Donald Trump on Wednesday followed through on a threat to suspend immigration into the US by signing an order that will prevent people from applying for green cards for 60 days and possibly longer.
“There is no way to protect already disadvantaged and unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs from new lawful permanent residents,” the US president said.
In a memo accompanying the order, the White House said Mr Trump was suspending new immigrant visas “to put American communities and workers first as we move toward safely reopening the economy”.
The White House added that Mr Trump would ask his team to “review guest worker programmes” to determine if he needed to take more action.
Guest workers refer to people who enter the US on agricultural H-2A visas and non-agricultural H-2B visas, and H-1B visas used to hire highly-skilled labour that is important for technology companies.
Mr Trump has vowed to protect US farmers and make sure they have sufficient migrant labour but has made few assurances to companies.
“Right now we have a very powerful immigration ban, but it could be modified, meaning made tougher, or made less tough,” Mr Trump said at his press conference on Wednesday. “We don’t want to hurt our businesses and we don’t want to hurt our farmers, very important.”
Edward Alden, an immigration expert and at the Council on Foreign Relations, said of the three, Mr Trump would most likely target H-1B visas, since they were most often accused of resulting in companies replacing American workers.
Mr Alden added that if it was just a 60-day moratorium, it was “fairly meaningless” since there were effectively already holds on visa processing because most consular services have shut down because of coronavirus.
“As usual, Trump is making it up as he goes along. He wants to look tough on immigration without causing any real hardships or inconvenience for business,” said Mr Alden.
But some industry associations raised concerns. John Neuffer, head of the Semiconductor Industry Association, said it was “especially important” to welcome innovators and job creators from overseas given the economic turmoil.
“We are concerned with the direction of the proclamation and look forward to working with the administration to ensure America’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is a collaborative effort, welcoming contributions from leading scientific minds, no matter where they were born,” Mr Neuffer said.
The number of applicants for unemployment insurance has skyrocketed as companies dismiss workers, either because of forced lockdowns or plummeting consumer spending amid the crisis.
The labour department on Thursday will release the latest set of weekly jobless numbers across the US, which are expected to add several million more claims to the 22m who lost their jobs over the previous four weeks.
The White House said the pause in applications for new immigrant visas — permanent residency marked by receipt of a green card — would continue for two months and be re-evaluated depending on the economy’s health.
The order included exceptions for workers considered essential to help the US deal with the pandemic and the spouses and children of US citizens.
While Republicans largely backed the move, Democrats slammed the order as an effort by Mr Trump to deflect criticism of his handling of the crisis.
“President Trump is just flailing around wildly trying to find someone else to blame: China, the World Health Organization, and now immigrants,” said Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut. “We don’t have a shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment], ventilators or testing because of immigrants.”
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