President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday night temporarily suspending the issuance of green cards to immigrants abroad, saying it’s needed to protect American jobs amid an unemployment crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier drafts of the executive order would have also suspended the issuance of new visas. But the New York Times reported that Trump ultimately decided against it after pushback from business groups that rely on foreign workers, particularly in the tech sector.
Under the executive order, American citizens are still able to apply for green cards on behalf of their minor children and spouses, and immigrants residing in the US can convert their existing visas into green cards. But immigrants living abroad, including the family members of green card holders and adult children of US citizens, won’t be granted green cards for a period of 60 days unless they are seeking to enter the US to perform an essential job in the health care sector. Roughly 358,000 green card applications could be affected.
“As we move forward, we’ll examine what additional immigration-related measures should be put in place to protect US workers,” Trump said during a press conference on Tuesday. “We want to protect our US workers and I think as we move forward, we will become more and more protective of them.”
Trump had already shut down many parts of the immigration system prior to announcing the executive order: Migrants on the southern border are being turned away, and foreign consulates are no longer processing visas. Travelers from China and Europe are banned from entering the US.
But on Monday night, he signaled that he wanted to go further: “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.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed in a statement on Tuesday that the action was necessary “at a time when Americans are looking to get back to work.”
As the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic fallout has worsened, the Trump administration has shied away from aggressive action on addressing issues with testing and shortages of medical equipment. It has been much less reluctant to crack down on immigration — seizing the opportunity to advance the restrictionist policies the president has pursued for years.
Trump has already significantly restricted immigration
The Trump administration had already restricted immigration amid the pandemic. The executive order goes a step further in curtailing legal immigration.
In March, the State Department suspended routine visa processing at its consulates and embassies abroad, which has significantly slowed legal immigration. Some 9.2 million visas were issued at consulates and embassies abroad in 2019.
The Trump administration has also implemented a system to swiftly turn away migrants arriving on the southern border during the pandemic. Migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are processed in the field rather than inside US Border Patrol stations, and without so much as a medical exam, they’re sent back to Mexico in an average of 96 minutes, the Texas Tribune reported.
The administration had further postponed all court dates prior to April 22 for migrants in the “Remain in Mexico” program who have been sent back to Mexico while they wait for the outcome of their asylum applications in the US. Their applications will now be delayed.
Trump also restricted travel from China and Europe, which he has repeatedly touted as key to keeping the coronavirus at bay in the US. The US, however, now has more reported coronavirus cases than any other country in the world, and testing capacity is still well below that of some other developed countries.
All of these restrictions taken together have already made it much more difficult for legal immigrants applying for visas abroad, asylum seekers at the southern border, and citizens of China and Europe to come to the US. Trump’s executive order will now block, at least for the next two months, those looking to settle in the US permanently, if they’re applying for green cards abroad.
Essential industries can still rely on immigrants
Workers in essential fields will still be able to obtain visas under the executive order. That’s particularly critical given concerns about labor shortages in health care and agriculture.
As patient demand continues to increase nationwide and with more health care workers unable to show up for work, either because they contract the virus or because they have to self-quarantine, many hospitals are facing staff shortages.
The US health system already relies heavily on immigrants, who make up 17 percent of all health care workers and more than 25 percent of all doctors. And some states have sought to increase staff by waiving licensing requirements for foreign medical school graduates so they can contribute to the coronavirus response.
Farmers have also been voicing concerns about potential labor shortages that could threaten the food supply. They rely on seasonal agricultural workers, many of whom come to the US from Mexico on H-2A visas.
The US State Department recently eased restrictions on these workers, who numbered more than 250,000 in 2019, eliminating requirements that they show up for in-person interviews. This means that farms should still be able to access these workers, despite the fact that the agency shut down visa processing across Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security also announced last week that it would allow H-2A workers to more easily switch employers and stay in the US beyond the three-year period their visas remain valid.
Still, farmers worry about visa processing delays and the prospect that fewer workers may want to risk coming to the US this year amid the pandemic.