In the last four months, the Trump administration has used fear of the coronavirus pandemic to severely restrict most avenues for legal immigration, effectively making it impossible to legally migrate to the United States.
In early March, the administration issued a public health order that mandates the immediate removal of migrants, including children and asylum seekers, apprehended at U.S. borders.
Refugee admissions were already at a historic low in the United States before the pandemic, but this change has stopped them almost entirely in the last four months. Fewer than 150 refugees have been allowed into the country and more than 90 percent of people detained at the border have been expelled.
In June, the administration issued a sweeping order halting temporary employment-based visas for workers in specialized and seasonal fields through the end of the year. The Department of Homeland Security also released a new rule preventing asylum seekers who previously crossed the border illegally from seeking work authorization.
As a result, non-immigrant visas allowing foreigners to travel to the United States for temporary work or study have dropped more than 94 percent in the last four months.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that approximately 167,000 temporary workers will be barred from entering the United States and 26,000 green cards will be denied every month under this new policy.
The administration has since targeted international students with these restrictions. On Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a rule that prohibits international students from remaining in the United States if their college chooses to exclusively offer online classes. The order will leave more than 1 million students with F-1 and M-1 student visas at risk of deportation.
In mid-June, the United States government also quietly ended its contract with the companies that print the documents proving legal residency, including green cards. As a result, the government has failed to print more than 125,000 authorization documents already promised to immigrants, turning legal immigrants into undocumented ones.
The administration has justified these draconian immigration policies by citing concerns of spreading the coronavirus and a desire to prioritize American workers during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Public health experts have widely criticized this justification, suggesting that these policies are entirely politically motivated.
Immigration advocates and civil rights lawyers do not doubt that the administration is using the pandemic as an opportunity to advance its hardline, anti-immigration stance and overhaul the immigration system.
“Whether it’s restrictions to legal immigration or further gutting the asylum system, the goal to reduce immigration to its lowest level possible continues to be at the forefront of this administration’s decision making,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel to the American Immigration Council.
This patchwork of abrupt, restrictionist policy changes, and bureaucratic foot-dragging has left thousands of people who legally migrated or are trying to legally migrate to the United States confused and frightened.
Sources: CNN 7/9/2020; Washington Post 7/9/2020; The New York Times 6/12/2020