U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Coronavirus Task Force press briefing on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Coronavirus Task Force press briefing on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Trump orders suspension of immigration green cards amid coronavirus outbreak

President Donald Trump, citing the threat of contagion, on Tuesday ordered a 60-day ban on new immigrants seeking permanent status in the United States.

The ban will cover people seeking green cards that provide permanent status, not to temporary visitors, Trump said. How many potential immigrants the ban will affect was unclear, given that the administration has already sharply restricted immigration, including steps taken last month to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump did not specify exemptions to the ban, although White House officials have suggested the ban will exempt some categories considered essential.

“We want to protect our U.S. workers,” Trump said in announcing the ban. “By pausing immigration, we will put Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens,” he added. “A short break from new immigration will protect the solvency of our health care system and provide relief to jobless Americans.”

The announcement came after a day of confused messages. Trump tweeted Monday night that he planned to sign an order to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” White House officials were left to play catch up, unable to answer questions about what Trump intended.

The lack of clarity reflected the often-chaotic nature of policy making in Trump’s White House. Trump has been openly frustrated with polls showing the majority of Americans feel he has done a bad job handling the coronavirus, and he has frequently turned to immigration — a main campaign staple for him — when he feels a need to demonstrate executive action.

Tuesday afternoon, the president’s reelection campaign sent an email to supporters touting the potential action and denouncing “fierce criticism from the Fake News media and their Democrat Partners” even as no details had been announced and no order had been signed.

Because he has often promised sweeping executive actions that have not lived up to his rhetoric, without written text it is impossible to judge the potential impact of one of his pledges.

Like other efforts by the administration to bypass certain U.S. laws and international obligations in order to achieve its long-stated goal of dramatically reducing immigration to the United States, Trump’s executive action is likely to face legal challenge. Although an across-the-board ban had never been imposed in the U.S., immigration law gives the president broad authority to restrict entries in emergencies.

The Supreme Court in 2018 upheld Trump’s authority to impose a travel ban on a group of countries, most of which have Muslim majorities, that the administration said posed a risk of terrorism.

Already, most entries into the U.S. have been put on hold. Just Monday, the administration extended an effective closure of U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico to “nonessential travel,” as well as a controversial order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that immigration officials are citing to rapidly expel most migrants at the U.S. southern border.

In a month, U.S. border authorities have turned back roughly 11,000 would-be migrants with minimal processing, including, for the first time under the U.S. modern immigration system, asylum-seekers and hundreds of unaccompanied children. Most visa offices abroad have closed, applications for other travel to the U.S. have been frozen, and interviews for citizenship and other forms of permanent legal status have been suspended.

Immigration courts across the country have been shuttered, and hearings suspended or rescheduled. The refugee program, already drastically reduced, has effectively ground to a halt.

The administration has made exceptions for some workers, however. Officials recently touted bringing in Mexican and Central American agricultural laborers and extending H2A permissions for agriculture and seasonal workers, saying that would “protect the nation’s food supply chain, and lessen impacts from the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency.”

A White House statement Tuesday morning did little to clarify what Trump meant. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump is committed to protecting Americans’ health and economic well-being in “unprecedented times.” The statement then quoted Trump’s prior comments about the formerly strong economy that are unrelated to immigration.

A Washington Post poll released Tuesday morning said 54% of Americans view his response to the pandemic negatively, while 72% say governors have done a good job in handling the virus.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat whose televised briefings have made him one of the most prominent faces among governors, visited the White House on Tuesday.

Trump often returns to the topic of immigration when he is concerned about losing support from his political base. Trump tweeted Tuesday that he has “96% Approval Rating in the Republican Party. Thank you! This must also mean that, most importantly, we are doing a good (great) job in the handling of the Pandemic.”

The most recent Gallup poll showed Trump’s approval among Republicans at 93%. It also showed his approval at 43% among American adults — down six points since mid-March. The Washington Post poll found that only 77% of Republicans approved of his coronavirus response, a troubling sign for his overall approval in an election year in which the faltering economy is not expected to recover quickly.

Amid the electoral uncertainty, Trump has turned to lengthy White House briefings, which began as a tool for providing updates on the pandemic, to reinforce his political rhetoric. On Monday, he invited an Army lieutenant general to discuss the construction of temporary hospitals, only to ask him for an update on building the wall along the border with Mexico, Trump’s signature campaign promise.

The wall marks another example of Trump’s actions not matching his rhetoric. He repeatedly promised that Mexico would pay to build a big “beautiful wall” across the border. But Mexico has contributed nothing and most of the construction has gone toward rebuilding and updating existing barriers.

After more than three years, a declaration of a national emergency, and more than $15 billion in American tax dollars directed toward the project, the administration has added only “approximately 2 miles” of new barrier where there wasn’t any before, according to the latest status report from Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Trump’s reelection campaign and the main super PAC that supports it rolled out a different line of attack only last week, blaming China for the coronavirus outbreak and portraying Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, as conciliatory toward Beijing. But the president has been ambivalent in recent days about following that script.

“I don’t want to embarrass countries that I like and leaders that I like,” he said Saturday.

Inside and outside the White House, some Trump aides and allies have pushed him to hold off on casting blame and to focus instead on meeting the “commander in chief” moment the pandemic has presented. But he remains concerned about maintaining his political base, which two people who have spoken with him in recent days view as the reason he has encouraged his supporters in certain states to “liberate” themselves from stay-at-home orders issued by several Democratic governors — and why he is pushing forward with the anti-immigration approach that propelled his campaign four years ago.

By Molly O’Toole, Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols Los Angeles Times (Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.)


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