What If You Held An African Summit And No Africans Could Come?

Mar 25, 2017
Originally published on March 26, 2017 1:17 pm

The African Global Economic and Development Summit took place at the University of Southern California from March 16th to 18th.

None of the approximately 60 invited guests from Africa were able to attend.

The problem was that none of the African delegates were able to get U.S. visas.

Humphrey Mutaasa from the mayor's office in Kampala, Uganda, had organized a delegation of 11 business leaders from Uganda to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit at the University of Southern California.

He says it was a very high level group of leaders from private businesses, the Ugandan ministry of trade, chambers of commerce and the Kampala mayor's office.

"The delegation that was coming from Uganda to that summit was very, very disappointed," he says.

The conference was first held in 2013 and seeks to strengthen business ties between U.S. investors and African companies, says summit chairwoman Mary Flowers.

Visa problems have been an issue before, she says. In the past, she says roughly 40 percent of African invitees are unable to get the papers they need to attend, mainly due to a combination of red tape and bureaucracy.

"This year we were thinking there are going to be some rejections but some will still come," she says. "But it was 100 percent blocked across the board."

It's hard to find out exactly why.

Delegations were invited from 12 countries across the continent. None of them were from the three African nations (Libya, Somalia and Sudan) covered by President Trump's executive order temporarily banning travel from 6 majority Muslim countries.

Flowers speculates new vetting procedures put in place by the Trump administration are discriminating against travelers from Africa.

"Obviously because this has never happened before," she says of the inability of anyone to come.

The White House has called for "enhanced screening and vetting of applications for visas" worldwide as part of stepped up efforts to keep out terrorists.

A State Department official on background tells NPR that they can't comment on any individual visa applications but says all applications are screened on a case-by-case basis. And the eligibility requirements for getting a visa haven't changed.

Some of the African delegates to the summit say their visa applications were denied because they didn't show a compelling reason why they would return home after the event. Others say bureaucratic hurdles were so big that they were not able to submit a visa application in the first place.

Humphrey Mutaasa in Kampala says the online application is complicated. You can't even see how long the process will take until after you've paid a $160 application fee at a local bank. Then you have to wait a day to get a confirmation code to book an interview at the U.S. embassy.

"Then when you've finished that and you have the codes from the bank ... there are the challenges of internet connectivity," he says. "When you get online then the calendar [from the Embassy] will tell you the whole of February, there are no appointments, You can only secure an appointment after the 15th of March."

Which meant he wouldn't have a ruling on his visa until after the three day conference had concluded.

The end result of this year's visa outcome, says Flowers, is going to be fewer connections between American business and the continent.

"I don't know whether there's some secret message going to the U.S. embassies in these African countries but it's ridiculous," she says. "The [visa] process was already somewhat discriminatory against the African nations in the past. We don't know what the story is now but I do hope that America remains open to the world."

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now let's take a look at the Trump administration's visa policies and some unintended consequences. There was an African business development summit in California last week. But none - none of the African delegates could attend because they couldn't get U.S. visas. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Humphrey Mutaasa from the mayor's office in Kampala, Uganda, organized a delegation of 11 business leaders to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit at the University of Southern California. He says it was a very high level group of private companies, the Ugandan ministry of trade, chambers of commerce and the Kampala mayor's office.

HUMPHREY MUTAASA: The delegation that was coming from Uganda to that summit was very, very disappointed.

BEAUBIEN: Mary Flowers, the chair of the summit, says visa problems have long been an issue for the event. In the past, she says, roughly 40 percent of invitees have been unable to get visas.

MARY FLOWERS: So this year, we're thinking there's going to be some rejections. But, you know, others will still come. But it was 100 percent blocked across the board.

BEAUBIEN: Asked what caused the problem this year, Flowers says, in her view, vetting procedures put in place by the Trump administration are discriminating against travelers from Africa.

FLOWERS: Obviously because this has never happened before.

BEAUBIEN: The White House has called for enhanced screening and vetting of applications for visas worldwide as part of stepped-up efforts to keep out terrorists. A State Department official on background tells NPR that they can't comment on any individual visa applications but says all applications are screened on a case-by-case basis and in accordance with U.S. laws.

Some of the African delegates to the summit say their visa applications were denied. Others say they were never even able to submit them. Humphrey Mutaasa in Kampala says the online application is complicated and involves paying a $160 application fee at a local bank. Then, he had to wait a day to get a confirmation code to finally book an interview through the U.S. embassy's website.

MUTAASA: And when you go online, then the calendar will open. And they will tell you, you know, the whole of February there is no appointment. You can only secure an appointment after 15 of March.

BEAUBIEN: Which meant he wouldn't have a ruling on his visa until after the conference had concluded. Flowers, in Los Angeles, says whatever the reason for the African delegates not getting their visas, she says, clearly things have changed this year. And she says the end result is fewer connections between American businesses and the continent.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.