NEW YORK – Airports were shuttered or almost barren. International flights cancelled. Visa offices in embassies and consulates shut down. Borders effectively closed. That was the grim scenario before President Trump hammered in last night, what perhaps, could be the last nail in the coffin of immigration, to the United States. He tweeted that he’s temporarily suspending immigration in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens,” Trump wrote on Twitter late Monday night. “I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”
In a statement on Tuesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany seemed to reiterate what Trump implied in his tweet – that America was turning not just protectionist, but into an outright shell, closing itself to foreigners, for an undetermined period of time. In enforcing the unprecedented immigration ban, Trump would also fulfill his most popular 2016 promise to his core base, ‘America First’: restrict all forms of immigration.
“President Trump is committed to protecting the health and economic well-being of American citizens as we face unprecedented times,” she wrote. “As President Trump has said, ‘Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African American and Latino workers.’ At a time when Americans are looking to get back to work, action is necessary.”
The New York Times reported a formal order temporarily barring the provision of new green cards and work visas could come as early as the next few days, according to several people familiar with the plan.
Conservatives were delighted with Trump’s tweet. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, tweeted: “22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last month because of the China virus. Let’s help them get back to work before we import more foreigners to compete for their jobs.”
There was confusion as to the extent of the immigration suspension. Until the executive order comes through, there would be only speculation if the order would also target visa workers already in the US. One prime concern is if visa extensions would be allowed for those on visas already residing in the US.
It also remains to be seen if visa workers and those on tourist or business visas would be excluded from the order. Immigration experts, however, seem to be of the consensus that on the immediate chopping block seem to be this year’s H-1B visa workers who were readying to emigrate this fall if selected in the lottery. That might not happen anytime soon.
Immigration analyst Sarah Pierce told the Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent a lot will turn on details, such as whether this suspension applies to foreign nationals already here and applying for green cards or trying to renew visas, or if it only applies to people outside the country who want to come here, which has effectively been halted already.
“If they want to make official what’s already in place, it would make a flashy statement while having minimal impact,” Pierce said, adding that if they did apply it to people here as well, it could be a lot worse.
H-1B visa workers seem to be on the President’s mind. The Times noted, ‘Workers who have for years received visas to perform specialized jobs in the United States would also be denied permission to arrive, though workers in some industries deemed critical could be exempted from the ban, people familiar with the president’s decision said.’
The number of visas issued to foreigners abroad looking to immigrate to the United States has declined by about 25 percent in the past three years, to 462,422 in the 2019 fiscal year, from 617,752 in 2016. USCIS processed nearly 580,000 green card approvals for foreigners who applied for permanent residency, the latest statistics show.
Immigration advocates, who were up in arms against recent decisions by the Trump administration to curb immigration, including the ‘Public Charge’ rule and travel ban on some Muslim-dominated nations, were incensed by Trump’s tweet. Charanya Krishnaswami, the advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, responded to the president’s tweet with one of her own.
“When you’re a xenophobe, bans on migration are the only tired, failed, hateful solution you can think of,” Krishnaswami wrote. “Suspending immigration won’t make the US — which currently leads among COVID cases worldwide — safe. Our policies need to be grounded in public health, not bigotry.”
The Wall Street Journal noted that in the current coronavirus crisis, it’s not clear how much further suspension of immigration would immediately impact the US. The administration has already all but ceased nearly every form of immigration. Most visa processing has been halted, no one can apply for a visa to visit or move to the US. Visa interviews and citizenship ceremonies have been postponed and the refugee program paused.
For Trump’s executive order to work, it would have to direct the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to immediately stop the issuance of immigration visas. Such a move appears to have no modern precedent and would potentially leave the fiancés, fiancées, children and other close relatives of U.S. citizens in limbo, reported The Washington Post.
Alex Nowrasteh, the director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the president likely does have the authority to issue such an order during a time of crisis.
Nowrasteh said there are at least two legal justifications for Trump to close the border to all immigration: Title 42 of the U.S. Code enables the president to halt immigration for health reasons, while a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding his travel ban gives him legal precedent.
If such an order were signed, it would be unprecedented in American history, Nowrasteh said. During the height of the 1918 flu pandemic, the United States allowed more than 110,00 immigrants to enter the country.
And during World War II, the United States accepted more than 170,000 immigrants with green cards and more than 227,000 temporary agricultural workers, mostly from Mexico, on the bracero guest worker visa program, the Post reported.
Immigration attorney Cyrus Mehta in a series of tweets highlighted that the immigration suspension is not likely to be temporary.
“And don’t be fooled when they say the ban will be temporary. Trump’s Muslim ban still continues. And it was also a charade that Trump was only concerned about illegal immigration. Finally, Trump announced this ban on Hitler’s birthday!” Mehta tweeted.
He also tweeted: “Notice how Trump in his tweet maliciously only wants to protect our GREAT American citizens but leaves out other US residents with the same constitutional rights like green card holders. He is deliberately using the pandemic to sow division between US citizens and immigrants.
“And this is part of the playbook of the authoritarian by first attacking foreign nationals but then also eroding the rights of American citizens. Indeed Americans will be deprived of uniting with their loved ones or from hiring a badly needed skilled foreign national worker.
A CNN reported a Trump administration official said Trump’s executive order will be a “temporary 120 days or so” halt on “some” work visas to mitigate some of the unemployment concerns related to the pandemic.
Critics were not convinced.
“The implication is that immigrants are a threat to the American economy, but we know the exact opposite to be true,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, to NBC. “While immigrants across America are on the front lines risking their lives to save ours, it is simply unconscionable to scapegoat immigrants for this pandemic.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., also came down hard on Trump’s decision. She said the president was taking advantage of the situation to push his hard-line immigration policies.
“Trump failed to take this crisis seriously from day 1. His abandonment of his role as president has cost lives. And now, he’s shamelessly politicizing this pandemic to double down on his anti-immigrant agenda,” Harris tweeted.
Roll Call pointed out the impact the suspension will have on immigrants on visas who have lost their jobs, and want to transfer to another company: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has closed its offices countrywide and suspended services that require in-person interaction due to COVID-19 fears. They were already asking for more paperwork, taking longer to process it and denying more applications. It had also suspended premium processing, a tool in which employers and visa holders can pay to expedite the processing of applications with sensitive deadlines or ones that need to be re-filed after a denial.
Yahoo! Finance reported that the move will impact adversely the IT industry in the US.
“This will definitely impact immigration movements into the IT sector in the US from India and China, being two countries with large migration numbers globally, ” said Latha Olavatth at immigration specialist Newland Chase.
“China and India also have other business sectors where the ban will impact their movements to the States, further crippling trade and the economy adversely,” she said.
According to Pew Research Center, almost half of immigrants live in just three states – New York, Texas and California, home of Silicon Valley, where tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Cisco are based.
“Trump’s immigration ban will hurt US tech companies’ ability to recruit the talent necessary to remain competitive and focus on innovation,” said Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group. “Instead of staying in America and building America’s tech prowess, top talent will return to their home countries and build the next round of innovation powerhouses.”