Trump seizes on economic crisis to push green card ban
President Trump is seizing on the coronavirus pandemic to engineer an immigration ban that he’s sought for years, framing it as a step to protect domestic jobs and public health amid waves of new unemployment claims.
The move is red meat for his die-hard supporters and has the potential to rally his conservative base ahead of his tough reelection bid this fall.
Yet it’s also opened up the president to attacks from Democrats, now accusing the White House of trying to shift public attention away from his unsteady response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 45,000 people, sickened 825,000 and shuttered the U.S. economy.
“He’s using it as both a distraction and an opportunity to further his hard-line immigration policies,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“Immigrants have been his No. 1 political punching bag, and that’s where he feels he scores points with his base. And he completely botched the coronavirus response — the delays of the administration were deadly for Americans and it put more people unnecessarily at risk.”
Trump tweeted Tuesday night that he plans to sign an executive order soon that would suspend immigration to the U.S. to protect American jobs and safeguard the country from the “Invisible Enemy” of the coronavirus. Twenty-two million people have filed for unemployment over the last few weeks.
After suggesting it would be a sweeping ban on new arrivals, Trump walked back the scope of the policy on Tuesday evening. He clarified it would halt the issuance of most green cards, but allow temporary workers to enter the country — a concession to agriculture and other business interests that rely on those seasonal employees.
Trump also said the policies would be reviewed by a group of officials in 60 days.
“We must first take care of the American worker,” Trump told reporters at his daily White House briefing.
Democrats are already vowing to challenge the legality of the unilateral move. The debate bears echoes of Trump’s 2018 promise to eliminate birthright citizenship by executive order — an effort he abandoned following that year’s midterm elections.
Still, now as then, the political message may prove more important than the policy follow-through. Trump’s hard-line immigration promises — including a proposed Muslim ban and the construction of a wall on the southern border — helped sweep him to victory in 2016. And his supporters on and off of Capitol Hill are now cheering the blanket immigration ban as a commonsense extension of the “America First” strategy amid the coronavirus scare.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Tuesday called it “a reasonable emergency measure” that’s in line with the administration’s previous restrictions on most travel from China and Europe, where the virus has been prevalent.
“The Democrats make a lot of noise about wanting to do more to stop the spread of coronavirus, but when the president stands up and does that, all they can do is attack him,” Cruz told Fox News. “Not only is there the security threat of coronavirus and [the] want to minimize additional transmission, but there’s the reality of jobs.”
The battle over a blanket immigration ban comes as the parties have grown increasingly divided over the scope and duration of the lifestyle restraints — adopted to varying degrees by local governments around the country — that have effectively shuttered large swaths of the economy.
Amid that debate, a growing number of Republicans have joined Trump in urging a swift reopening of businesses, schools and governments — including the U.S. Capitol — for the sake of moving the shattered economy toward recovery. Some are even suggesting that the deaths that might follow are worth the economic salvation.
“There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said on Fox News this week.
Democrats, meanwhile, tend to side with the public health experts, who are warning that a premature removal of social distancing guidelines would exacerbate the spread of the highly contagious virus, negating any economic gains made from the reopening.
“Testing is critically important for that,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday. “And I am hopeful that we do not move so quickly that we place ourselves at risk of reenergizing this virus and re-infecting millions and millions of people and putting millions of people’s lives at risk.”
On Tuesday, the Senate passed its latest coronavirus relief package, designed to prop up small businesses devastated by the pandemic and help medical workers track and treat cases around the country. Highlighting the ideological differences dividing the parties and the country, the $484 billion legislation required weeks of hard-fought negotiations, as the two sides battled over where and how the money would be spent.
For weeks, Republicans have been hammering Democrats in press releases and media interviews for touting the current crisis as a chance to secure some of their progressive priorities in coronavirus response legislation. Specifically, the GOP has taken aim at House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who recently told colleagues that virus-related relief packages offered a “tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
Now, Democrats say Trump is trying to do the same thing Republicans have accused their party of doing.
“This isn’t about protecting jobs. It’s about xenophobia,” tweeted Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the son of a Mexican migrant worker whose district includes the border town of Yuma.
Asked whether Trump’s unilateral order was a smart reelection strategy that could persuade voters, Castro tersely replied: “I think people are tired of his shit.”
Trump’s tweet on Monday night also came under criticism from business groups and Republicans.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, dismissed Trump’s proposed executive order, while pointing out that his wife, Yumi Hogan, is an immigrant from South Korea who just secured 500,000 coronavirus testing kits from her native country.
“It’s not really a policy … It’s just a distraction from what’s really going on,” Hogan, chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association, said on ABC’s “The View.” Trump “stopped flights from places like China and Europe, which makes sense because people [are] coming in with the virus, but I don’t really know what the tweet was about last night.”
Castro, the brother of former Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, said he’s worried that Trump’s “temporary” immigration policies could stick around long after the health crisis is over.
“One thing that I think people need to watch for is the Trump administration’s inclination to make some of these temporary measures more permanent,” Castro told The Hill, “even when the moment of the pandemic has passed.”