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President Trump said Tuesday he will temporarily suspend immigration to the United States for at least 60 days in order to make sure Americans laid off during the coronavirus pandemic are “first in line” for new jobs.
Trump, who had tweeted late on Monday that he planned to sign an executive order halting immigration, said during his daily press briefing that the order would last 60 days. After that, Trump said the ban would be reevaluated after he looks at unemployment and economic figures.
“By pausing immigration we will help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs,” Trump said. “We must first take of care of the American worker.”
He added: "It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad."
The federal government reported last Thursday that 5.2 million more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the four-week total to about 22 million out of a work force of 159 million — easily the worst stretch of U.S. job losses on record. The losses translate to about one in seven workers.
Trump’s comments also come a day after U.S. equity markets plunged, with oil prices turning negative for the first time in history. Also on Monday, three states -- Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina -- revealed plans to begin reopening some businesses.
The president has so far offered no details about which immigration programs might be affected, and by Tuesday afternoon the White House had yet to release any details.
While a hard stop on immigration would normally affect millions of people, much of the immigration system has already ground to a halt because of the pandemic.
Almost all visa processing by the State Department has been suspended for weeks. Travel to the U.S. has been restricted from much of the globe. And Trump has used the virus to effectively end asylum at U.S. borders, including turning away children who arrive by themselves and putting a hold on refugee resettlement — something Congress, the courts and international law hadn't previously allowed.
Criticism of Trump's new announcement was swift, especially his timing during the pandemic. Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, noted that thousands of foreign-born health care workers are currently treating people with COVID-19 and working in critical sectors of the economy.
Andrea Flores of the American Civil Liberties Union said Trump seemed "more interested in fanning anti-immigrant flames than in saving lives.”
But Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower rates of immigration, said that eliminating millions of work permits and visas would “instantaneously create” new jobs for Americans and other legal workers — even though most businesses are shuttered because of social distancing dictates and stay-at-home orders.
The U.S. is now reporting more COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world, with almost 800,000 Americans infected, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. More than 42,000 have died.
In a statement, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany described the order as aimed at protecting both the “health and economic well-being of American citizens as we face unprecedented times." She said, “At a time when Americans are looking to get back to work, action is necessary."
Though travel restrictions around the globe have dramatically reduced immigration, Trump could use his executive authority to restrict it further, including slashing the number of foreign workers allowed to take seasonal jobs in the U.S. Before the outbreak, the administration had planned to increase the number of H-2B visas, but the Department of Homeland Security put that old in early April.
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said Trump could end the processing of immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications under the same legal authority he used to impose the travel ban that was upheld by the Supreme Court. But she said the State Department has largely stopped processing visas anyway.
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who met with Trump at the White House Tuesday, said the president was looking at various carve-outs for people like agricultural workers, medical professionals and people with family in the United States.
Fox News’ Gregg Re and The Associated Press contributed to this report.