America’s borders could become even more restrictive this week—to people on both sides of them.
On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the entry of workers using H-1B visas (skilled employees) or L visas (managers and executives). While the order justifies the suspension as necessary to protect American workers at a time of high unemployment, business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say it will hurt business and stifle the overall recovery of the pandemic-ravaged economy. Trump also extended 60-day immigration restrictions first issued back in April until the end of the year. As with that April order, the initial effects won’t be dramatic, as most visa processing is shut down due to the coronavirus anyway, but it’s another example of the administration using the pandemic as pretext to implement its hard-line immigration agenda.
Monday’s visa suspension may not be the cruelest or the most expansive of Trump’s immigration orders, but it might be the most telling. The order ought to put to rest the notion that the administration is merely interested in combating “illegal” immigration, or that it wants “skilled” immigrants to get priority. Trump has tried out both of these arguments in the past. He said during his campaign for president that his “big, beautiful wall” would have a “big, beautiful door” to let in legal immigrants. But this order, along with moves taken in April to effectively abolish the U.S. asylum system under the pretext of stopping COVID, has shut that door tightly. Trump has also argued that he is merely concerned about the kind of immigrants allowed into the country. In a speech in May 2019, he suggested that his problem was that too many immigrants are admitted on the basis of a lottery system that is “contrary to American values and blocks out many qualified potential immigrants from around the world who have much to contribute. … Under the senseless rules of the current system, we’re not able to give preference to a doctor, a researcher, a student who graduated No. 1 in his class from the finest colleges in the world.”
But by eliminating H-1B visas, Trump is closing the door to exactly the sort of high-skilled immigrants he’s talking about. Even medical workers are barred, with the exception of those working directly on the coronavirus. The order does make an exception for those who can “provide temporary labor or services essential to the United States food supply chain.” This suggests that, contrary to its rhetoric, the administration is fine with having immigrants work in America’s fields and slaughter its livestock but not invent its software or work in its hospitals. It makes clear what should already have been obvious: that the administration’s goal is not stopping certain kinds of immigration, but stopping immigration full stop. In this goal, the Trump team has been remarkably effective, in contrast to its dysfunction in other areas.
While the U.S. shuts its borders to the world, the world is doing the same to the U.S. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the United States is included on a draft list of countries whose citizens would be blocked from entering the European Union as European countries lift travel restrictions and lockdowns. The U.S. would be included on the EU list with Russia and Brazil, where the coronavirus responses have been similarly dysfunctional. The move shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Trump banned travelers from the EU back in March, when Europe was the global epicenter of the virus. But since April, the number of new confirmed COVID cases in Europe has sharply declined, while in the United States, cases are increasing while officials seem intent on resuming business as usual.
In other words, the policy choices of a presidency whose main goal has been closing America’s borders to foreigners have resulted in foreigners closing their borders to Americans.
The two outcomes are related. In defending his response to the coronavirus, Trump generally points to his decision to suspend travel to the United States from China in late January, saying that more people would have died if he had not done so. Temporary travel bans are certainly justifiable in combating a pandemic. But the president did little else to coordinate the federal response to the pandemic and undermined state and local efforts by downplaying the crisis and criticizing lockdowns. This is a presidency built to keep people out of the country, not to govern it. The result is that the disease continues to spread with no end in sight and that American citizens are now global public health pariahs.
Can Trump really blame the EU for banning Americans? After all, European nations are arguably being discerning in the way that Trump has long insisted the U.S. should be. Trump allegedly, famously, said in 2018 that the U.S. should bring in more immigrants from countries such as Norway, but not from “shithole” countries. The New York Times noted on Tuesday that the EU’s list of countries that will not be included in the ban includes “China, as well as developing nations like Uganda, Cuba and Vietnam,” all of which have effectively contained the spread of COVID-19. What this means is that countries like Norway may soon be comfortable admitting travelers from countries that Trump might consider shitholes, but will turn away Americans. So what kind of country does that make us?