Exploiting a pandemic: On Trump’s immigration policy

Trump’s immigration policy is more campaign point than response to impact of the virus

Updated - April 23, 2020 12:57 am IST

Published - April 23, 2020 12:02 am IST

United States President Donald Trump has announced that he would be using an executive order to suspend, for 60 days, legal immigration into the country that he has a little more than six months left to govern through his first term in office. In a tweet, he said this was in light of “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens”, even though the order is not expected to halt visa processing for many thousands of temporary employees, potentially including a sizeable number of Indian nationals in the H-1B skilled worker category; and seasonal workers in areas like landscaping, agribusinesses, and service jobs in hospitality, who fall into the H-2B category. The executive order, which he is expected to sign this week, will also likely carve out exemptions for certain categories of essential workers, including those in health care and who have a critical role to play in fighting the ongoing pandemic, and those who seek to immigrate via their immediate relatives. The question that Mr. Trump’s action begs is whether this is a genuine attempt to mitigate the impact of the accompanying economic crisis for American workers, or whether it is a diversionary tactic designed to shore up the President’s flagging political capital in the wake of what many have described as his ineffective crisis management strategy.

For example, what impact does the White House expect this policy to have on the job market given that immigrant and non-immigrant travel into the U.S. has anyway fallen considerably over the past month, as the coronavirus toll has soared in the country to over 8,26,000 people infected and over 44,000 dead? Second, why target immigrants, who are anyway vastly outnumbered each year by job-seekers entering though the temporary visa route, when the approximately 22 million Americans who have filed for unemployment in recent weeks have done so less due to immigration and more due to the cessation of business activity in the face of the pandemic? One possibility is that the executive order is only the first of several policy salvos that the Trump administration will introduce to bolster the collapsing U.S. labour market. Yet if such a comprehensive strategy does not emerge in the coming weeks and months, then that only suggests that the President has pivoted to his signature campaign issue of immigration — like he did effectively during the 2016 election — to animate his core constituent base of blue-collar workers across the ‘red states’ of the country. If the latter theory about Mr. Trump’s motivations for announcing an immigration ban is true, then not only should Americans expect that his administration’s bumbling early response to the crisis and reckless attempts to open the economy prematurely will impose a deadly human cost on the population but also that his strident policy rhetoric on immigration will exacerbate the deep divisions in American society in the months ahead.

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