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Analysis

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
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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.