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Pres. Trump signs order pausing immigration for 60 days, with exceptions

President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the humanitarian crisis on the southern border on Jan. 19, 2019.      REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the humanitarian crisis on the southern border on Jan. 19, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday restricting certain categories of immigrants from entering the United States for 60 days as the country reels from the coronavirus pandemic, but the measure contains broad exceptions and is more limited than the sweeping closure he proclaimed on Twitter earlier in the week.

The order, which takes effect Thursday, will not apply to immigrants who already are living and working in the United States and are seeking to become legal permanent residents. Medical professionals, farmworkers and others who enter on temporary “nonimmigrant” visas are unaffected, and the suspension also exempts the spouses and underage children of U.S. citizens, among other carve-outs.

Trump said his order will shield Americans from the virus while also protecting American jobs at a time of excessively high unemployment and economic uncertainty. It will put a halt on employment-based immigration visas as well as the family-based categories for parents and siblings, which the president has often derided as “chain migration.”

The measure also freezes the Diversity Visa Lottery, another frequent Trump target, which issues about 50,000 green cards annually. Legal permanent residents who are trying to bring their spouses and children into the country also will be unable to do so.

The order characterized the move almost entirely in economic terms, with the president facing a difficult reelection contest this November amid the pandemic crisis.

“President Trump’s efforts will ensure we continue to put American workers first as we begin to reopen our economy,” the White House said in a statement following the publication of Trump’s order Wednesday evening. “The American people strongly support common sense efforts to restrict immigration as we confront the coronavirus.”

Trump has said his restrictions could be extended far longer than 60 days if he believes the U.S. economy could not absorb more immigrants.

The U.S. State Department issued about 462,000 immigrant visas last year, and more than half went to applicants in the categories that will be frozen by Trump’s decree.

The president, who is running for reelection on his immigration record and his push to build hundreds of miles of barriers along the border with Mexico, has lashed out for years at U.S. immigration laws he calls the “worst in the world.”

He also has been repeatedly frustrated by the legal limits on his powers to close off the country to foreigners. But the pandemic has given him an opportunity to invoke emergency authorities granting him broad discretion over the country’s borders.

“While the order is limited in scope, President Trump’s transparent attempt to distract from his own failures with this unwarranted suspension will cause real pain for families and employers across the country,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU, the administration’s most frequent adversary in court cases involving the president’s attempts to crack down at the southern border.

“Meanwhile, he continues to fail to take obvious steps that will save lives — like releasing people from ICE facilities that cannot keep them safe from covid-19,” Jadwat said, referring to the more than 220 confirmed cases in U.S. immigration jails to date.

Some of the immigration restrictionist groups that have backed Trump’s border agenda said they were disappointed that an executive order purportedly designed to protect U.S. jobs will have no bearing on temporary foreign workers. Trump said he is considering a subsequent order but has not provided details on its scope.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s going to do very much,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that wants to curb immigration. “The majority of green card recipients already live in the U.S. under some other status. If the point is to limit the number of foreigners entering the labor market, not including guest workers isn’t going to have much of an effect.”

The move is yet another attempt by the Trump administration to limit access to the country, after it already has clamped down access to the United States by barring travelers from numerous countries, blocking access to the U.S. asylum system, and immediately turning border-crossers around at the U.S.-Mexico line.

Trump has used the pandemic to further seal off the nation, though his order is far more focused on economics than health. The United States already leads the world, by far, in confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths: The more than 830,000 cases in the United States is about four times the next country — Spain has 208,000 cases — and the U.S. death toll of more than 47,000 is more than twice Spain’s and is continuing to grow by thousands a day.

The order also carries exemptions for members of the U.S. armed forces as well as their spouses and children, along with wealthy investors and prospective adoptees.

Trump declared his plans via Twitter to shut down the country’s immigration system as part of his response to the coronavirus crisis, but the president acknowledged the policy had not been written and attorneys were scrambling to work out his order during the past two days. Trump officials provided few details, sowing anxiety and confusion among Americans and their foreign-born family members, friends and co-workers.

Rishi Bagga started reading the order as soon as it came out Wednesday, worried that he and his wife would fall outside the exempted group of people seeking a green card.

“I was about ready to pack up all my things and head to Canada to be with her,” Bagga said.

A dual U.S. and Canadian citizen, Bagga has been working for two years to have his Canadian wife join him in Florida, where he practices law. He had been in contact with his wife all day working through their anxiety and fear together. They have been struggling to plan their lives as they await the birth of their first child.

“To be honest, I am still digesting it,” Bagga said. “I am assuming we are okay, but I’m going to have to read it again. . . . I alternate between taking a sigh of relief and waiting for the next rule change.”

Sandra Feist, a Minneapolis immigration attorney, said the order is “pretty tame” because it will not affect the hundreds of thousands of green card applicants already inside the United States. But she said it would have a profound impact on people seeking green cards from overseas.

Her affected clients include an opera singer, a samba dancer and chefs from China, tile layers from Ecuador, an ad executive from Sweden and a Brazilian jujitsu expert who intended to open his own gym in the United States.

“Talk about stealing jobs,” she said of her Brazilian client. “He was coming here to create jobs.”

She said she feared the “pause” would be extended indefinitely and that it would be “devastating” for would-be immigrants and their families.

“This will be extremely disruptive,” she said, adding that many might “just not bother to come to the United States, which is clearly the goal.”

The White House statements characterized the order as a job-saving measure to protect U.S. workers, saying it would be “unfair to allow Americans out of work due to the coronavirus to be replaced by new immigrant labor brought into the United States.”

“Mass migration of low-skilled labor into the United States disproportionately harms historically disadvantaged Americans,” the statement read.

Texas A&M University law professor Fatma Marouf said although the impact is limited to would-be immigrants who live outside the country, the order carried language that troubled her. The 60-day moratorium can be extended and could eventually apply to immigrants who already live within U.S. borders, she said.

“I worry that this is the beginning of more to come,” said Marouf, who was involved in litigation over Trump’s early travel restrictions on majority-Muslim countries.

During the Supreme Court battles over Trump’s ban on immigrants from specific countries, the government argued they were taking those actions on national security grounds, Marouf said.

But, she said, “this order may be the first time in history that a president is using these powers for a purely domestic reason: economic stability,” Marouf said. “And that’s a different legal issue.”

On Monday, Houston immigration attorney Ruby Powers sent out a newsletter email to all her clients trying to calm nerves. She said about 500 people opened the email, the highest open rate for her emails in some time.

“I think this just looks intimidating and sounds intimidating, but I’m not sure it applies to many people,” Powers said. “The order did its job of scaring the entire group of immigrants and all their advocates in this country but not much else.”

Visa holders already in the country and those with pending green card applications are exempt from the order. The group of people who would have to wait during the 60 days are individuals who already don’t have access to consulates because of the pandemic.

“Not only are the consulates closed, but the travel restrictions are such that most people wouldn’t be able to travel to the country anyway,” Powers said. “This order has more bark than bite.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved about 577,000 green card applications last year, most of which went to immigrants who already were living and working in the United States with some sort of provisional or temporary status. Those applications will not be impacted.

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