Two recent news items neatly sum up U.S. immigration policy during the COVID-19 crisis.
Asylum seekers are now being turned away at the border without even a chance to make their asylum claims; the excuse for the new policy is a March 20 order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, officials say the administration may expand the recruitment of temporary agricultural workers. The purpose would be “to get enough migrant labor to keep the food supply moving” while the crisis drags on.
So, the Trump administration claims the pandemic justifies two blatantly contradictory policies. The coronavirus poses so great a threat that the United States needs to bar people fleeing violence in countries with low incidence of the disease, and yet the virus means the government may recruit more seasonal workers from those same countries — at a time when U.S. unemployment is probably at its highest level since the Great Depression.
None of this is really about COVID-19, of course. The White House is just continuing and intensifying policies it has pushed for three years.
The Two Priorities
Terminating the U.S. asylum system has been a Trump priority since the beginning. But the system is mandated by a law which the White House doesn’t have the votes to change, so the administration has attacked asylum through legally dubious bureaucratic maneuvers by limiting the grounds for asylum, by dumping asylum seekers across the border in the misnamed Migrant Protection Protocols, and by making bogus “safe third country” agreements with Central American governments. Now it’s using the coronavirus as a pretext for completing its campaign for the “end of asylum.”
Expanding guest worker programs has been another priority. Trump rants about foreign workers “taking American jobs,” but in reality, his own administration has steadily filled U.S. jobs with workers from other countries. In fact, Trump’s government increased the number of the H-2A visas that are used by temporary agricultural workers. In 2016, former President Barack Obama’s last full year in office, the government issued 134,368 H-2A visas; in 2019 the number had jumped to 204,801.
“Guest workers, don’t we agree? We have to have them.” Trump announced at a rally two years ago. He used almost exactly the same words this year at his government’s April 1 press conference on pandemic response: “We want them to come in…. I’ve given the commitment to the farmers: They’re going to continue to come, or we’re not going to have any farmers.”
The administration may also issue 35,000 additional H-2B visas, which are used for non-agricultural guest workers like landscapers, hotel workers and crab pickers. (The government announced the plan in early March, but it’s holding the visas up in response to criticism.) The push for additional visas came long before Trump acknowledged the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak — as of February, administration officials had been discussing H-2B expansion for months.
“Essential” But Unprotected
With millions of U.S. residents now suddenly jobless, why would the government need to increase the number of temporary workers from abroad — people who might help spread the coronavirus here or, more likely, in their own countries when they return?
The reason, Politico’s Anita Kumar writes, citing unnamed “business leaders,” is that companies “might be unable to find enough unemployed Americans willing to take certain jobs, especially if those people can collect more money via jobless benefits.” And it’s not just that agricultural guest workers are paid even less than unemployed U.S. citizens: Temporary workers also accept conditions citizens would reject.
The visa programs don’t provide adequate protections against abuse by employers, forcing workers to live and work in unsanitary and often dangerous working conditions. This is especially true now, when crowded living spaces provide an ideal environment for the virus to spread. State and local governments are declaring these laborers “essential workers” amid the crisis but apparently not essential enough to be kept safe from disease while they work here.
This type of exploitation hurts all U.S. workers, both jobless citizens and underpaid foreign workers, but the situation is rarely discussed in the media or in political debates. There’s a reason: Support for exploitative labor practices is bipartisan.
Workers or Corporate Interests?
Trump may not grasp the fine points of immigration policy, but he undoubtedly understands how much employers benefit from exploiting an underclass of temporary workers. After all, he has routinely employed H-2B workers — along with undocumented immigrants — at his own hotels and resorts. As for Democrats, many seem suspiciously close to employer associations that promote guest worker programs. For instance, a Democratic senator, California’s Dianne Feinstein, led the push in March to streamline the processing of H-2A visas at U.S. embassies and consulates.
So, what’s the solution?
There’s an easy way to handle the current asylum problems: The government could simply restore the system mandated by existing law. Asylum seekers would go back to having credible fear interviews and being paroled into the country if they pass. (No, the great majority do not skip out on their hearings.)
If current numbers are overwhelming the immigration courts, a government that can spend nearly $25 billion each year on immigration enforcement could certainly find funding to hire a few more immigration judges. And if people want to come here for seasonal jobs, there’s nothing that prevents the government from providing them with full human and labor rights along with their work visas — including the right to form unions, go on strike, change employers and receive high-quality health care.
These aren’t new proposals. Immigrant rights activists have been discussing them for years. For example, they’re incorporated in the 2019 Migrant Justice Platform, in a report from the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante and in former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’s immigration plan — which notes that “Enforcing strong, fair and safe labor standards benefits all workers, not just immigrant workers.”
The pandemic and Trump’s response to it have gone a long way to expose the underlying injustices of U.S. society, including those in the immigration system. The crisis has created an opportunity, and a responsibility, to push harder than ever for fundamental immigration reform.