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The coronavirus has led the U.S. to a dark place of national reckoning. On Monday evening, President Donald Trump announced his intention to further dim what remains of American life from just two months ago by suspending nearly all legal immigration into the country. “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 tweeted. The move is being made under the guise of the pandemic and an effort to protect American workers, many millions of whom now find themselves out of work, but it’s hard not to see something deeper and darker in the “America First” president’s motives. It’s hard not to read this as an opportunist seizing an opportunity.
As with most complex topics Trump dashes off answers to in a single-sentence tweet, it’s unclear how exactly his late-night pronouncement will manifest itself in the light of day, in the real world. It’s unclear how the White House will derive its legal authority to stop immigration but will likely claim authority on public health grounds or on broad national security grounds established in Trump’s travel ban on visitors from Muslim countries.
The U.S. government granted some 460,000 immigration visas last year and 580,000 green cards, giving foreign citizens the right to live and work in the country. It’s unclear how Trump’s missive would affect, for instance, the hundreds of thousands of legal guest workers that predominantly fill agricultural jobs that Americans refuse to do. “Workers who have for years received visas to perform specialized jobs in the United States would also be denied permission to arrive, though some workers in some industries deemed critical could be exempted from the ban,” the New York Times reports. “Several people familiar with the president’s plans said the Department of Homeland Security was separately weighing a large expansion of travel restrictions that already prohibited travelers from Europe and China. The restrictions would significantly shrink the number of people able to come to the United States for short-term visits.” The Wall Street Journal reports farm and health care workers will likely get exempted from the change.
Immigration had already been largely paused due to the outbreak. In a practical sense, it’s easy to understand why: Americans have been hunkered down at home over the past six weeks, suddenly halting a wide range of daily life. Functionally speaking, it’s hard to travel at the moment and most offices are closed, including those tasked with handling immigration. It seems understandable then that, as CNN reports, immigration services have been curtailed: Visa offices are generally closed, refugee resettlement has been suspended, and new citizenship ceremonies halted for the time being.
The White House has indicated in background conversations to multiple media outlets that the halt on immigration is a temporary measure borne out of the challenging circumstances of the coronavirus response. But there are likely political considerations at play here, so expect it to linger—before blossoming into a full-fledged Trump talking point for the next six months. In 2016, we once again learned how powerful a motivator immigration populism can be, particularly for Trump’s base. At some point before November, Trump was going to have to come up with another talking point beyond his Jan. 31 restriction on travel from China to the U.S. Trump has had trouble conjuring a way to frame his inattention to the virus in the early moments of the outbreak and his inability to coordinate the American response. Saying you’re leading from the back while demanding to stand out front is as incongruous as Trump himself. Incoherence has never bothered Trump before and it doesn’t seem to bother his most ardent supporters now, but the Trump campaign would love to recast the president’s scattershot pandemic performance as an immigration issue in the minds of voters.