Trump May Exempt Health, Food Workers From Migrant Ban

(Bloomberg) — President Donald Trump plans to temporarily halt legal immigration into the U.S., and a draft version of an executive order would bar people from seeking a range of work visas in his latest effort to contain the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The new policy would deny entry for people seeking most types of work visas for at least 90 days, according to a draft order obtained by Bloomberg News.

But it includes exceptions for people seeking jobs in “food production and directly helping to protect the supply chain,” which could apply to farm workers. The ban would also not apply to health care or medical research professionals, according to the draft.

Technology industry workers living in the U.S. on H-1B visas, however, would need to provide updated certifications to the government that they are not displacing American workers. Refugees and asylum seekers would not be affected by the order, nor would spouses and children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

The draft order, which has not been finalized, frames the immigration curbs as crucial to the Trump administration’s effort to revive the economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, by protecting what it calls “the marginal worker.”

“I have determined that we cannot jump start the domestic economy if Americans are forced to compete against an artificially enlarged labor pool caused by the introduction of foreign workers,” Trump said in the draft. “I have determined that the entry of most aliens as permanent or temporary workers in the immediate term would have adverse impacts on the national interest.”

The White House declined to comment.

Impact Isn’t Clear

The practical effect of the order remains unclear. Immigration agencies and embassies have largely stopped processing visas, meaning many of those seeking to immigrate to or visit the U.S. cannot do so.

Refugee admissions have been suspended since March 19 after the United Nations and International Organizations for Migration temporarily halted refugee travel. The U.S. suspension has been extended to May 15.

Trump announced the measure in a tweet late Monday. As of midday Tuesday, the White House had provided no detail, but the Justice Department is reviewing the executive order for form and legality, one department official said.

The substance remains up for debate internally as does whether it applies to non-immigrant visas held by students, physicians, teachers, or researchers, among others, according to a person close to the administration, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

The draft order suggested that physicians and medical researchers would be exempt.

Surprise Tweet

The White House asked the Department of Homeland Security to begin working on a ban last week, but Trump’s tweet Monday caught immigration officials off guard, according to a person close to the administration, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

Early Republican reaction was mixed, and carve-outs were already emerging. Administration officials quietly told farm groups the measure won’t impact seasonal foreign agriculture workers, who harvest U.S. crops, according to two industry representatives who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump’s sudden announcement comes as he looks to contain the health, economic and political fallout from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 42,000 Americans in an election year, while shuttering the economy whose strength had been the base of his campaign only two months ago. Trump has cited the virus as evidence to stay the course on his agenda, by further restricting U.S. borders and pushing to manufacture more goods domestically.

He tweeted that he made the decision “in light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”

Divided Court

A sharply divided Supreme Court said in 2018 that the president has sweeping authority to restrict entry into the country — and might not even have to explain why. That 5-4 ruling upheld Trump’s earlier controversial travel ban, which barred entry into the country from a group of mostly Muslim countries.

Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion pointed to a federal immigration law that lets the president suspend entry of “all aliens or any class of aliens” if the chief executive finds that their arrival would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Read more: Trump Has Key Ally for His Immigration Halt: The Supreme Court

That provision “exudes deference to the president in every clause,” Roberts wrote for the five Republican-appointed justices in the majority. Roberts dismissed contentions that Trump hadn’t justified his travel ban, saying those arguments depended on the “questionable” premise that the law requires the president to provide a detailed explanation.

Cracking down on illegal immigration and a promise to erect a wall at the Mexican border formed the centerpiece of Trump’s election campaign in 2016. His Gallup approval rating slipped six points last week as scrutiny of his handling of the outbreak has intensified, and the U.S. leads the world in total reported cases.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, speaking to reporters Tuesday at the White House, called the suspension “a temporary issue” and said he didn’t know how long it would last.

“We’ll have to wait and see. Look, we don’t know what the time horizon is going to be for the fight against this virus,” O’Brien said. “No one likes it. The president didn’t want to put travel restrictions in place, he didn’t want to put immigration restrictions in place, but we have to because of this terrible virus that’s been unleashed from foreign shores.”

‘We Need People’

Lawmakers had yet to receive any details from the administration as of midday Tuesday, one Republican official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said he doesn’t know if Trump’s pause on legal immigration makes sense. “We’ve been a welcoming nation and we need people,” Grassley said on C-SPAN Tuesday. However, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas welcomed it. “I think this is a reasonable short-term measure, a reasonable emergency measure,” Cruz told Fox News on Tuesday.

It’s the latest measure taken by Trump and his administration to restrict the U.S. border amid the pandemic. Trump has imposed broad travel restrictions on China, Europe, Canada and Mexico to curb the virus’s spread, and the State Department last month temporarily suspended routine visa services at embassies and consulates.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has also already suspended routine in-person services, but is still offering some emergency services.

Trump’s tweet raised the prospect of an order freezing all new applications from foreigners to live and work in the U.S., potentially shutting down the legal immigration system as the president and his advisers have already restricted international travel and long pushed to close borders to entry of undocumented migrants. Whether he’ll consider certain exemptions is unclear — the administration has worked recently to still allow farm workers in from Mexico, for instance.

Agencies Prepare for Return

At the same time, the White House has ordered federal agencies to begin preparing to return workers to offices and begun to reopen parts of the country, despite a widespread shortage of testing and warnings of a second wave.

The president has often said the pandemic has strengthened his desire to further restrict access to the U.S., and even to manufacture certain products on home soil.

Congressman Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote on Twitter that the suspension was “not only an attempt to divert attention away from Trump’s failure to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, but an authoritarian-like move to take advantage of a crisis and advance his anti-immigrant agenda.”

Since becoming president, Trump has sought to curb immigration and migration widely — including the restrictions on travel from Muslim-majority nations, pushing to erect the wall, striking deals to almost immediately deport asylum seekers from certain countries and moving to slash the number of refugees that the U.S. accepts. He’s also repeatedly criticized leaders of so-called sanctuary cities and mused about trying to end automatic citizenship for people born in the U.S.

(Updates with quote from draft order in sixth paragraph.)

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