President Donald Trump recently announced an executive order “temporarily suspending immigration to the United States.” It turns out that the new restrictions are narrower than this might suggest — which is a good thing. Immigration policy needs short-term adjustments and cries out for long-term reform, but broad or indefinite clampdowns certainly aren’t the answer.
The president was describing the order in terms most likely to appeal to anti-immigration hardliners. In fact, temporary farmworkers, medical professionals and workers in the technology sector will continue to be allowed in. The main provision is a 60-day ban on new green cards for foreign nationals living outside the U.S.
This will affect parents, adult children and siblings of naturalized Americans, and the spouses of existing green-card holders. (Spouses of naturalized citizens can still get visas, and immigrants living in the U.S. who’ve applied for green cards will be allowed to stay.) At the moment, those applications aren’t being accepted anyway, with most U.S. consulates largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. In effect, the order merely formalizes the existing freeze.
The question is, what happens after 60 days? The administration is telling supporters that it hopes to extend the ban indefinitely. By itself, that would reduce by one-third the annual number of immigrants granted permanent residence.
Some anti-immigration activists want to use the Covid-19 crisis to end both “chain migration,” which allows immigrants to sponsor relatives to come to the U.S., and the diversity visa lottery, which grants green cards to up to 50,000 foreign nationals a year regardless of family connections. These steps would cause the numbers of foreigners settling in the U.S. to plummet.
With unemployment soaring, some tailored, temporary restrictions on immigration can be justified, especially to protect workers in sectors hit hardest by the downturn. But once the crisis subsides, the U.S. will need to bring in more foreign talent, not less, to fill labor shortages in critical fields, notably health care, and to promote innovation.
America’s immigration system does need reform — but not to cut numbers as an end in itself. On the contrary, the goals should be to increase immigrant admissions overall, while prioritizing skills over family ties, strengthening border security, and providing a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. The White House and Congress seem incapable of reaching any such compromise.
Sensible reform this side of November’s election already looked unlikely; the pandemic has made it all but unthinkable. Pending a change of government, congressional leaders should at least insist that the president follows the law as it stands. If the White House attempts to widen its executive order and unilaterally restrict legal immigration, it should demonstrate a clear national-security rationale, and be made to defend its case in court.
Recovering from the coronavirus epidemic will be difficult enough as it is. The last thing the country needs is an immigration policy that will make revival harder still.