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In a late-night tweet Monday, President Trump announced his intention to sign an executive order “to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States,” citing the coronavirus crisis and “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”
At a White House press briefing Tuesday evening, Trump elaborated on the executive order, which he said “is being written now as we speak” and will be ready for him to sign “most likely tomorrow.”
Trump said that the ban would be in effect for 60 days, with the potential for extension, and apply only to “individuals seeking permanent residency” in the U.S.
Though he said the order would not apply to people entering the country “on a temporary basis” as in those with temporary or seasonal work visas — stating explicitly that “the farmers will not be affected” — he claimed that “by pausing immigration, we'll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens.” He also suggested that curbing immigration would “conserve vital medical resources for American citizens.”
Trump was notably not accompanied by any officials from the Department of Homeland Security, which would be tasked with implementing such an order. As of Tuesday evening, representatives from DHS had not released any details nor had they responded to multiple requests for more information regarding the president’s announcement.
“Of course DHS doesn’t have any idea what this is or what it will look like … because this isn't about policy, it’s about politics,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Johnson suggested that Trump’s tweet, and the executive order that is reportedly expected to follow, were an attempt to “distract, blame and divide” in response to questions about the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump’s immigration announcement comes as the president has promoted reopening the businesses that have closed under efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, recently encouraging protests against social distancing restrictions in several states. It also follows backlash from many prominent members of Trump’s base, who’ve criticized the administration’s efforts to solicit foreign workers for some essential industries, as more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the president declared the pandemic a national emergency last month.
Prior to Monday’s announcement from Trump, the administration had already enacted several measures in response to the coronavirus crisis that have effectively brought the immigration system to a near-complete halt.
Starting with a ban on almost all travel to the U.S. from China, Trump has since expanded his coronavirus-related restrictions to include foreigners traveling from Iran and most of Europe. All non-essential travel across the Mexican and Canadian borders has been shut down, refugee resettlement suspended and practically all visa, green card and citizenship services have been put on pause.
Though Trump frequently boasts about having made an early and controversial decision to block travel from China, there’s little evidence to suggest that such restrictions were effective at protecting the country from the virus, as the United States has since become the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic. According to the Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. had 814,587 confirmed cases and 43,630 deaths as of Tuesday afternoon — more than any other country.
At the same time that the Trump administration has shut down almost all other avenues to immigration, it has also taken several steps to facilitate increased hiring of certain types of foreign workers — particularly medical professionals and farm workers.
Late last month, the State Department issued an announcement via Twitter as well as on its website encouraging medical professionals seeking work in the U.S. “particularly those working on #COVID19 issues, to contact the nearest U.S. Embassy/Consulate for a visa appointment.” The agency later clarified that the notice, which also included guidance on how those already in the United States on a visa can apply to extend their stay, only applied to people who had already been accepted for jobs or educational programs in the U.S.
Approximately one in four doctors in the U.S. was born outside the U.S., with immigrants making up 16.5 percent of all health care workers in the U.S. According to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated “263,000 immigrants and refugees with undergraduate degrees in health-related fields” are either unemployed or forced to work low-paying jobs requiring significantly less education because they received their training in other countries.
In light of increased demand for health care workers to help hospitals overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, a number of governors have also issued emergency orders to waive certain licensing requirements in order to allow foreign-trained health care providers to practice in their states during the pandemic.
The State Department also announced that it would waive interviews for some temporary worker visas, deeming the program “essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority.”
On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security, with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, temporarily loosened certain requirements for seasonal agricultural work visas to help U.S. farmers to “avoid disruptions in lawful agricultural-related employment, protect the nation’s food supply chain, and lessen impacts from the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency.”
Immigration hard-liners and prominent supporters of President Trump have criticized the administration’s efforts to recruit foreign workers amid skyrocketing unemployment rates.
During an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last week, former attorney general and current Alabama Senate candidate Jeff Sessions called for a moratorium on immigration during the current crisis.
“There is no doubt it is in the interest of the United States of America to make sure that we get every one of those unemployed Americans jobs first,” said Sessions.
Carlson has also been a critic of the administration’s efforts to recruit foreign workers, using his show to urge the president to cut immigration “in order to protect the nation” from what he described in one segment from April 1 as “an immeasurably greater crisis than terrorism.”
Sessions and other immigration restrictionists immediately praised Trump’s Twitter announcement Monday night, though some expressed disappointment on Tuesday evening after Trump made clear that the order would not, in fact, amount to an all-out ban on immigration.
In a statement to Yahoo News earlier Tuesday, Dale Wilcox, executive director and general counsel for Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the anti-immigration nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, called Trump’s plan to suspend immigration “perfectly legal and appropriate.”
“Coronavirus is crippling both the health and work prospects of American citizens,” said Wilcox.
“To allow a continued influx of foreign nationals at this time would only worsen the situation."
Immigration advocates quickly criticized the announcement.
“President Trump’s call to suspend immigration to the U.S. ignores the reality of our situation: The fact is that immigrants are standing shoulder to shoulder with U.S. citizens on the frontlines helping us get through this pandemic,” said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, in a statement Tuesday. “Closing our doors to immigrants who may very well have joined these efforts isn’t just harmful policy — it’s a clear message that America is choosing politics over recovery.”
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a major refugee resettlement agency, questioned the use of coronavirus as a justification for cutting off immigration at the same time that Trump and others are encouraging the reopening of businesses that have been shuttered during the crisis.
“To imply that immigrants are a threat to the vibrance of America’s workforce is a xenophobic talking point – proven false time and time again,” said Vignarajah in a statement to Yahoo News. “We urge the president to embrace those who would be our doctors, our grocery store workers, our agricultural laborers and the many other roles immigrants play in making our country great.”
Trump declined to comment on specific exemptions that his order will contain at Tuesday evening’s press briefing, but much of the reporting that has emerged Tuesday on the administration’s plans suggests that the forthcoming order will likely include exceptions for agricultural and health care workers. However, Leon Rodriguez, former director U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Obama administration, warned that “an extended ban without thoughtful exceptions for essential workers and emergent situations could cause pretty serious issues for the economy, the health care system, and critical infrastructure.” In addition to frontline health care workers, for example, he questioned how the ban would impact many of the foreign-born bioscientists and engineers who are working on developing a vaccine and means of distributing it in order to fight the virus.
Pending actual details on the forthcoming order, AILA’s Johnson suggested that a sweeping attempt to ban all immigrants, as described in the president’s tweet, could constitute an overreach of presidential power.
“The unfortunate truth is the president does have an enormous amount of power and he can wield that power in very destructive ways when it comes to immigration, we’ve already seen that over the last couple of years, if not his entire administration,” said Johnson.
That said, Johnson emphasized, “He does not have unbridled, unchecked authority over everything, including immigration.”
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