How the Pandemic Fuels U.S. Debate Over Immigration

(Bloomberg) -- Long before the U.S. tightened its borders to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, as many countries did, President Donald Trump set about reshaping America’s immigration system with a nationalist and isolationist bent. Promises to crack down on illegal immigration and erect a wall along the Mexican border formed the centerpiece of his election campaign in 2016. The coronavirus pandemic, he has said, has strengthened his desire to further restrict access to the U.S. Joe Biden, Trump’s presumed opponent in the 2020 presidential race, by contrast, embraces immigration as fundamental to the national character in a country where 99% of citizens trace their roots to somewhere else.

1. What restrictions has Trump imposed during the pandemic?

The president announced by tweet April 20 that he planned to sign an executive order temporarily suspending immigration into the U.S. in response to the pandemic and to protect American jobs. Trump had already imposed broad travel restrictions on China, Europe, Canada and Mexico to curb the virus’s spread, and the State Department temporarily suspended routine visa services at embassies and consulates.

2. How does Trump see immigration generally?

Trump depicts undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — of whom there are an estimated 11 million ­ — as taking jobs from citizens and as dangerously criminal. Economists disagree about the employment effects of illegal immigration; some say it reduces work and wages for low-skill workers, especially Black and Hispanic Americans, while others challenge the argument and the data behind it. A number of studies have concluded that migrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. Trump hasn’t proposed reducing the scale of legal immigration. But he argues that the system that regulates it, which is based largely on family ties and ensures immigrants come from a diverse array of nations, attracts undesirable newcomers, including, as he famously put it, from “shithole countries” in Africa. He expressed a preference for those from Norway.

3. What’s he done?

A lot. Using federal money approved for other purposes, he’s built more than 120 miles of tall steel fencing along the 2,000-mile Mexico border. That’s about a quarter of the fencing the White House wants to finish by the end of 2020, though most of the construction so far has replaced existing barriers. His “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all illegal border crossings led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their families and placed in shelters in often squalid conditions, producing a public outcry and a lifting of the separation protocol. He ordered an end to a program that allows hundreds of thousands of so-called Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — to legally stay and work in the U.S., although the courts stalled enforcement of the decree.

4. What about migrants seeking sanctuary?

In recent years, migrants from Central America have poured over the U.S. southern border, many claiming to face persecution at home. In response, the U.S. ruled ineligible for asylum those who failed to apply for it in a third country en route to America. It also stopped allowing applicants to stay in the U.S. while their claims were pending, sending them back to wait in Mexico, where reports of kidnappings and assaults against them have been widespread. In March, Trump’s administration gave border agents the power to expel migrants without giving them a chance to file for asylum, on the grounds they might spread coronavirus. The U.S. defines refugees separately as those who’ve applied for sanctuary from outside the country. Trump has capped the number to be admitted into the U.S. in 2020 at 18,000; the limit set before he came into office was 110,000. Trump has cited the risk that refugees present a security threat, though they undergo vetting by both the United Nations and the federal government.

5. Are some foreigners banned?

Yes. Under presidential proclamations issued in 2017 and 2020, citizens of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Yemen are generally barred from entering the U.S., whether they wish to visit temporarily or to immigrate. Those from Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar are restricted from immigration. Of the 12 countries, eight have Muslim majorities. Trump officials say their governments weren’t adequately sharing information about people who might be terrorists or criminals.

6. What more does Trump want to do?

He’s proposed reshaping legal immigration by adopting a system similar to those used by Australia and Canada. Applicants would be admitted based on points for such things as having a valuable skill, an advanced education or a plan to create jobs. Trump would end the diversity visa lottery, which admits nationals from countries underrepresented in the immigrant pool, such as Botswana and Malaysia. He wants to limit the number of immigration visas granted to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents — beneficiaries of what he calls “chain migration.” These changes, however, would require the approval of Congress, which hasn’t passed a major immigration law since 1986.

7. What policies does Biden favor?

Biden says he would undo Trump’s country-specific bans and restrictions on asylum seekers and refugees. He pledges to restore protections for the Dreamers, put in place when he was vice president to Barack Obama, and create a pathway to citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally. Biden declined to endorse some of the more contentious plans favored by his progressive rivals within the Democratic Party, such as decriminalizing illegal border crossings and breaking up the immigration and border enforcement agencies. He has taken flak from some immigration activists for the Obama administration’s robust record of deporting people in the country illegally.

8. What are the politics around immigration?

Polls suggest most Americans have a more generous view toward immigrants than Trump does. But opinions divide along partisan lines, and for those who lean toward Trump, immigration is a galvanizing issue. Latinos, who have roots in the countries that supply some of the biggest numbers of newcomers to America, are more likely to oppose Trump’s immigration policies. Still, support for him among Latino voters has held steady at around 30%.

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