WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that will temporarily halt the issuance of certain green cards as he uses the coronavirus pandemic to push long-stalled immigration measures during an election year.
While Trump says the move is designed to preserve jobs for American workers in an economy ravaged by the coronavirus, it is widely viewed by partisans on both sides of the immigration battle as driven more by politics than policy.
The 60-day pause, which Trump announced he had signed before his daily briefing Wednesday, leaves untouched the hundreds of thousands of temporary work visas the country issues each year. And it includes a long list of exemptions, including for those who are currently in the country and those seeking entry to work as physicians and nurses, as well as the spouses and minor children of American citizens.
Trump nonetheless characterized the move as a sweeping “temporary suspension of immigration into the United States." That will be popular with Trump's most loyal political supporters as he heads into what is expected to be a brutal reelection fight.
“This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens,” he said Wednesday.
Trump ran in 2016 promising to crack down on both illegal and legal immigration, making the case — disputed by many — that foreign workers compete with Americans for jobs and drive down wages because they are willing to accept lower pay. While many of Trump's efforts to dramatically upend the nation's immigration system, from travel bans to asylum restrictions, had been stymied by Congress and the courts, the pandemic has allowed him to move forward on certain changes.
Like other world leaders, Trump has restricted travel from much of the globe, including China and large swaths of Europe. The borders with Mexico and Canada have been closed to all but “essential” travel.
With consulates closed, almost all visa processing by the State Department has been suspended for weeks. And Trump has used the virus to effectively end asylum at U.S. borders, turning away migrants, including children, by invoking a rarely used 1944 law aimed at preventing the spread of communicable diseases.
The green card measure is likely to limit the ability of current green card holders to sponsor their extended families — a practice Trump has derided as “chain immigration” and tried to restrict.
Trump's order is certain to be challenged in court. But the final version was far less drastic than advocates on both sides of the issue had expected after Trump posted a tweet late Monday that sent businesses, would-be immigrants and administration officials scrambling.
“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” Trump wrote.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the change “will have some very modest policy effect,” but he said “it's actually not even that big a deal.” He said "the primary function was political, to respond to people’s concern that at this point, with maybe 15% of the labor force out of work, they had to do something."
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform group, agreed in part.
"This announcement is more about grabbing a headline than changing immigration policy," he said Wednesday. “To me, it smacks of an electoral strategy, not a policy change, and it smacks of desperation and panic."
It's a strategy Trump has used before. He often turns to immigration when he feels backed into a corner and is looking for an issue to rev up his base.
Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, for instance, Trump put immigration at the forefront, using migrant caravans in Latin America as a rallying cry as he ordered thousands of U.S. troops to the southern border to stop an “invasion.” He also floated ending the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship.
In recent days, officials bolstered by their successful efforts to restrict travel at the country's borders had been discussing how they might seize the opportunity to enact additional immigration restrictions. Trump's tweet nonetheless took many across the administration by surprise.
During the coronavirus crisis, Trump has found other ways to pivot to immigration. He used one of his task force briefings to highlight enhanced counternarcotics efforts to prevent smugglers from taking advantage of the pandemic — though he said there was no evidence of that — and has repeatedly invoked his border wall.
“In the meantime, even without this order, our Southern Border, aided substantially by the 170 miles of new Border Wall & 27,000 Mexican soldiers, is very tight - including for human trafficking!” he tweeted Wednesday.
Trump's team on Tuesday, however, denied he was using the virus to make good on a long-standing campaign promise during an election year.
“This is common sense the American people can very well understand: When Americans need jobs, Americans must come first,” said White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany.
“The president's immigration policy just makes sense," agreed Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. With 22 million Americans applying for unemployment, he asked, “Why would you in good conscience introduce brand-new competition for them?"
Trump's campaign showcased the move in an email blast to supporters that read: “PRESIDENT TRUMP WILL SIGN AN EXECUTIVE ORDER TO TEMPORARILY SUSPEND IMMIGRATION."
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.