Ismael Guerra has waited in Ciudad Juárez for six years for his chance to join his wife and two young children in the United States. Now, with President Donald Trump’s promised executive order effectively closing the country’s doors to nearly all legal immigrants, that wait may stretch on indefinitely.
“We’re trying by any means to do everything possible to get him here legally,” said Alma Renteria, Guerra’s wife, a U.S. citizen who lives in Texas and who is on her third immigration attorney. “But it just seems like there’s more and more obstacles that come up as the process drags out.”
Guerra is one of hundreds of thousands of hopeful immigrants who took Trump at his word that he supported expanding legal immigration into the United States, as he promised in an ad-libbed line in his State of the Union address last year.
But the president’s proposed executive order that would block most people seeking green cards from gaining permanent residency in the United States—a purported solution, his administration has claimed, to the coronavirus pandemic—could derail that process entirely. The order, advocates say, risks putting the country in greater peril during a national health crisis by turning some of the heroes of the outbreak into scapegoats for the president’s poor record in combating the disease.
“There are measured and productive approaches to curbing the spread of COVID-19,” said Andrea Flores, deputy policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Equality Division. “Unfortunately, President Trump seems more interested in fanning anti-immigrant flames than in saving lives.”
Nearly a dozen immigration attorneys, policy experts, advocates and organizers told The Daily Beast ahead of the expected executive order’s publication that the president and his advisers are using the coronavirus as an excuse to throw red meat at his political base.
The as-yet-unwritten executive order, they surmised, is the logical culmination of years of immigrant-bashing that started on the first days of his presidential campaign, when he alleged that immigrants bring “tremendous infectious disease” into the country—and, they felt, is undoubtedly linked to Trump’s plummeting poll numbers on his handling of the crisis.
“President Trump’s decision to pin this pandemic’s economic impact on immigrants and use the COVID-19 crisis as cover to close U.S. borders is shameful,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that advocates for children in the immigration system. “This planned executive order is the culmination of his administration’s sustained effort to stoke fear and anger toward immigrants. It is in no way rooted in the law or in reality.”
“It takes away focus from the real issue—how to stop the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, which provides legal services to immigrants and their families in Texas. “The U.S. currently leads the world in the number of COVID-19 cases. Suspending immigration won’t change that.”
“The Xenophobe-In-Chief is at it again,” said Angelica Salas, executive director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, who accused the president of “pick[ing] on his favorite scapegoat, immigrants, through his favorite platform.”
A draft of the executive order—which Trump initially announced via Twitter on Monday night and which has not yet been released—obtained by Bloomberg News states that Trump has determined that “the entry of most aliens as permanent or temporary workers in the immediate term would have adverse impacts on the national interest,” with carveouts for refugees, people considered essential workers, and “any alien whose entry would be in the national interest.”
The policy, according to the draft, would deny entry for immigrants seeking most types of work visas for 60 days, with exceptions for those involved in food production, medical research or health care.
Trump elaborated on the policy in a daily coronavirus briefing on Tuesday evening, telling reporters that the executive order would block most people from obtaining permanent work visas in the United States, with exemptions for workers in “essential” industries like medicine and farming. Temporary work visas, which make up the majority of visas issued by the United States, are also exempt.
“We want to protect our U.S. workers, and as we move forward, we will become more and more protective of them,” Trump said of the policy on Tuesday, saying that the policy would be reevaluated “based on economic conditions.”
While the order reportedly does not bar refugees, asylum seekers, or immediate family members of U.S. citizens from immigrating to the United States—like Guerra—the White House’s coronavirus-era policies on everything from visa proceedings to screenings for unaccompanied minors at the U.S. southern border makes Renteria nervous that the order will somehow bar her husband from entering the country.
“I’m praying and hoping that it doesn’t,” she said, noting that, like millions of families across the country, she and her children are unable to travel due to stay-at-home guidelines. “I don’t want to put my kids at risk, and him not being able to see us, it kind of hurts your relationship—a relationship’s not always 100 percent if you can’t meet in person and it’s just through a phone.”
Though the president initially described the order as being necessary to prevent the “invisible enemy” coronavirus from gaining further entry into the United States, the White House has since walked back that aspect of the order, alleging that the proposal is intended to safeguard American workers against competition from non-citizen labor.
“President Trump is committed to protecting the health and economic well-being of American citizens as we face unprecedented times,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnanny in a short statement, roughly 12 hours after Trump’s late-night tweet announced the impending order. “At a time when Americans are looking to get back to work, action is necessary.”
But advocates for immigration reform aren’t buying that excuse, calling the proposal nothing more than a continuation of Trump’s approach to immigration policy during the coronavirus pandemic, in which the administration has forbidden asylum seekers from entering the country, ended legally mandated screenings for unaccompanied minors at the border, and functionally suspended visa applications for prospective residents from abroad.
“They are simply using the pandemic to advance an outrageous proposal—one that white nationalists and other anti-immigrant extremists have long dreamt of implementing,” said Paola Luisi, co-director of Families Belong Together, an organization formed in response to Trump’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy. Luisi noted that during the 2016 campaign, Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president and the architect of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, “advocated similar proposals in a series of emails to Breitbart News in which he also shared white nationalist propaganda.”
Contrary to the White House’s statements, suspending the granting of green cards for permanent work visas will likely have an adverse effect on the American economy, said Moe Vela, who served as a senior adviser on immigration and Latino issues to former Vice President Joe Biden during the Obama administration.
“It is cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Vela, noting that with the American economy as fragile as it has been since the Great Depression, “we need a lot of these talented people that are coming in right now to help.”
“This isn’t about people coming in to take jobs—most citizens can’t even go to work right now,” Vela said. “If it’s necessary today, why wasn’t it necessary February 1, while you were golfing and holding political rallies?”
The few people who are working under the nationwide shutdown and social-distancing effort—in health care, on farms, in warehouses and as first responders—are disproportionately immigrants. Nearly one in three physicians nationwide were not born in the United States, according to a survey of census data by Harvard Medical School, as well as one in five pharmacists and one in six nurses. While those professions are supposed to be exempt from the order, the nebulous nature of Trump’s initial tweet and past hostility to immigration in general may make the United States a less attractive destination for healthcare professionals.
“Trump’s ill-defined, insidious and irrational tweet insults the thousands of immigrants who are risking their lives in the fight against COVID-19 as health care, pharmacy, manufacturing, transportation, and grocery workers, among other critical roles,” said Nihad Awad, national director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Even with the carve outs for health care workers, farmhands and other “essential” immigrants during the executive order’s implementation, advocates said, the order still leaves hundreds of thousands of immigrants—including those already in the United States seeking renewal of their visas—with the possibility of being barred from the country during a global pandemic.
“Any executive order that suspends access to protection and benefits for immigrants will mean more vulnerability to illness, homelessness, and death,” said Archi Pyati, chief of policy and communications at the Tahirih Justice Center, which works to help immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution abroad, “who are among the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.”
For Renteria, the concern about the increasingly high hurdles for legal immigration in the midst of a global health emergency is much more immediate.
“This is pretty much my life,” she said. “If one of my kids gets sick, you know, I have to find someone. I’m having to get other people to pick them up for me if I can’t get off work.”
“It’s just... it’s just a lot to deal with, without having that other support here.”