The announcement came as President Donald Trump’s policy decisions often do — as a surprise to many of his staff. On Monday night, Trump tweeted he was halting most legal immigration to the U.S. in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic to “protect jobs.”
Several senior staffers were already home for the night when Trump made the announcement. On Tuesday, the executive order was still being written and vetted by White House lawyers, and crucial decisions were still being made about exactly how broad the blanket freeze in immigration will be, and whether there will be exceptions for seasonal agricultural workers, medical personnel or close relatives of U.S. citizens.
Not everyone, however, was caught off guard. While much of the world has been focused on the coronavirus outbreak, Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller has been agitating internally for the step, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli brought the policy proposal to Trump. Bringing legal immigration to a near standstill is just the latest part of a behind-the-scenes campaign Trump has launched since March to clamp down on legal migration and border security in the long shadow of the pandemic. Trump’s tough stance on immigration helped energize supporters in 2016, and Trump’s campaign wants to rekindle some of that energy going into the Nov. 3 elections.
Border officials have used the epidemic to remove more than 10,000 people who turned themselves in at the border ports of entry, without screening them for asylum claims. Starting in late March, the State Department quietly stopped issuing nearly all visas and cancelled interview appointments. Refugee admissions have been slashed to nearly zero. Border wall construction has been revved up; most recently, a $569 million no-bid contract was awarded to a firm owned by a GOP donor to build 17 more miles of border wall. Even the way coronavirus relief checks are rolling out has been designed to exclude many immigrants.
“This is par for the course for this administration — utilizing this pandemic and this emergency situation to further policies they’ve already put in place and push them even further,” says Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, one of the country’s oldest faith-based refugee resettlement organizations.
Even for close aides to Trump who have become accustomed to learning about his policy decisions through his Twitter account, Monday night’s tweet seemed unusually sweeping in its mandate. “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 on Twitter at 10PM. When asked by TIME at Tuesday’s press briefing, Trump acknowledged his immigration order would have exceptions for immigrant seasonal farm workers, among other types of workers.
The timing may have been unexpected, but the idea of shutting down issuing new green cards and work visas has “been percolating for a while,” a White House official says. Trump has been asking for bold policy moves to unveil during the crisis. “He’s trying to show action in all things,” the official says.
Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign has already trumpeted the decision as a strong move to further slow the spread of the virus and protect jobs for American workers as unemployment has skyrocketed. “At a time when our economy has been artificially interrupted by the virus, introducing more competition for jobs would worsen unemployment and depress wages, especially in Black and Latino communities,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s reelection campaign, said in a statement. “Preventing further entrance of people potentially infected with the virus is an additional safety measure for the country,” Murtaugh said.
Since March 21, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has used the public health emergency to turn back more than 10,000 people from border entry points without vetting them for asylum claims, according to CBP figures. The new authority to make summary deportations, also known as “explusions,” came from a public health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CARES Act that Trump signed into law last month stops payments to U.S. citizens filing a joint tax return with a spouse who does not have a Social Security number, unless one spouse was a member of the U.S. Armed Forces last year. The Internal Revenue Service issues an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to workers who don’t have Social Security numbers, even if a person is not in the country illegally, and those workers file taxes. Nevertheless, the law calls for payments of $1,200 to Americans who have a Social Security Number and earn up to $75,000 in adjusted gross income, and $500 for each child.
On March 20, the State Department suspended issuance of routine visa services, cancelled visa interview appointments and restricted embassy operations to assisting Americans overseas. U.S. embassies abroad have been considering emergency visa requests for seasonal agricultural workers, air and ship crews and medical personnel traveling to respond to the pandemic.
Refugee resettlements, even for the tens of thousands of people who have already been vetted and approved to enter the U.S., were already at record lows after the Trump administration imposed a 18,000-person cap on the number of refugee visas it would admit in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, less than 20% of the historical average. On April 16, Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont both asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to extend the expiration dates for visas of refugees already approved for resettlement in the U.S. and Special Immigrant Visas, whose recipients include individuals employed by the U.S. government in Afghanistan.
Even as other parts of the federal government have slowed initiatives as the virus has spread, CBP and the Army Corps of Engineers have pushed ahead with the Trump administration’s plan to complete 450 miles of border wall by the end of the year. “Now more than ever, borders matter, border security matters, the wall matters,” Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters on April 9.
Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is concerned that in its rush to award contracts, the Trump Administration may be favoring political donors. In particular, a $569 million contract awarded on April 13 to a Bozeman, Montana construction company called BFBC LLC has come under scrutiny. The chairman and other executives of Barnard Construction, the parent firm of BFBC, are major Republican donors, according to Federal Election Commission records.
“At a time when the Trump Administration should be mobilizing resources, including the Army Corps of Engineers, to help effectively combat coronavirus and save lives, the Trump Administration is instead directing half a billion dollars to a no-bid contract to build an ineffective wall,” Reed said in a statement, adding: “This raises troubling questions about the timing of this contract and how it was given to this private contractor.” Reed said he has asked the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate the contract.
Building the wall was Trump’s hallmark campaign promise in 2016, and as November approaches and the economy sputters, Trump is turning back to immigration, an issue that helped get him elected the first time around.
—With reporting by John Walcott/Washington