WASHINGTON — President Trump said Monday night that he intended to close the United States to people trying to immigrate into the country to live and work, a drastic move that he said would protect American workers from foreign competition once the nation’s economy began to recover from the shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens,” Trump wrote on Twitter, “I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”
In his tweet, he did not offer specifics, such as the time frame or the scope of who would be affected. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has said health concerns justified moving swiftly to bar asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants from entering the country, alarming immigration advocates who have said that Trump and his advisers were using a global pandemic to further hard-line immigration policies.
But the president’s late-night announcement on Monday signals his most wide-ranging attempt yet to seal the country off from the rest of the world. A formal order temporarily barring the provision of new green cards and work visas could come as early as the next few days, according to several people familiar with the plan.
Under such an executive order, the Trump administration would no longer approve any applications from foreigners to live and work in the United States for an undetermined period of time, effectively shutting down the legal immigration system in the same way the president has long advocated closing the borders to illegal immigration.
It was not immediately clear what legal basis Trump would claim to justify shutting down immigration.
Workers who have for years received visas to perform specialized jobs in the United States would also be denied permission to arrive, though some workers in some industries deemed critical could be exempted from the ban, the people familiar with the president’s discussion said.
The number of visas issued to foreigners abroad looking to immigrate to the United States has declined by about 25 percent, to 462,422 in the 2019 fiscal year from 617,752 in 2016.
Due to the pandemic, almost all visa processing by the State Department, including immigrant visas, has already been suspended for weeks.
Trump has taken credit for his recent restrictions on travel to the United States from China and hard-hit European countries, arguing it contributed to slowing the spread of the virus in this country. But he has yet to extend those restrictions to other nations now experiencing virus outbreaks.
The president has also imposed travel restrictions on Canada and Mexico.
Trump’s Gallup approval rating slipped six points last week as scrutiny of his handling of the outbreak has intensified. And in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, just 36 percent of voters said they generally trusted what Trump says about the coronavirus.
Cracking down on illegal immigration and a promise to erect a wall at the Mexican border formed the centerpiece of Trump’s election campaign in 2016.
Since becoming president, he has sought to curb immigration and migration widely — banning travel from certain majority-Muslim nations, pushing to erect the wall, striking deals to almost immediately deport asylum-seekers from certain countries, and moving to slash the number of refugees that the nation accepts.
Under an earlier US policy change spurred by the virus, the government has sent some 10,000 Mexicans and Central Americans back to Mexico, according to data from the US Border Patrol.
Before Trump’s tweet, the US government said it will continue to quickly expel migrants it encounters along the Mexico border for at least another month in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Mexican authorities said Monday that 16 migrants from several countries have tested positive for coronavirus in Mexico’s northern border state of Tamaulipas.
The situation led Tamaulipas to ask the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to not accept anymore Central Americans delivered back across the border to Mexico from the United States.
Tamaulipas undersecretary for legal and governmental affairs Gloria Elena Garza Jimenez said the agreement between the two countries had no legal foundation.
Fifteen of the infected migrants from Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, and Cameroon were staying at a migrant shelter in the city of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas. They are in isolation.
The Nazareth migrants shelter in Nuevo Laredo said three of the infected migrants were minors. Of the 15, three were hospitalized but were released back to the shelter. More tests have been done at the shelter but no other cases have been confirmed.
The Tamaulipas state government said a migrant deported from Houston, Texas had entered the same shelter without knowing that he had coronavirus.
Migrants now make up about 10 percent of the state’s 193 coronavirus cases, causing frustration in Tamaulipas.
The Mexican federal government has so far officially recognized only one case of coronavirus infection in a migrant, at the church-run shelter in Nuevo Laredo.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that more than 100 migrants at 25 detention centers have tested positive for COVID-19. Guatemala claims that 44 migrants deported from the United States tested positive.
Material from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News was used in this report.