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The coronavirus outbreak has helped Trump get the immigration crackdown he’s long pursued — and provided him with a new foil

A migrant carrying a toddler stands in front of the border wall that divides Sunland Park, New Mexico, with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON – Since the coronavirus mushroomed into a global health crisis this winter, President Trump has used the aggressive practices that public health experts have recommended to combat the pandemic to advance some of the most stringent immigration actions at the nation’s southern border since he took office.

Federal officials have implemented the tightest border controls in decades, instantly deporting or turning away refugees, asylum seekers, and young migrants attempting to cross into the United States without parents or guardians. At the same time, the administration has moved so slowly to release people from detention centers and shutdown immigration courts, it has sparked legal challenges from immigrant rights groups that argue the centers and courts have become infection hot spots.


Then on Monday night, Trump announced on Twitter that he would sign an executive order to temporarily suspend all immigration into the United States “in light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”

On Tuesday, Trump told reporters that the suspension will be for 60 days and applies to people seeking green cards for permanent residency, not to temporary workers. It will be reevaluated afterward based on economic conditions, he said. The pandemic has already led to a sharp drop in illegal migration as the United States and other countries have drastically limited people’s movement around the world, and legal immigration is likely to see a similar plunge as the State Department has all but halted visa services and commercial airlines have reduced international flights.

"By pausing immigration, we’ll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens," Trump said. “We want to protect our US workers, and I think as we move forward we will become more and more protective of them.”


In effect, the pandemic has allowed Trump, using his authority to respond to a national emergency, to enact the type of strict immigration crackdown he had been unable to put in place because of opposition from Congress and the courts. The outbreak also could allow Trump to make China a new focus for his anti-immigrant message in an election year, adding to the fears he has stoked about Latinos at the southern border.

“It has become a common practice of this administration to lash out on immigration when things are going poorly politically for them,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, pointing to recent criticism Trump has faced over the nation’s lack of testing kits and protective medical gear for hospitals.

There are strong public health reasons to limit the flow of travelers and migrants to help contain the coronavirus. But the restrictions have come after a global rise in authoritarianism and populist, anti-immigrant sentiments that have left many migrants in unsafe conditions: camps and crowded boats that under the best conditions have raised humanitarian concerns, but in a pandemic, can be lethal.

“What the pandemic has revealed is that globalization, migration, and profound interconnectedness is inescapable,” said Marshall Fitz, who directs the immigration division at the Emerson Collective, an investment and grant organization focused on social change.

Trump officials say the border measures are strictly about protecting Americans. “What’s happening right now is not about immigration," said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, in a statement. “What’s happening right now is about a public health crisis, driven by a global pandemic, which has resulted in a national emergency declared by this president to protect the health and safety of every American in this country.”


Long before the pandemic hit, Trump had sought to curb the path to asylum, limit temporary visas, and cut social services for immigrants without legal status. His administration has pushed states and cities to collaborate with federal agencies on immigration enforcement, and tried to end a program for people brought into the country illegally as children. A challenge to that move on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is pending before the Supreme Court.

The coronavirus has made more-extreme actions possible, playing into Trump’s “America First” approach, said foreign relations specialists and immigrant rights advocates. The slogan, first popularized in the early 1900s, describes a foreign policy that bends toward isolation in world affairs. Trump adopted it during his 2016 campaign, and used it to play to the fears and uncertainty of voters ― mostly white and male ― about threats from abroad, economic competition from China on trade, and the potential economic and social consequences of a flood of new immigrants.

“It is hard to set up neat silos — to say here’s tech, here’s trade, here’s immigration — in the America First agenda,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit think tank. “They are all wrapped together in the idea that we can’t trust other countries and bad things come from abroad and we have to be self-reliant.”


As the 2018 midterm elections neared, Trump attempted to stir ethnic anxieties again with videos and images of a caravan of roughly 4,000 people walking through Mexico to plead asylum at the US border. Many were fleeing gang violence and poverty in their home countries.

This year, Trump is likely to lean on the anti-China and trade pieces of his agenda, some analysts said. “More Peter Navarro . . . less ‘Build the Wall‚’ ” Alden said, referring to Trump’s trade adviser, an outspoken critic of China.

Ken Farnaso, deputy press secretary for Trump’s reelection campaign, argued the president is “delivering on another promise and putting America first” in advancing the administration’s immigration priorities. “Border security, especially in a pandemic, is a national security issue, and his decisive action has been instrumental in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 across the nation,” he said.

As Trump has been criticized for his initial slow response to the coronavirus, he sometimes has railed about border security during his daily news briefings. He regularly touts the restrictions on travelers from China he announced on Jan. 31 as an example of taking quick, aggressive action to close the United States to the virus.

“I did a ban on China,” Trump said at a recent news briefing. “You think that was easy? I then did a ban on Europe. And a lot of people said that was an incredible thing to do.”


Doctors question whether those and other restrictions have been effective when they have carried exceptions for American travelers and weren’t accompanied by rigorous health examinations. The United States now has the most coronavirus cases in the world.

Beating up on China during the campaign could be more politically awkward for Trump than his attacks on Mexico because he has often spoken proudly about his warm relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and praised China’s initial public health response. As Fox News and Republican allies continue to bash China, Trump has held back. He even has mostly stopped using the phrase “Wuhan virus” to describe the outbreak after Beijing leaders said it was xenophobic and inaccurate.

And some argue Trump waited too long to limit travelers out of fear of angering Xi in the middle of trade negotiations.

“This is the one instance where he didn’t follow through with his fear-mongering polices,” said Kristian Ramos, a Democratic consultant with Washington, D.C.-based Autonomy Strategies. “He wanted a foreign enemy. He had it, and he didn’t seize on it.”

An anti-China message could be politically potent if Trump and his allies do rally around it. Stirring fears of migrant caravans didn’t work for Trump in the 2018 congressional midterm elections, when Republicans lost the House majority. But a Gallup poll conducted in February found Americans’ favorable rating of China had dropped to a record-tying low.

There also are valid reasons to criticize China over withholding information and bungling the response at the beginning of the crisis, specialists said.

“This isn’t about xenophobia," said Cecilia Muñoz, who was the Obama administration’s point person on immigration as White House domestic policy director. “There is serious conversation to have about multiple governments not being transparent about what was happening. But that conversation is as much about China as it is about the US."

What the pandemic will mean for the future of the immigration system will depend not only on whether Trump wins another term but also on the length and depth of the economic downturn caused by the outbreak, she and other experts said.

Even in prosperous times, Democrats and Republicans have failed to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. As debates over coronavirus rescue packages have raged, Republicans have excluded many immigrants here illegally and their children, including those born in the United States, from receiving treatment and social services, even as many are overrepresented in medical and agricultural sectors now deemed critical to the nation’s survival.

The next immigration debates will likely encompass not only the fates of migrants and even international travelers during the recovery period, but also what the United States does with the 11 million people without legal status who are already here.

“What about farmworkers, doctors, and nurses?” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of the immigrant rights’ group America’s Voice. “What about people we have deemed essential?”