In a late-night tweet last month, President Donald Trump teased a sweeping executive order that would suspend immigration to the United States due to the coronavirus pandemic, building up anticipation among allies who for years have urged Trump to reduce levels of immigration. But the text of the proclamation, released days later, fell far short of the President’s promise.
“Imagine a car salesman selling you a Lamborghini and delivering a go-kart instead,” wrote Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that backs slashing immigration.
Behind the scenes, the push to limit immigration during the coronavirus pandemic has been led by Stephen Miller, Trump’s lead immigration adviser and the architect of the President’s hardline immigration agenda, according to administration officials.
Even before the outbreak, Miller had been seeking ways to limit immigration into the United States. After the President’s April proclamation limiting green cards, Miller cast the move as a first step toward reducing the flow of immigrants coming into the United States.
Since then, aides have been developing follow-up actions that could limit the number of guest workers, which were a key exemption from the first action. Among the categories being raised are H-1B visas intended for highly-skilled workers and H-2B visas, which allow employers to bring foreign workers to the United States for temporary non-agricultural jobs, such as landscaping, hospitality and other industries.
Trump’s political advisers view the immigration steps as motivating for his base supporters at a moment when the President’s key election message – a strong economy – is badly weakened by the pandemic.
Since the release of the proclamation, there’s been various requests that have come out from the Trump administration for input for an expected follow-up order, said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for reduced immigration.
“We gave our rationale, went through the long list of each visa, with our various contacts in the administration,” he added.
Interest groups, lawmakers and experts have lobbied for the suspension of guest-worker visas, which allow foreign workers to legally come to the US for employment, citing the skyrocketing unemployment numbers.
“Everybody has their people within the administration that are their go-to people that will represent their voice no matter what side you’re on,” a source familiar with discussions told CNN, describing the process as between formally providing feedback and “texting between you and your best friend in the administration.”
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
The ongoing discussions, coupled with a series of recent immigration changes, appear to be part of a concerted effort to reshape the nation’s immigration system as the country reckons with a global pandemic and its repercussions.
In March, the Trump administration also invoked a public health law, citing the coronavirus, that largely sealed off the US-Mexico border and allowed for the swift removal of migrants apprehended at the border – a move that raised concerns among officials involved in compiling data who believed it to be driven by political motivations.
Some of the administration’s most restrictionist proposals that failed to gain enough traction before the pandemic are coming to fruition – ranging from border closures to dramatically curtailing legal immigration to the United States. And more changes are expected.
An opportunity for the President
Before the White House even released the full details of the April immigration proclamation, Trump’s reelection campaign bombarded supporters with text messages and email alerts informing them of the decision and touting it as a prime example of Trump’s “America First” approach.
Shortly after it was signed, White House aides tried to bolster support for the order. Miller told allies in a phone call it was important to “turn off the faucet of new immigrant labor” to protect Americans’ jobs, according to a participant.
Miller has previously tried to use diseases, like influenza and the mumps, as grounds to tighten the border, The New York Times reported and confirmed by a former administration official.
While the proclamation stands to affect thousands of people trying to come to the US from overseas, it didn’t address temporary guest workers. Agriculture industry representatives had implored the administration to carve out exemptions for temporary workers, including migrants who work on American farms.
Still, their exemption frustrated those looking for stricter measures.
On Thursday, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Chuck Grassley, and Josh Hawley sent a letter to Trump calling for new guest worker visas to be put on hold for 60 days, as well as “certain categories” of new guest worker visas, for “at least the next year, or until unemployment has returned to normal levels” to protect American workers.
The GOP senators have previously caught the President’s attention on immigration. In 2017, for example, Trump publicly backed in the White House Roosevelt Room a bill to curb legal immigration that had first been introduced by Cotton.
Cotton, along with Republican Sen. David Perdue, projected at the time that after 10 years, the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act would drop immigration levels to nearly 540,000 a year, a 50 percent drop from the more than 1 million immigrants who arrived in 2015. The bill has since been re-introduced.
But ideas that might have seemed too far reaching have taken on renewed urgency against the backdrop of the pandemic and in the ramp up to the 2020 presidential election.
“Basically in the most respectful way possible, these four senators are telling the President, ‘here’s the way you stick to your principles or you can choose to go with some of your other White House advisers who are dragging their feet,’” Beck said.
In a letter to Trump, dated May 4, the Federation for American Immigration Reform also requested a new executive order targeting guest workers.
“They get our input whether they ask for it or not. I feel very good that our input is heard and we’re respected,” Stein told CNN.
The text of Trump’s April immigration proclamation calls for the secretaries of Labor and Homeland Security, in consultation with the State Department, to review other visas and recommend measures within 30 days of the effective date. That timeline runs up this month.
As next steps are considered, however, the administration has proceeded with other immigration restrictions, including quickly expelling migrants encountered at the southern border under new coronavirus restrictions.
Officials suspect political motivations behind border closure
In the early weeks of the pandemic, as senior leaders at the US Centers for Disease and Prevention poured over data on coronavirus cases in Mexico to report back to the White House, the impression to those in the Atlanta-based agency was that closing the southern border was already a foregone conclusion, according to a senior CDC official involved in the matter.
The official added that the data at the time showed no “demonstrable” public health reason to do so.
Starting in late January, various CDC task force staffers worked to gather data at the request of the White House task force regarding the migration patterns of foreigners with Covid-19 who posed a health risk. At the time, the task force was still being run by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
CDC data showed there were more cases of coronavirus in other parts of the world, including in the United States, compared to Mexico and Canada, according to the source and a second federal health official. US Customs and Border Protection was also involved in discussions on a daily basis, two senior officials with the agency told CNN.
But internally, officials at the CDC shared concerns about the political motivations driving the research, particularly since it dealt with the President’s signature campaign issue, a source involved in the matter told CNN. The source said the CDC team brought this to the attention of Director Robert Redfield, but it’s unclear if those concerns were elevated.
The CDC team continued compiling data on migration flows to demonstrate how the virus might travel north from Mexico at least through the end of March, according to two federal health sources familiar with the research.
A White House Task Force official previously denied accusations that politics are “in any way involved in the decision making process.”
The CDC referred all requests for comment to HHS.
On March 20, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced that, at the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the department would suspend entry of all migrants “seeking to enter the US without proper travel documentation” – for both the northern and southern border.
In April, the US swiftly removed the overwhelming majority of migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border as a result of coronavirus restrictions, according to CBP data released Thursday.
Of the 15,862 people apprehended on the southern border in April, 14,416 were quickly expelled from the US under a public health order put in place in March, according to the data.
Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan has repeatedly said that the restrictions are directly related to the public health risk and not immigration enforcement.
Morgan suggested Thursday that the restrictions would continue to stay in place, even as the United States moves toward re-opening.
“From a public health perspective, it has been determined that still is a risk from our borders,” he said, referring to the increasing numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in Mexico. Morgan said the administration is “collectively, across the board continuing to assess, monitor and at that time we’ll make the assessment whether that needs to be extended or not.”