What does President Trump’s immigration order mean in practical terms?

President Trump’s proclamation temporarily suspends the entry of two major classes of would-be green card holders, or two streams of immigrants being sponsored for permanent residency: those seeking admission through an employer who has already extended a job offer, and those seeking admission through a family relationship with an already-present lawful permanent resident. Importantly, the proclamation does not prevent U.S. citizens from sponsoring their spouses and minor children for immigration, nor does it suspend the myriad temporary worker visas used to populate industries such as agriculture or tech. It also exempts non-citizens who intend to enter on permanent visas as healthcare workers or to conduct research related to COVID-19. But some of these exceptions could be fleeting. Reporting in the last few days has revealed that the some of the president’s advisors would like to extend the suspension, perhaps as far as the president’s original tweet promising to stop all immigration to the United States.

The order is unprecedented in its reach. The president has invoked a statutory authority that has been in the Code since 1952 and that numerous presidents have relied on since Ronald Reagan issued the first proclamation of its kind. Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the president to suspend the entry of “all aliens” or “any class of aliens” if he determines their entry would be “detrimental” to the interests of the United States. This power is breathtaking—on its face it appears to allow the president to swallow altogether the intricate admissions criteria that Congress has enacted. 

“Early in a crisis of this kind, border closures can make sense, though without effective tracing and monitoring of those who are permitted to enter or asked to self-isolate, their effectiveness attenuates.”

Presidents past mostly have used this authority to block the entry of discrete groups of foreign nationals who present specific security risks or otherwise raise diplomatic concerns, though President Reagan did invoke it to justify interdicting large numbers of Haitian migrants fleeing violence and economic deprivation in the 1980s. But President Trump has put the widest ranging use yet. He seized upon it in his first week in office, issuing a series of proclamations barring the entry of nationals from several Muslim majority countries. After the Supreme Court effectively upheld the last of those orders and blessed a broad reading of the statutory language, this administration appears to have been emboldened to use the statute as a tool of restriction—first to block new permanent residents who cannot show that they would have or could afford healthcare upon arrival, and now to block categorically long-accepted streams of permanent residents.

What is the relationship between immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Most countries around the world have turned to some form of immigration or travel restriction in their efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, though few borders have been entirely closed, as nations still permit at least their own nationals and certain economic traffic to flow in and out. Though it is not alone in the world, the Trump administration has taken drastic action to shut down the asylum system for now. Using a once obscure public health authority, the director of the CDC issued an order on March 20 effectively blocking asylum applicants by ordering the summary removal of non-citizens arriving at the border without valid travel documents. Myriad other adjustments of immigration law and policy have proliferated beyond the blunt tool of border closure, and many immigrants (both lawful and unauthorized) have been partially excluded from the stimulus relief programs enacted by the federal government. 

The public health utility of these measures may be limited, and especially in the case of the underinclusive relief provisions, the measures may be counterproductive. Early in a crisis of this kind, border closures can make sense, though without effective tracing and monitoring of those who are permitted to enter or asked to self-isolate, their effectiveness attenuates. Over time, as the disease takes root in the community, travel restrictions play an increasingly marginal role in containment. And as is clearly happening under our current administration, the pandemic can be exploited to advance long sought-after immigration policies for which there previously had been limited political will and whose relationship to public health is obscure. 

What would the impact of this order be on life and commerce in the United States?

The President has justified his proclamation on economic grounds. The claim is that immigration would be detrimental to the interests of the United States by creating competition for existing U.S. workers suffering record levels of unemployment as the result of social distancing. The proclamation emphasizes, in particular, that racial minorities and other economically disadvantaged groups will be the most likely to suffer from an “excess labor supply” during these unprecedented times. Because permanent residents, in particular, have “open market” access, they compete directly and potentially everywhere with existing workers. 

Though the proclamation as currently drawn is sweeping in its alteration of the immigration system, it does not seem likely to have a major effect either on unemployment or the economy. Every would-be permanent resident is connected to a U.S. person or employer who is deeply invested in that non-citizen coming to the United States, so each of those tens of thousands of relationships will be disrupted. But it is far from clear that the proclamation will produce its intended benefits. 

“The proclamation looks more like a political stunt that advances a long-time presidential obsession than a well-crafted economic recovery policy.”

Generally speaking, the relationship between immigration and the labor market is complex. Though immigrant workers compete with U.S. workers in many sectors, these two groups are not locked in a zero-sum competition such that the suspension of immigration will produce as many new jobs as immigrants who are excluded. More to the point, given the enormity of the unemployment crisis the country faces, the proclamation is unlikely to have meaningful effect. The order is temporary, at least for now, and any recovery will be protracted over months and years. In addition, the number of immigrants who will be excluded is a small fraction of the overall U.S. labor force. In fiscal year 2018, for example, just over one million immigrants acquired green cards. Approximately half of those came from outside the United States—the actual pool affected by the proclamation, as the president has no power to suspend immigration adjudications inside the United States. If we factor in the proclamation’s numerous exceptions and the fact that it applies only over the next two months, the number of jobs “saved” falls still further. In the end, the proclamation looks more like a political stunt that advances a long-time presidential obsession than a well-crafted economic recovery policy.