Effective November 29, President Biden is restricting travel from South Africa and seven other African nations in a bid to stem the spread of the new “Omicron” variant of Covid-19. The president has caught some heat over the move, which comes less than a year after he derided Donald Trump for travel restrictions from four other nations on the continent as an “Africa ban”. There’s both less and more than meets the eye when it comes to those comparisons, but Biden could learn that just because Trump did it first doesn’t make it wrong.
First, the Biden move. In addition to South Africa, the current restrictions (which do not apply to returning U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents) bar the entry of those traveling from the nations of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini (aka Swaziland), Mozambique, and Malawi.
The reason for these restrictions is the presence in those countries of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, which was only identified on November 24, and about which little is actually known.
The UN’s World Health Organization admits that it’s “not yet clear” whether the new strain of the novel coronavirus is either more transmissible or deadlier than earlier variants. News reports indicate it will take health experts about two weeks to get a better bead on Omicron.
Concerns about the new strain have tanked markets in the United States, and two cases of Omicron have already been identified in Canada. New economic setbacks in the battered U.S. economy and a fresh round of school closures would likely drive the president’s approval ratings even lower, but I will take Biden at his word when he says that the restrictions are based on science and public health.
As noted, the president’s restrictions on travel from African countries have dredged up then-candidate Joe Biden’s comments about Trump’s January 2020 expansion of travel restrictions to six countries, four of which (Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea, and Tanzania) are in Africa, in Presidential Proclamation (PP) 9983.
In January, I explained that PP 9983 was a follow-on to PP 9645, formally titled “Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry Into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats”, but criticized by Trump’s opponents as a “Muslim ban”.
In congressional testimony in September 2019, I explained how that proclamation was not, in fact, a “Muslim ban”, but rather a reasonable response to national security threats and vetting deficiencies in the handful of countries to which it applied (which were home to just 8 percent of the world’s Muslim population).
Notably, in June 2018 the Supreme Court upheld the president’s authority to take this action and in an unusual move addressed — and dismissed — contentions that it was taken out of animus.
Still, assertions that Trump’s restrictions were a “Muslim ban” persisted, and Biden fanned the flames on the campaign trail when PP 9983 was issued. In a statement he released on February 1, 2020, he stated:
Three years ago, [Trump] took aim at Muslim-majority nations. This time, he targeted primarily African nations — including Nigeria, the largest economy and the most populous nation on the continent, and Sudan, a country striving to transition to civilian rule after decades of dictatorship. The “Muslim Ban,” this new “African Ban,” Trump’s atrocious asylum and refugee policies — they are all designed to make it harder for black and brown people to immigrate to the United States. It’s that simple. They are racist. They are xenophobic.
Not surprisingly, these words were used against Biden when he announced the Omicron travel restrictions for the eight African nations. For example, Fox News political analyst Brit Hume tweeted:
This was Biden on what he called the "African Ban" last year. Now he's imposed one himself. https://t.co/HYLrRaBpWO
— Brit Hume (@brithume) November 26, 2021
To be fair to Biden, there are significant differences between the two bans.
Covid-19 is an acute national public health crisis. As of November 22, more than 771,000 Americans have died of the illness, and interestingly, deaths so far in 2021 (more than 386,000) have surpassed those in all of 2020 (about 385,000).
If it turns out that Omicron is more transmissible and deadlier than earlier variants, it would be reckless for the president not to try to contain the spread of the disease by banning travel from areas in which it is present. If Africa is where Omicron has emerged, restricting travel from nations in the continent is appropriate, and should the latest variant turn out to be no big deal, bans can be quickly lifted.
“National security”, on the other hand, is a chronic concern. Protecting the American people from terrorist threats is a responsibility the U.S. government will have to bear forever, and reasonable minds can differ as to whether one strategy for protecting national security is better — or more necessary — than another.
Of course, Biden was not exactly charitable to Trump when his predecessor banned travel from China in response to the first waves of the coronavirus there on January 31, 2020. Roughly 12 minutes after those restrictions were officially announced (they were leaked earlier in the day), Biden stated in Iowa:
You know we have right now a crisis with the coronavirus, emanating from China. ... The national emergency and worldwide alerts. The American people need to have a president who they can trust what he says about it. That he is going to act rationally about it. In moments like this, this is where the credibility of a president is most needed, as he explains what we should and should not do. This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysterical xenophobia and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of science.
It's not clear whether Biden was aware of Trump’s China ban when he made those statements (the point of which is not entirely pellucid), but what is certain is that the candidate was attempting to make political hay out of Trump’s response to Covid-19 in the most inflammatory manner possible — just as he had with respect to PP 9983.
That Iowa incident has been fairly well remembered, even if there remains a lack of agreement on what exactly Biden meant. Less memorable but much clearer are Biden’s words in a USA Today op-ed published on January 27, 2020, captioned “Trump is worst possible leader to deal with coronavirus outbreak”. The former vice president stated therein:
The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president. I remember how Trump sought to stoke fear and stigma during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. He called President Barack Obama a “dope” and “incompetent” and railed against the evidence-based response our administration put in place — which quelled the crisis and saved hundreds of thousands of lives — in favor of reactionary travel bans that would only have made things worse. [Emphasis added.]
With due respect to Biden, the African Omicron travel ban is also “reactionary”, in that it is being taken in “reaction” to the outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus in those eight countries. That does not mean that it is wrong, however, any more than it means that Trump’s China travel ban was in error. (It wasn’t — even Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted it saved lives.)
The bigger problem is that PP 9645 and PP 9983 weren’t wrong (let alone racist or xenophobic), either. The issuance of each followed comprehensive engagement led by the State Department with every foreign country to identify deficiencies in their issuance of travel documents and the particular national-security risks each posed.
As the Supreme Court found with respect to PP 9645: “A critical finding of the Proclamation is that the failure of certain countries to provide reliable information prevents the Government from accurately determining whether an alien is inadmissible or poses a threat.”
That did not stop Biden from revoking both proclamations on his first day in office, terming them “a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.” Biden’s proclamation revoking Trump’s proclamations offered nothing in the way of analysis, but rather rested on such conclusory statements.
As Biden’s ban on those eight African nations shows, when it comes to immigration, just because Donald Trump did it does not mean that it is “xenophobic or racist”, or otherwise in error. The president could learn a lesson from this action and apply it to his reversal of Trump’s border and interior enforcement policies, as well. Whether they are acute or chronic, threats are still threats and deserve responses.