US President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an order to temporarily block some immigrants from permanent residence in the United States, saying he was doing so in order to protect American workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The order, which was immediately slammed by immigrant advocates and lawyers, is set to last for 60 days and then will be reviewed and possibly extended.
Some critics saw Republican Trump’s announcement as a move to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to implement a long-sought policy goal of barring more immigrants ahead of the November 3 election.
“In order to protect our great American workers I have just signed an executive order temporarily suspending immigration into the United States. This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens,” Trump said at his daily news conference about the coronavirus at the White House.
He also said it will “preserve our healthcare resources for American patients” afflicted by the coronavirus.
White House lawyers worked all day to craft the language for the order, prompting some officials to say the signing might have to wait for Thursday. But aides described Trump as eager to sign the document.
Trump won the presidency in 2016 in part on a promise to crack down on immigration, and has made the issue central to his presidency. But many of his major moves trying to curb immigration have been challenged in court and legal experts said this executive order could also face lawsuits.
Wednesday’s order would only apply to people applying for permanent residence from outside the US, not those already in the country seeking to adjust their status. The measure also limits the ability of current green card holders to sponsor their extended families. Several exemptions apply, however.
Trump said the order initially would last for 60 days and could be renewed for the same period or longer, and that a second immigration-focused order was under consideration.
A person familiar with the internal debate at the White House said Trump and his advisers had discussed the executive order over the weekend and that the move was directed at his electoral base.
“He’s wanted this all along,” the person said. “But now under this pandemic he can absolutely do it.”
Immigration lawyers representing businesses and other advocates expressed opposition to Trump’s plan earlier on Wednesday, arguing it would only further depress the economy and separate families.
Doug Rand, who worked in the Obama administration and is also the founder of Boundless Immigration, a tech company helps individuals navigate the immigration process,wrotethat “far and away the primary immediate impact [of the order] is that parents will be separated from their children, for no legitimate economic or public health purpose”.
He added that if the order were to be in place for years it will “favour immigrants from Western Europe relative to other regions of the world, since they are more likely to be exempt.”
Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, said prior to the final text of the order being released that a range of industries would be hurt, including ones that are critical during a public health emergency such as food processing, warehousing, shipping, eldercare, childcare, communication and technology.
Many of those jobs are filled by immigrants and the family members they reunite with from abroad, he said.
“Immigrants are the backbone of these industries,” Clemens said.
Most US immigration services are largely already on pause due to the crisis, but immigration lawyers – including those representing financial and tech firms – around the country fielded calls on Wednesday from applicants and employers worried about the possible order.
Democrats and immigrant advocates have criticised the new policy as an attempt to distract from Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as he seeks re-election in November. Some amounted the order to “xenophobic scapegoating”.
More than 45,000 people in the US have died because of the virus – the highest death toll of any country.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform group, said that the order was “more about grabbing a headline than changing immigration policy”.
Sharry said that to him, the order “smacks of an electoral strategy, not a policy change, and it smacks of desperation and panic.”
Some immigration hawks criticised the order, as described by Trump on Tuesday, for not going far enough.
“It doesn’t apply to guest workers, which are perhaps the most immediate threat to US workers,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which backs lower levels of legal immigration.