Immigration Plummeted — Then Trump Halted It

By: - April 30, 2020 12:00 am

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President Donald Trump signed a proclamation last week suspending immigration, but visas for new immigrants already were all but shut down March 20 by the U.S. State Department because of the coronavirus pandemic.

March immigrant visas plummeted to about 24,000 from about 38,000 in February, according to a Stateline analysis of State Department monthly reports. The decrease was driven by visas for family members of legal immigrants — about 12,000 or 88% of the drop.

Trump’s proclamation may affect thousands of people abroad awaiting green cards. It exempts spouses and children of U.S. citizens, health care workers, medical researchers and the families of U.S. troops, as well as tech workers and temporary farmworkers.

Immigration experts generally agree that the proclamation does little more than codify a near-suspension of visas that took place in March.

“As long as processing is suspended, to a certain extent the proclamation is mirroring what is already happening,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

But the proclamation may be extended beyond its current 60 days. “I assume it will, since the president is using the economic crisis to justify the pause, not the public health crisis,” Pierce said.

Immigration attorneys said their clients are bombarding them with calls, many of them legal immigrants with relatives in Latin America.

That’s the case with a woman who had visited the United States legally but had to return to Peru at 19, where she no longer had close family connections, to be eligible for legal status through her mother, a U.S. citizen and New York state resident.

“It was an extremely hard decision to have her go back by herself,” the woman’s sister said. “We never thought this process would drag on so long.”

Ally Bolour, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, said many of his clients are stranded in Mexico where they had to return to apply for legal status.

“They thought it would be for one week or two max, that’s the assumption, but it gets really scary now especially if they have health conditions and need medication,” Bolour said. “These are people with jobs, they pay their taxes and have health insurance but how long will that last?”

The proclamation, the pandemic-related suspension in visa processing and new requirements under the “public charge” requirements in February all have put up roadblocks to uniting families.

Conservative groups praised the immigration pause but criticized some of the exceptions, including visas for technology workers and temporary farmworkers.

The latter were expanded in October as part of a deal to legalize status for existing workers and require legal status for future hires. The proclamation also carved out an exception for so-called investor visas that award green cards to job creators, usually through helping to finance large-scale development projects.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration, criticized the exception for investor visas and said the proclamation “does nothing to curtail immigration” and might even increase it.

“The order does not change much, since visa processing is shut down,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the center. “We are trying to make the case for suspending or greatly scaling back most if not all of the temporary work visa programs.”

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.