Donald Trump claimed on Monday evening that he would be temporarily suspending all immigration to the U.S., ostensibly due to the novel coronavirus pandemic but more likely as an extreme political ploy to rally his supporters amid massive disruptions to everyday life and an economy in the gutter.
“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.
Per usual, Trump offered absolutely no further details about the decision, such as whether it would be a blanket ban or apply to specific countries, who would be affected, when it will take effect, how long it would remain in place, or what legal mechanism he would use to implement it. He also offered no rationale beyond the racist rhetoric about how immigrants are stealing U.S. jobs (they do not).
It is a reasonable guess, however, that no details or rationale exist beyond the current crisis presenting an opportunity to pander to racists and xenophobes that disproportionately support Trump’s presidency, and the lack of details provided serves an overall goal of creating chaos and confusion that the president will later claim to have personally dispelled through sheer force of personality. According to the Washington Post, two White House officials said an order is being drafted, but the announcement “caught some senior Department of Homeland Security officials off guard” and the agency did not respond to questions on Monday night. The New York Times reported that “people familiar with the president’s discussion” said people with work visas to enter the U.S. may be turned around at the border, except in industries deemed essential.
It possible that, as in countless prior times the president has issued a hasty proclamation that he is about to accomplish some long-awaited goal of his most delirious supporters, Trump will quickly walk this back. But the U.S. has already restricted travel from much of Europe, China, and Iran, while last month Trump cited public health authority to direct immigrant authorities to shut down the southern border with Mexico to all but U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and foreigners with legal permissions.. When announcing those border restrictions—which essentially cordoned off the country to asylum seekers, an objective long pursued by hardline nativists—Trump suggested that he might just keep them in place long after the emergency has passed.
Per CNN, the government has announced a number of other measures restricting immigration, such as the suspension of all U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in-person services like interviews and naturalization ceremonies, and the continued closure of many offices processing visas. To suspend all immigration, UCIS would need to halt any and all green card and immigration visa issuing, which likely has no precedent in modern U.S. history and would affect countless people both in and outside the country including relatives of U.S. citizens.
The coronavirus is already in the U.S. in full force. It has spread to every U.S. state, DC, and four U.S. territories, with a John Hopkins University School of Medicine tracker showing nearly 790,000 confirmed cases and over 42,000 deaths in the country as of Monday evening. In other words, the vast majority of transmission is occurring between people who already reside in the nation. Immigrants comprise almost a fifth of U.S. health care workers, according to a 2019 study in Health Affairs, and are badly needed stateside to help fight the virus.
Meanwhile, conservative groups have organized protests (in some cases, involving heavily armed attendees backed by pro-gun groups) across the country demanding an end to business shutdowns and social distancing rules imposed by states to limit that community spread. Trump has encouraged these rallies by saying conservatives should “LIBERATE” their states, as well as issued revised federal health guidelines to push governors towards reopening their economies.
That is despite warnings from the medical community that attempting to draw down the restrictions too soon could threaten any progress made in limiting the virus’s spread and that the U.S. is not ready in key areas like testing. Trump appears to be gambling that will just, like, not happen somehow, resulting in a miraculous economy recovery and an easy re-election. The message that the worst is over and a return to normalcy is right around the corner plainly and obviously contradicts the rationale that the situation is now dire enough to warrant suspending all immigration.
Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the right-wing Cato Institute, told the Post he believed the president could halt immigration under Title 42 of the U.S. Code or a 2018 Supreme Court decision upholding his separate travel ban against Muslim-majority nations. However, Nowrasteh said there would be no precedent for such a decision.
“The president has been opposed to legal immigration for his entire administration,” Nowrasteh told the Post. “This is an opportunity to close it down entirely, and this is about as legitimate as you can get in terms of a broad justification for doing so.”
Democratic Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro, who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, tweeted that the move was “not only an attempt to divert attention away from Trump’s failure to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, but an authoritarian-like move to take advantage of a crisis and advance his anti-immigrant agenda.”