Donald Trump said he would suspend immigration into the US for at least 60 days, in a move aimed at helping Americans who had become unemployed in the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
“In order to protect American workers, I will be issuing a temporary suspension of immigration,” Mr Trump said at the daily coronavirus task force news briefing on Tuesday, one day after he had signalled the move on Twitter.
“Pausing immigration will help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens,” he added. “It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labour flown in from abroad.”
Mr Trump said he would issue an executive order that would affect applicants for green cards, or permanent residency, and would review the situation after two months “based on economic conditions at the time”
The decision came as the US death toll from coronavirus hit 43,000 and the number of confirmed cases in the country neared 800,000. Mr Trump claimed last week the US had passed the “peak” of the pandemic and could soon reopen.
“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!” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter late on Monday, without any details.
As Mr Trump has come under heavy criticism for his handling of the health crisis, he has touted his decision in January to ban flights from China to the US as evidence that he took the outbreak seriously. He has said the move, and restrictions on travel from Europe, saved the US from millions of deaths.
It was unclear when Mr Trump would issue the order. The state department previously suspended most consular services around the world because of coronavirus, so potential immigrants have not been able to make applications.
Several Congressional Democrats criticised Mr Trump’s move on Tuesday, ahead of his statements at the briefing. Former presidential candidate and Democratic senator Kamala Harris said Mr Trump was “trying to distract and deflect from his failure to address the ongoing pandemic”. Ilhan Omar, the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, accused the president of “blatant xenophobia”.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, added: “Right this minute, countless immigrants across the country are risking their lives to keep our country safe — in hospitals and grocery stores, at nursing homes and in our nation’s uniform.”
Several of the president’s efforts to restrict immigration, and a measure to ban Muslims from entering the US three years ago, have ended up in the courts.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, said any executive order would almost certainly face legal challenges. “It is one thing to suspend immigration for certain categories of people, such as terrorists,” said Mr Yale-Loehr. “It is quite another to suspend all immigration. We have never done that before, even during world wars.”
The decision to suspend immigration comes just days after the White House unveiled guidelines to help states across the nation decide when to loosen lockdowns and start to move towards reopening their economies.
Mr Trump has come under fire from Democratic and Republican governors for insisting the US has sufficient capacity to conduct coronavirus tests — which are critical to reopening safely — amid widespread reports that states either lack test kits or the chemical reagents to conduct the tests.
On Monday, Mr Trump mocked Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland and chair of the National Governors Association, after he announced his state had bought 500,000 tests from South Korea.
Mr Hogan at the weekend pushed back against Mr Trump’s claims that the lack of tests was because governors were not doing their jobs, calling the statement “absolutely false”.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, criticised Mr Trump on Monday for his response to Covid-19.
“The governor of Maryland — a Republican — had to turn to South Korea to get badly needed tests,” Mr Biden said. “Think about that: a governor had to turn to a country halfway around the world for aid because he couldn’t rely on timely help from a president and a White House that sits just miles from his state’s border.”
Mr Trump wants to reopen the economy amid concerns that rising jobless numbers could hurt his re-election chances. More than 22m people have filed jobless claims over the past month, according to the labour department. In some states, the lockdowns have sparked protests by people who claim their rights are being infringed despite the health risk.
The Trump administration and Congress were on Monday continuing talks aimed at providing another $300bn in loans for small businesses, after the record $2.2tn economic stimulus package that passed this month.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi