WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump declines to answer a final question from the press as he departs the White House January 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is scheduled to travel to New Orleans today to address the American Farm Bureau Federation's 100th annual convention. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Trump tweets he will temporarily suspend immigration into US
01:18 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

At 10:06 p.m. EST on Monday, the lives of thousands of existing and would-be immigrants to the United States were suddenly thrown into further disarray in the midst of a global crisis. At that time, President Donald Trump tweeted that in order to “protect the jobs of GREAT American citizens,” he would be suspending immigration to the United States. On Tuesday evening, he provided further details, saying he would order a 60-day pause that would apply only to people seeking green cards to become permanent US residents. It was unclear whether temporary workers would be affected.

His executive order is likely to be fully drafted before the end of the week.

Rafia Zakaria

This imminent suspension of the issuance of work visas and green cards for employment-based immigrants shows – among other things - how the Trump administration is planning to use the Covid-19 pandemic to further its agenda of severely limiting immigration to the United States.

In-person immigration processing had already been suspended owing to the virus, following the closure of consulates and United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) processing centers. However, the suspension of processing, which has been in place for several weeks, differs from the hold on green card applications that has just been announced by the President, in that it’s a cessation based on policy desires and not pandemic-related closures. In the former case, those waiting for new visas and those whose H-1B visas were running out were given a 60 day period in which to file their claims. During that time, they could remain in the country. It now seems those temporary residents may not be affected immediately by the executive order. However, many of those visa holders would have been waiting to convert their status to permanent residency; the typical H1-B or O visa-holder who applies for a green card is very likely to be a skilled or talented professional who has lived and worked in the US for several years. With the President’s announcement, those applicants for new visas will be thrown into chaos and may well have to leave.

In a statement following the President’s Monday tweet, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany stated that the move was made to protect “the health and economic well-being of Americans,” a veiled but transparent reference to the virus – though the United States has the highest number of cases globally. Her statement said further: “Decades of record immigration had produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers.”

This White House line claiming that immigration hurts American citizens is incorrect. A National Bureau of Economic Research study, which looked at the impact of immigration on US workers between 1990-2004 (the years of highest immigration to the United States), found that the wages of American-born workers actually increased owing to immigration.

Beyond the mistruths offered to justify it, this action on immigration is likely to be yet another shock to the already flailing economy. Now suddenly US employers that were relying on talented employees being able to convert their status so they could remain in the US will face terrible uncertainty. Answering questions about the imminent order on Tuesday, President Trump said his first priority was ensuring American citizens had jobs.

The H-1B (or highly skilled worker) visa holders who are in line for green cards face the worst of this chaos; they could now lose their place in line and may have to leave the lives they have established in the US to return to their countries of origin. In an instant, their lives and futures have been upended and now hinge on the wording of the President’s expected executive order.

The White House statement provides no information on how so many people will actually be removed from the United States in the coming months, when travel is limited and some borders are closed. One crucial question is how the sudden exit of so many middle-class temporary visa holders will affect the communities they live in, let alone the businesses they frequent or the faith communities they participate in. How many of these temporary visa holders are health workers who are desperately needed now? Unless the White House lifts the suspension or doesn’t implement it at all, the country will likely be faced with the collective exodus of millions in the coming months.

They are easy victims. While temporary work visa holders can file cases in federal court challenging the President’s order, they are in relatively weak legal positions. Visas are granted entirely at the discretion of the issuing government and are not subject to discrimination claims as would be the case if the petitioners were US citizens. US companies whose operations will be significantly destabilized by the order do have the ability to challenge the directive but that litigation, if it is ever filed, will likely take some time to make its way through the court system.

All of this will allow President Trump to win points with his largely immigrant-hating base. In the days before the President’s tweet, right-wing groups were demanding an end to employment-based immigration. Earlier this month, US Tech Workers, a tech workers group that favors limiting immigration, posted a letter to President Trump asking him to suspend the yearly grant of 65,000 H-1B visas. A few days ago, former attorney general (and ex-Trump supporter) Jeff Sessions, long an anti-immigration hardliner, demanded that the President halt all employment-based immigration to the United States and “put Americans and not foreign workers first”. This collective chorus, along with a push by Trump’s de facto anti-immigrant czar Stephen Miller, have now all borne fruit, producing at the stroke of a tweet the most sweeping suggested transformation of the American immigration system in modern history.

Not only is the fallacy that immigrants reduce the wages of native-born Americans wrong, so too is the simplistic assumption that all jobs vacated by these workers will instantly be filled by a deserving native-born American. It is not only tech workers who hold temporary work visas, it is also professors, researchers doing highly specialized work, exceptionally talented writers, musicians and others. The work they do is not necessarily replicable or interchangeable and the jobs they do will likely not be filled after they leave. The intellectual cost of potentially losing their contributions, on the other hand, will not only set US innovation back by years, it will mean that research ventures will no longer want to locate their most crucial projects in the United States. Without the possibility of becoming US citizens, exceptionally gifted and talented immigrations, the ones eligible for “O” visas, may not want to bring their talents to us after all.

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    Such an action from the President would essentially render the America most of us know, long the nation of immigrants and home to innovation and diversity, unrecognizable. Even worse, the terribly high rates of unemployment that are likely to emerge out of the Covid-19 crisis will make it difficult for a potential Democratic President like Joe Biden to undo or easily unravel the disastrous impact of such an illogical move. The system of employment-based immigration that rewards technical expertise, hard work, research and artistic excellence is complex and interconnected – far easier to destroy rather than to reconstruct.

    As of now, it’s still unclear what any executive order would look like or how feasible its immediate implementation would be. But one thing is crystal clear. Under the cover of attending to the employment impact of Covid-19, the Trump administration has initiated changes that could transform the way America looks and works and thinks for a long time to come.