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Trump Is Using Covid-19 as a Cloak for Pushing His Anti-Immigrant Agenda

Scratch the surface of the president’s new immigration ban and it’s easy to see the gap between its stated purpose and the actual effects.

April 28, 2020
Mandel Ngan/Getty

Pres­id­ent Trump issued a proclam­a­tion last week banning many new immig­rants, claim­ing that they would take Amer­ic­ans’ jobs as the economy recov­ers. But the excep­tions in the ban show that its true purpose is to simply stop as many people as possible from becom­ing Amer­ic­ans. This has been Trump’s stated desire for years, and now he is using the coronavirus pandemic as a screen to drive it forward.

White House adviser Stephen Miller admit­ted as much in a leaked private call with Trump support­ers about the order, reportedly saying, “The first and most import­ant thing is to turn off the faucet of new immig­rant labor — mission accom­plished.” The new order has an initial period of 60 days, but the Wash­ing­ton Post repor­ted that Miller “indic­ated that the strategy is part of a long-term vision and not seen only as a stop­gap.”

The proclam­a­tion broadly bars people over­seas from getting green cards that would allow them to perman­ently live and work in the United States. It exempts spouses and chil­dren of U.S. citizens, who accoun­ted for about 20 percent of immig­rants from over­seas in 2019. Also left out are health profes­sion­als and investors, among others. But it does, for example, ban the spouses and chil­dren of perman­ent resid­ents, as well as others close to Amer­ican citizens, like fiancées, parents, and siblings.

With tens of millions of people losing their jobs in less than a month, easing the pain of the economic devast­a­tion from the virus is an imper­at­ive. But this proclam­a­tion does both too much and too little to achieve that goal, reveal­ing that it is a pretext to keep immig­rants out of the United States.  

First, the ban on perman­ent work visas does­n’t do more to protect Amer­ican work­ers than exist­ing rules do. Most work visas already require the Depart­ment of Labor to certify that Amer­ic­ans can’t do the job in ques­tion and that hiring a foreigner won’t push wages down for similar jobs. Trump’s order claims that this process can’t account for economic condi­tions in light of the coronavirus — without explain­ing why or consid­er­ing whether the process could be made stricter.

Perhaps the admin­is­tra­tion is assum­ing that the current unem­ploy­ment situ­ation means that Amer­ic­ans might now be will­ing to do jobs that they normally would­n’t. Even taking that as true, it does­n’t explain why the order does­n’t affect tempor­ary work visas, of which over 900,000 were issued in 2018 (perman­ent work visas are capped at 140,000 a year). Or why it would­n’t apply to people work­ing in the United States on tempor­ary visas who want a green card to become perman­ent resid­ents.

In any case, most perman­ent work visas are for people that meet signi­fic­ant educa­tion and train­ing require­ments.  For example, the first 40,040 such visas every year are reserved for people with “extraordin­ary abil­ity in the arts, science, educa­tion, busi­ness, or athlet­ics; outstand­ing profess­ors and research­ers; and certain multina­tional exec­ut­ives and managers.” Only 10,000 are avail­able for “unskilled” work­ers who can meet certi­fic­a­tion require­ments, or 0.05 percent of the number of newly unem­ployed people in the coun­try.

The ban makes a lot more sense if it’s inten­ded to keep people from making Amer­ica their new home. That’s what best explains why perman­ent work visas are banned while tempor­ary ones are allowed. And why it targets the famil­ies of immig­rants, or the “chain migra­tion” the pres­id­ent derides, even when many people in this category — like older parents of U.S. citizens or the chil­dren of perman­ent resid­ents — would­n’t be work­ing at all.

After all, a focus on stop­ping perman­ent resid­ents is a common thread through the pres­id­ent’s policies. The Muslim ban, for example, goes easier on visit­ors than it does on the relat­ives of Amer­ic­ans from the affected coun­tries, even though the ban’s supposed purpose was for “secur­ity,” and people want­ing to live in the United States undergo more rigor­ous screen­ing. The pres­id­ent has made no secret of his desire to get rid of birth­right citizen­ship enshrined in the 14th Amend­ment, and he estab­lished a “denat­ur­al­iz­a­tion” task force to identify Amer­ican immig­rants whose citizen­ship should be stripped.

While the new proclam­a­tion will almost certainly be chal­lenged in court, the Supreme Court’s histor­ic­ally bad decision in Trump v. Hawaii — the case uphold­ing the Muslim ban — presents an obvi­ous obstacle. Both that ban and the new one were ordered under a section of the Immig­ra­tion & Nation­al­ity Act that allows the pres­id­ent to indef­in­itely bar people from the United States whenever he finds they would be “detri­mental” to U.S. interests. In Hawaii, the Court found the provi­sion’s language to “exude[] defer­ence to the Pres­id­ent in every clause.”

But there are differ­ences. For one thing, the Supreme Court might be leery of permit­ting the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to repeatedly exploit a provi­sion clearly inten­ded to imple­ment discrete foreign policy decisions — like sanc­tions — and deal with emer­gen­cies  to put in place a system where the pres­id­ent can pick and choose who can come to the United States based on favor­it­ism or expedi­ency. This subverts the rules Congress — which under the Consti­tu­tion prop­erly determ­ines who can become an Amer­ican citizen — has writ­ten in the law.

In addi­tion, the Muslim ban only survived legal scru­tiny after the admin­is­tra­tion carried out an inter-agency review that reverse engin­eered a record support­ing the ban. It is not clear that any such review was under­taken for the most recent ban.

Further, the new order will have little prac­tical effect in the near term because the coronavirus has already shut down most travel and other immig­ra­tion processes. Routine visa services are suspen­ded at U.S. consu­lar outposts across the globe, so no one is look­ing at applic­a­tions anyway. And many of those already approved for green cards or visas may find it tough to come here because the Cana­dian and Mexican borders are essen­tially closed, and foreign­ers trav­el­ing from much of the European Union, China, and the United King­dom are barred.

Given that the order aligns with admin­is­tra­tion prior­it­ies that have noth­ing to do with the coronavirus, there is a real risk that it will become perman­ent. The first Muslim ban was described as tempor­ary and contin­ues to this day. Indeed, further restric­tions may be in the works, as intim­ated by Acting Home­land Secur­ity Secret­ary Chad Wolf and Stephen Miller.

There’s no doubt that a pres­id­ent needs to be able to quickly and effect­ively respond in a time of crisis like the one we currently face. But an emer­gency should­n’t be an excuse to imple­ment policies that viol­ate our core commit­ment to the rule of law.