Late on the evening of April 20, President Trump tweeted that he was temporarily suspending immigration to the United States. For justification he cited what he called “the attack from the Invisible Enemy” — that is, COVID-19 — and “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”
Government officials had to scramble to make sense of Trump’s tweet, but by April 22, the White House staff had tacked together a presidential proclamation for Trump to sign. The final text doesn’t actually suspend immigration, but it does impose a two-thirds reduction on the number of new green cards — the visas granting permanent legal residence — that the government issues to people applying from outside the United States. The suspension will be in effect for 60 days, although it can be renewed.
Despite Trump’s promises, this reduction of immigration will do nothing to slow the pandemic or to protect citizens’ jobs. Its only real effect will be to excite Trump’s base, disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of families, and expose the underlying hypocrisy of U.S. immigration policy.
“Exporting the Virus”
Although the number of people impacted will be large, the suspension doesn’t come close to the massive change Trump had originally implied in his tweet. According to an analysis by the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the new policy will reduce green card admissions to the United States by some 52,000 over the 60-day period, or by 315,000 if the policy is extended to a full year. Currently, the total number of people receiving green cards each year is a little more than 1 million, but the majority apply from inside the country and aren’t affected by the policy change.
If the goal was really to keep people from bringing COVID-19 into the United States, the suspension would be redundant. The government has already responded to the pandemic by severely restricting travel into the country, so most of the people barred by the proclamation would be kept from entering in any case.
The idea that an immigration suspension would protect the country from infection grows more and more absurd each day. Trump is playing to a century-old myth that immigrants bring disease, but it’s the United States that now leads the world in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Far from being under threat from foreign disease, the U.S. is actually “exporting the virus,” former Department of Homeland Security head Jeh Johnson charged during an April 21 online forum. The U.S. immigration system has already shipped dozens of infected deportees to Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico — immigrants who apparently caught the virus while held in the crowded, unsanitary migrant jails overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As of April 21, the agency had only reported testing for 425 of its more than 32,000 detainees, but 253 tested positive — an astonishing 59.5 percent.
Guest Workers, Not Parents
The claim that the suspension would help the 26 million U.S. workers now unemployed is as ridiculous as the claim about fighting the pandemic. The new policy wouldn’t have more than a minimal impact on joblessness in the United States, even if immigration actually determined employment levels — and it generally doesn’t.
If extended for a year, the suspension would bar a little more than 20,000 of the workers who apply from outside for employment-based green cards, according to the MPI’s analysis. The great majority of the people denied green cards are applicants for family-based visas or diversity visas (the “lottery” that encourages applications from countries with low numbers of immigrants in the previous five years). These two categories have always been special targets for Trump’s anti-immigrant rants, but many of the applicants — elderly parents, for example — would be unlikely to take jobs in the United States.
In other words, Trump’s new policy would, at most, keep about 300,000 new immigrant workers from arriving here over the course of a year. In contrast, almost 1 million temporary workers come into the United States annually — plus another 100,000 under the J-1 summer work travel program. Trump’s immigration suspension doesn’t restrict these workers.
This should be no surprise: Trump has been steadily increasing the number of guest workers ever since he took office. The latest excuse is that they are crucial to the supply chain during the pandemic.
This argument could have some validity in the case of farmworkers who come in through the H-2A visa program, but most people with H-2B nonagricultural visas certainly don’t seem to be “essential workers.” About 40 percent of H-2B holders work in landscaping, for example, and many have hospitality jobs — like the guest workers Trump employed at Mar-a-Lago before the pandemic shut the resort down.
Winners and Losers
The one thing the proclamation will certainly accomplish is dashing the hopes of many citizens and legal residents who have been jumping through bureaucratic hoops, often for years, in the arduous process of seeking green cards for relatives: Most parents, siblings and grown children are barred under the new policy. A Houston immigration attorney told BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz that panicked calls to her office were “off the charts” after Trump’s April 20 tweet.
But the suspension won’t cause problems for U.S. corporations and the wealthiest citizens; they’ll still get to exploit the low wages and substandard conditions temporary workers are subjected to. In fact, despite designating agricultural workers as “essential,” the White House has been trying to find a way to let agribusiness cut their already inadequate pay. Moreover, Fox News hosts have noted that they won’t lose the services of another type of supposedly indispensable temporary employee — the au pairs they hire through the J-1 visa program.
The rich get an additional carveout from the suspension. The EB-5 program, which offers 10,000 visas each year for wealthy investors, is still safe. The program frequently encourages investment in property development projects by U.S. real estate interests, such as the family of Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. The Kushners became the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation in 2018 over their promotion of this visa.
For Trump, the suspension could have a political benefit. He probably expects it to stir up xenophobic supporters at a time when his polling numbers seem to be dipping. But the tactic is so obviously cynical that it could backfire — especially if activists get the word out that this suspension, like the immigration system itself, is designed to protect the U.S. employing class, not the people who live from paycheck to paycheck.