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President Trump on Tuesday said his 60-day ban on immigration will only apply to people applying for permanent residency, claiming it was necessary in order to protect American jobs as the economy continues to struggle during the coronavirus pandemic.
The need for any extension or modification of the ban will be evaluated “by myself and a group of people based on economic conditions at the time,” he told reporters at the White House.
Trump did not provide many details on the order, explaining that it would likely come through on Wednesday and was still being drafted.
Trump, who initially announced that immigration would be suspended in a Monday evening tweet, said the restriction would not apply to those coming to the country to live temporarily.
"There will be some people coming in, but it's, it's a strong order,” he said. “It involves a big circle, as you know.”
He couched the policy announcement as an effort to protect US jobs, which has been battered by a pandemic that has shut down huge swaths of the economy.
“This pause on new immigration will also help to conserve vital medical resources for American citizens," Trump said. "A short break from new immigration, depending on the time we are talking about, will protect the solvency of our health care system."
However, critics derided the announcement as just another attempt to restrict who gets to become a US citizen.
"Trump's announcement makes no sense except as yet another attempt to change who gets to become a US citizen in the long run. It will have no conceivable positive effect on unemployment or public health," said Doug Rand, a former Obama White House official and cofounder of Boundless Immigration.
Trump responded to a reporter who asked about how his latest order might play into his campaign promises to restrict immigration, saying the basis was purely economical.
"There's a big difference when we have a full economy, and frankly where some of the companies — we have many companies moving in, where they need, actually, they need workers," he said. "There's a big difference between that and where all of a sudden, a lot of people lose jobs."
From the early days of his administration, Trump has gravitated toward sweeping policies that restrict immigrants from entering the country. The actions have taken various shapes: multiple bans on asylum at the southern border, blocks on entry for those coming from several Muslim-majority countries, and a halt to the refugee system.
The latest order appears to be a continuation of that effort and comes as Trump faces criticism for his handling of the pandemic.
“The administration’s decision to condition the pause on the economy indicates that they intend the suspension to be long term, since this crisis will not abate quickly,” said Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
In 2017, Trump backed legislation that would’ve made dramatic cuts to the immigration system. The RAISE Act, which was introduced by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, would’ve barred people from sponsoring siblings, parents, and adult children who are citizens of other countries from immigrating to the US.
Immigrants who want to come to the country to live permanently obtain visas through their relationships with family members who are already US citizens or green card holders. Some groups of people are able to obtain these permanent visas by having “extraordinary” abilities in the arts and sciences or being a highly specialized and skilled worker.
Each year, the government generally provides around a million green cards. About half are given to those who are already in the US and who are able to obtain the status after coming to the country on a separate visa, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Temporary workers come to the US to work through various programs. For example, agricultural workers obtain temporary visas through the H2 program to staff farms that are key to stabilizing the country’s food supply.
Trump first announced the order in a late-night tweet Monday:
“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!” he tweeted.
Mana Yegani, an immigration attorney in Houston, said calls to her office on Tuesday were “off the charts” after Trump’s tweet.
“Clients were calling and asking what does Trump's [order] mean? Are family members banned from coming to the US? If my green card gets denied, I will be out of status, do I have to go back to my home country?” she said. “My kids are in college, what happens with my kids legal status?”
Yegani said that she spent her day trying to calm people down and letting them know the impact was unclear at this point.
“I mostly tried to calm nerves — some people in tears," she said. "You could hear their voice shaking over the phone. I mean life is so stressful right now...dealing with Covid, staying home, taking care of kids, and now on top of it all the issue of immigration.”
The policy comes during a time when the immigration system has already slowed down.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the State Department has already stopped processing visas and refugee admissions have also been paused. US Citizenship and Immigration Services has closed down its offices to the public for the past several weeks.
Despite working to restrict immigration since taking office and chastising US companies for hiring overseas workers, Trump's businesses have hired hundreds of temporary foreign workers in recent years.
On Monday, the administration extended a March 20 order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that bars the entry of those who cross into the country without authorization. The order effectively bars asylum at the southern border and has led to US officials quickly expelling immigrant children apprehended alone.
Last month, the State Department eased requirements for most seasonal foreign workers, waiving previously required in-person interviews for temporary worker visas. DHS also announced changes last week that would make it easier for US farmers to hire temporary workers, saying it was necessary to protect the nation's food supply.