On Monday night, President Donald Trump vowed he would suspend immigration into the United States during the coronavirus outbreak.
On Tuesday, he unveiled his plan. It was far short of a full ban.
Trump announced that he will sign an executive order blocking most people for 60 days from receiving a permanent residency visa, or green card. But the order will still allow the government to continue processing visas for hundreds of thousands of temporary employees, including farm workers, landscapers and crab pickers — the largest source of immigration.
The order is also expected to carve out additional exemptions for so-called essential employees, including health care workers, and immigrants who come into the United States through immediate family members, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Trump, who will sign the executive order as soon as Wednesday, said the measure will be reassessed in two months.
“It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrants, labor flown in from abroad,” Trump said at the daily White House briefing, nodding to the 22 million Americans who have filed for unemployment in recent weeks. “We must first take care of the American worker, take care of the American worker.”
Still, the president was short on details and indicated the order is still not final.
“It’s being written now,” Trump said. “We’ll most likely sign it tomorrow.” He also hinted that he could sign a second order in the future, imposing further immigration restrictions, but provided no specifics.
The move angered conservatives who were hoping the president would go further. The Trump administration has already paused most routine visa processing and refugee cases during the coronavirus pandemic, meaning the president’s executive order may be redundant for many already-stalled cases. Moreover, a majority of immigrants seeking green cards are already living in the U.S.
“Briefly delaying green cards for people, most of whom are already in the U.S. and working, and ignoring work visas doesn’t help U.S. workers and doesn’t ease pressure on hospitals, “ said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Can’t know for sure until there’s actually something official to read, but this looks more like a political gesture than a serious policy move.”
Soon after Trump finished speaking, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who occasionally advises the president, blasted the effort, saying Trump “failed” to protect American jobs.
Conservatives have been pushing Trump for weeks to stop allowing temporary foreign workers into the United States during the pandemic. But so far, the president has sided with business leaders who argue immigrant workers are still needed, even with so many Americans out of work, to preserve the food supply and keep other industries staffed.
Last week, Trump asked aides last week to look into the possibility of pausing all immigration during the coronavirus outbreak, seeking a bold step he could announce amid ongoing criticism of his response to the pandemic.
Trump’s request to look into the potential executive order, described by three people familiar with the situation, ultimately led to the tweet late Monday night in which Trump declared he would be temporarily suspending all immigration. The result will not be nearly as dramatic as the tweet sounded.
Yet if the executive order remains in place through the fall, Trump could once make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, the way he did in 2016 when promised to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico and deport millions of migrants who arrived in the country illegally. During the pandemic, Trump has also restricted foreign visitors from China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, and frequently touts those decisions.
An outside Trump adviser said Trump felt the latest change was needed to rebuild the economy. “This is middle-class driven,” the person said. “That’s what needs to be rebuilt fast.”
As the outbreak has spread, the Trump administration has quietly continued to allow foreign workers to enter the country, even easing requirements for immigrants to get certain jobs — allowing electronic signatures and waiving the physical inspection of documents.
On Friday, the administration temporarily removed some limitations on agricultural workers, including allowing them to stay in the United States beyond the three years maximum limit.
In early April, under pressure from immigration activists, the administration did backtrack on a plan to pause the approval of 35,000 more seasonal worker visas, pending further review.
“To continue most immigration at this time would show a callous disregard for those Americans who are enduring deep economic suffering,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which supports immigration restrictions.
Trump and his aides also said the plan would promote safety during the pandemic, but he didn’t explain how. It’s also unclear how the move would safeguard Americans against the virus when some immigrants will still be able to come into the country.
Economically, the president might have struggled to sell a complete ban on immigrants.
In the U.S., immigrants make up 17 percent of healthcare workers, 24 percent of direct-care workers, including the nurses and assistants, and 28 percent of high-skilled professionals in the field, including physicians and surgeons, according to Envoy, a global immigration services provider.
Trump’s announcement had his critics decrying the move as a transparent attempt to rile up the president’s base in an election year, while distracting from the ongoing criticism of his coronavirus response.
“The president is using a national health crisis to pander to his political base in an election year,” said Ayda Akalin, an immigration attorney. “Announcing an executive order feels more related to making good on campaign promises than actually trying to help the American people during this crisis.”
State leaders, lawmakers and public health officials have hammered Trump for initially downplaying the coronavirus threat earlier this year. He has since been accused of failing to establish adequate testing capacity, and for struggling to distribute enough masks, ventilators and other supplies to overwhelmed hot spots. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. has surpassed 800,000, with more than 40,000 deaths.
“It’s another distraction,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “Every time it gets to the point of us needing something and him obviously not providing it, he tries to create another distraction, and that’s what he’s doing right now.”
Yet some of Trump’s aides, as well as those seeking immigration restrictions, say they have the public on their side. A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll showed Americans overwhelming supported a temporary pause on immigration from all countries.
“Pausing immigration at the height of a health crisis and record unemployment is widely supported by the American people,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which pushed for the change. “President Trump must deliver for them, not business interests obsessed with low wages and cheap foreign labor.”
In issuing the executive order, Trump will rely on legal authority created by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold his controversial travel ban from certain countries in 2018.
Since entering office, the number of immigrants with new temporary visas has steadily increased, reaching 925,000 in 2018, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Hundreds of thousands more immigrants already have visas at any given time.
While there is no cap for the total number of temporary workers, there are annual limits on several individual visa categories. More than 1 million immigrants are allowed into the United States each year on a permanent basis, but only a fraction — 140,000 — come through employment categories.
“President Trump always puts America first and a huge majority of Americans see this policy as common sense,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. “The usual suspects are sniping from the sidelines, but they have always cared more about scoring political points against the president than they do about anything else.”