Trump Responds to COVID-19 Spike by Cracking Down on Immigration

The number of new COVID-19 cases are spiking in several states, but President Trump did not announce new public health responses on Monday. Instead, he issued an executive order extending and expanding suspensions of immigration and guest worker programs until the end of the year. The White House is also moving to push lower-wage workers out of the H-1B visa program, and it barred asylum seekers from gaining lawful employment for one year after filing a claim.

Meanwhile, the administration is already working to raise the standard of proof for asylum claims and pave the way to speed up deportation proceedings for people fleeing harm and violence, including thousands of people currently locked in immigration jails. The new rules would make it excruciatingly difficult for women, LGBTQ people and survivors of gang violence to win asylum, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC).

“While the worst impact will be felt by Central American asylum seekers, whom the administration clearly is trying to ban entirely, this proposed regulation would create insurmountable barriers for all asylum seekers, even for political asylum claims that have long been recognized under U.S. law,” said NIJC Associate Director Ashley Huebner said in a statement earlier this month.

The administration said the order and new regulations are meant to reserve jobs for U.S. citizens, but critics argue it would not reduce unemployment created by the pandemic and would only increase pain and uncertainty in immigrant communities. Trump and the immigration hawks around him have been working to prevent immigration and increase deportations since taking office, and advocates say the administration is using COVID-19 as an excuse to appease hardliners and pursue a harsh nativist agenda ahead of the 2020 elections.

“Let’s be clear: This executive order is about race, racism and the scapegoating of immigrants in order to throw red meat to Trump’s base,” said Paola Luisi, co-director of Families Belong Together, a group that works to end family separation due to immigration enforcement, in a statement.

The Trump administration finalized on Monday new restrictions on employment authorizations that allow asylum seekers to work legally in the U.S. and extended the waiting period for such authorizations to one full year. A senior administration official told reporters on background that the new rule removes incentives to apply for asylum in order to get a job authorization, but advocates say the move is part a cruel effort to push asylum seekers out of the country by making it difficult to survive.

Chia Chia Wang, an organizing director for the American Friends Service Committee in New Jersey, said applying for asylum is already difficult enough. Preventing asylum seekers from accessing lawful employment while they pursue their claims will only make their lives “miserable,” and violates international agreements on the rights of refugees. The proposed rules that immigration advocates say would gut legal protections for asylum applicants and fast-track deportation proceedings reflect the administration’s true intentions, Wang said.

“If the rule changes go through, then [it] will be very difficult if not impossible to claim asylum status, and that would put these people in deportation proceedings for sure,” she said, adding that migrants and asylum seekers are often incarcerated for months if not years before being deported.

Trump’s order does nothing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in federal immigration jails, where populations have swelled under his administration. These jails have become hotspots for coronavirus infection and death. Rather than release incarcerated immigrants so they can safely shelter with family in their communities, advocates say Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) is keeping people locked up in dangerous environments, retaliating against protests and hunger strikes with pepper spray and solitary confinement, and routinely exposing people to toxic disinfectants that cause bloody noses, nausea and difficulty in breathing.

Compare the 525,000 jobs the Trump administration estimates will be affected by the immigration and guest worker restrictions to the 20 million people who collected unemployment this month. Civil rights groups vowed to challenge the latest “travel ban” in court.

“The latest travel ban is a new season of the same racist, xenophobic show put on by Donald Trump and Stephen Miller,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement. “But Trump’s transparent effort to rally his base and distract from his innumerable failures, including his disastrous response to COVID-19, will not work.”

Trump signed off on a narrower measure in April that suspended the issuance of green cards to many new immigrants seeking to move to the U.S. Green cards are often used to reunite family members as well as recruit talent at businesses and universities. The latest order extends the green card suspension through December. While there are some exceptions — most notably for seasonal agricultural workers and low-wage, high-risk food processing jobs — the latest order suspends H1-B, H-2B, H4, L and J visa programs for guest workers and their spouses in industries ranging from tech to forestry, as well as cultural exchange programs at schools and summer camps.

U.S. citizens can still sponsor spouses and young children for green card applications, but Trump’s order bars parents and other family members along with most other categories of applicants. The order only applies to people seeking to enter the U.S., not people who are already living here and applying for permanent residence.

The Trump administration is also eyeballing a revamp of the H1-B guest worker program that would prioritize workers offered the highest salaries, a move that immigrant rights activists oppose because low-income, migrant workers should be able to live in the country where they work difficult and often dangerous jobs without fear of arrest and state violence. Currently, temporary H1-B guest worker visas are randomly distributed by a lottery system, and Wang said some workers wait for years to claim a temporary job in the U.S.

While administration officials claim they will also close legal loopholes that allow large companies to replace employees with guest workers and workers in other countries by partnering with outsourcing firms — a regulatory change the administration has yet to spell out — Wang said existing rules already require that employers prove to the government that their employees will not lose their jobs to guest workers. Wang suggested that the Trump administration either does not comprehend or is unwilling to enforce existing labor regulations.

“So, I really don’t think it’s going to help with the job loss or the unemployment rate that we have today,” Wang said.

This story has been updated.