As medical professionals, my husband and I know the Nigerian travel ban is cruel. Now the pain is personal

Jennifer Adaeze Okwereukwu. Image: Twitter.

A few days ago my daughter was diagnosed with a rare disease. In our time of need, my husband and I wanted to rely on our family for support but that option was suddenly ripped away from us. And it’s all because we are Nigerian.

Last Friday, the Trump administration expanded its 2017 travel ban — which restricted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries — to include six more countries, including Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. While this new policy has suspended Nigerian pathways to permanent immigration to this country, increased scrutiny will have a significant impact on temporary visitors to this country too.

My husband and I are American citizens and health care professionals. We are all too aware that social support is an important determinant of health all over the world. For many of our patients, their families are foundational to their well-being. What we know to be true professionally, we are now feeling in an intensely personal way. As new parents, we feel the Trump administration has kicked our family scaffolding out from under us.

This new ban is the latest policy targeting Nigerian travelers. Last year the Trump administration not only cancelled the program that allowed Nigerians to apply for visas by mail, but it also increased the cost of applications. One creates significant logistical hurdles, while the other creates financial barriers. These policies slashed the number of Nigerian visitors to this country by 21%.

Citing unfounded national security and terrorism concerns, these new restrictions are capricious and cruel. The racist and xenophobic intent is palpable.

My husband’s parents live in Nigeria. Because they already had visas before these discriminatory policies took effect, my mother-in-law was able to come and do Omugwo, an Igbo tradition of postpartum care. As part of this Nigerian custom, she helped care for me and my new daughter during this critical transition time in our family’s life. With his visa, my father-in-law, who works as an OB-GYN in Nigeria, was able to come and celebrate my daughter’s baptism.

But now they are back in Nigeria and their visas are expiring. Looking into the future, I don’t know when my daughter will be able to see her grandparents again. This devastating blow comes at a time when we need family support the most.

While President Trump thinks we come from a “shithole” country and live in “huts,” Nigerians are Americas’ most successful immigrant group. Health care workers are one of Nigeria’s most valuable exports; terrorists are not. Given health care shortages, this export is America’s gain. Twenty-nine percent of America’s physicians and 24% percent of dentists, like my husband, are immigrants. Thousands of us are doctors, dentists, and nurses, and we are working to meet America’s health care needs.

Now as American citizens and legal permanent residents, many of us are confronted with the horror of family separation. It’s a tactic this country has weaponized against Black people since the founding of this country. It’s a tactic weaponized against brown people at our southern border. It is an evil employed to undermine our ability to be well.

Nigeria is home to the largest black population in the world. Now this entire population is systematically excluded from the path to American citizenship, should they want to pursue it. It is so painful to be persecuted for being Black.

The suffering of American doctors will trickle down to impact American patients. As Nigerians suffer, Americans will too.


Jennifer Adaeze Okwerekwu is a fourth-year resident in psychiatry and a columnist for STAT. She received her MD from the University of Virginia in the spring of 2016. Jennifer is passionate about exploring the intersection between medicine and media. She worked as a medical student producer for "The Dr. Oz Show" and as an intern for CNN's medical unit, Radio Disney, and the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Reporting Program. Jennifer graduated from Harvard University in 2010 where she majored in visual and environmental studies (film studies) and minored in health policy. In 2011, she received a Master of Science in narrative medicine from Columbia University.