repressive regimes, and some of their citizens also seek asylum in the U.S.)
While the countries with the highest overstay rates are mostly African nations (or other countries where the majority of the population is black), the total number of people those nations send to the U.S. each year is actually miniscule. For instance, in 2017, 16 percent of visitors from Somalia overstayed their visas—but that 16 percent represents only 24 total people.
To put that in contrast with a country that has a low overstay rate, only 0.54 percent of United Kingdom visitors overstayed their visas that same year—but that represented over 25,690 people.
Citizens from the 15 countries with the the highest overstay rates in 2017 represented, by the total numbers, just 0.77 percent of the total visa overstays (5,412 overstays out of 701,900 overstays total). Why, then, would the administration target these countries for visa sanctions when their citizens represent such a small portion of visa overstays?
Patrice Lawrence, the national policy and advocacy director for the UndocuBlack Network, an activist organization that advocates for undocumented black people in the U.S., thinks that the Trump administration could be looking for ways to target immigrants because of their identities. She says that while the administration claims to be targeting specific countries because of visa rates, it might in fact be trying to further the "invasion" message that Trump has pushed with regard to immigration across the southern border. "I think it's a deliberate attempt to continue to paint that picture—because that's what makes people upset," Lawrence says. "It feels [to them] like brown and black people coming in to take over."
Lawrence compares the potential new visa sanctions to Trump's so-called travel ban, which targeted seven predominantly Muslim countries, ostensibly because of worries over terrorism. Trump had proposed a ban on all Muslim people entering the country during his campaign for president, and, when his administration announced the travel ban, many people accused the administration of using security concerns to create a de facto Muslim ban that would have a better chance of standing up in court.
Just as the travel ban could have used security issues to target Muslims, Lawrence believes the potential new visa restrictions could use overstay rates to target black people: "The reasons keep changing about why it is that they want to keep people out. And that's because there is no honest reason, except racism and xenophobia. They don't want people in this country who have any adjacency to black or brown people," she says.