Critics say Trump order on immigration does little but stir up anxiety

President Donald Trump said his executive order suspending some forms of immigration for 60 days is meant to protect jobs for American workers during COVID-19. But experts say it does little more than what has already been done to tighten immigration. (Photo by Andrea Hanks/The White House)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending immigration in the face of the coronavirus will “not have much of an effect” on the jobs the president said he’s trying to protect, experts on both sides of the issue said Wednesday.

The order, signed Wednesday, will deny visas to new immigrants for 60 days but includes a long list of exceptions, including spouses and children of U.S. citizens, investors, and foreign health care professionals coming to the U.S. to “combat the spread of COVID-19,” among other exceptions.

“This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens,” Trump said of the order, which takes effect at midnight Thursday. “We have to take care of our great American workers.”

It comes at a time of skyrocketing unemployment, as COVID-19 shutdowns have cost millions of Americans – and hundreds of thousands of Arizonans – their jobs.

Trump said the pause in immigration will give American workers a better chance of being rehired, claiming that excess immigrant labor hurts U.S. workers “who are typically ‘last in’ during an economic expansion and ‘first out’ during an economic contraction.”

But experts said the order does not do much to expand restrictions in an immigration system that is already shut down in many ways.

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“There are very few immigrants who are able to come to the United States right now, we’re not resettling refugees right now, there’s very little chance for asylum at the border right now,” said Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute.

“Our consulates abroad are not doing interviews for temporary visas or for a green card, USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) is not doing interviews for visas or green cards,” she said. “So there’s very little immigration happening right now anyway.”

Trump had said Tuesday that his order will not affect farmworkers on H-2A visas or farmers. “If anything, we’re going to make it easier, and we’re doing a process that’ll make it better for those workers to come in, to go to the farm where they’ve been for a long time,” he said then.

But Jessica Vaughan, a policy director at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said if Trump really wanted to protect American workers, he would not exempt immigrants on H-2A visas.

“I can’t see how there would be any benefit for American workers to simply delaying the admission of a few thousand immigrants,” Vaughan said. “I think with double-digit unemployment, it would be hard to argue that there is a need for any farmworkers.”

Vaughan said Trump should consider suspending most temporary worker programs “until the labor market stabilizes,” but accused the president’s advisers of “doing the bidding of the employers who want to maintain access to cheaper labor.”

“They’ve always opposed the president’s Hire American initiative,” Vaughan said. “I think that’s why there’s been nothing meaningful done on immigrant visas.”

Other critics said the order has very little to do with protecting American jobs, however, and everything to do with “demonizing” immigrants and distracting from the administration’s handling of the coronavirus.

“This executive order hurts Arizona, and only serves to demonize and scapegoat immigrants,” Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Our nation is in crisis and rather than put all of his effort behind protecting the American people, the president has taken his eye off the ball,”

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Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said the order is “about xenophobia.”

“President Trump’s response to COVID-19 is a national disgrace, and now he’s using the crisis to continue expanding his anti-immigrant agenda,” Grijalva said in a statement. “We should instead be focused on access to testing and treatment that the American people so desperately need – not demonizing immigrants, many of whom are at the forefront of providing essential services.”

But Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said the president does focus on the coronavirus with his order.

“I applaud the decision of President Trump to temporarily suspend immigration due to the continued outbreak of the coronavirus,” Lesko said in a statement. “During this troubling time, we must focus on keeping Americans safe and healthy.”

Gelatt said Trump’s order seems to fit a pattern of actions against immigration.

“It certainly seems like this administration has used the coronavirus crisis to enact some immigration policies that it has struggled to otherwise achieve,” she said.

Trump said Wednesday that he may extend the order after 60 days – or not.

“At the end of 60 days or maybe even during 60 days I’ll extend it or not and I’ll maybe change it, I might modify it,” he said Wednesday.

Gelatt said the people who have been most affected by the order – which was announced in a tweet late Monday – were those here on temporary visas who were left wondering what might happen to them.

“People on student visas, people on H-1B visas, people with a green card application pending suddenly were very worried about their immigration situation and what might happen to them,” she said.

Christopher Scragg

Health Reporter, Washington, D.C.

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