Immigration is Donald Trump’s go-to excuse for what ails America, so it should be no surprise that he has announced that he will halt all immigration to the United States for at least 60 days to solve the current economic crisis. With more than 22 million Americans unemployed and more expected as the COVID-19 crisis continues, Trump is betting that his move will be popular—certainly among the Fox News crowd and his die-hard supporters. But it won’t help put Americans to work and could compound the economic damage the pandemic has caused.
Immigrants make up about 17 percent of the U.S. labor force, but they are not evenly distributed across all sectors. They disproportionately work in service jobs – including as health care workers in hospitals and assisted living facilities – as well as construction, agriculture, and meat processing. The jobs they occupy are often low-paid but essential.
Most immigrant workers have legal status, but in some jobs, undocumented workers make up a significant portion of the work force. And in this pandemic, those workers are especially crucial to putting food on our tables, risking their lives in appallingly unsafe conditions so that we can continue to eat. Outbreaks at meat processing plants in Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and elsewhere threaten to disrupt the supply of meat nationwide. Does President Trump seriously believe that Americans will be lining up to take jobs on poultry processing or hog butchering lines, standing shoulder to shoulder with each other on cement floors slick with blood and viscera for 8 to 12 hours a day? When summer comes, will Americans take to the lettuce and tomato fields to bend over, harvesting our vegetables under the 95-degree sun? With unemployment compensation available, would you?
No one seems quite sure what legal authority President Trump will invoke to shut down immigration. As is his wont, the president used Twitter to announce the new policy with no attention to details. But Stephan Miller and other hardliners in the administration and Congress are betting that the courts will uphold the president’s right to halt immigration as a health emergency.
No one wants infected individuals coming into the country, but if testing was as ubiquitous as the president claims, it would be possible to determine whether a person was infected before he or she gained entry. That is essentially the method used in the early 20th Century at Ellis Island to refuse entry to those with tuberculosis or other communicable diseases. Mandatory quarantines could also ensure that sick immigrants not infect others; but given the high incidence of COVID-19 in the U.S., it is probably the new immigrants who should be worried about getting the disease from us, not the other way around.
The truth is, President Trump has already effectively shut down immigration. The state department is not issuing new visas or work permits, the Border Patrol is turning back asylum seekers and repatriating illegal border crossers, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement has halted the program this year. Even naturalization hearings and ceremonies have stopped.
The president’s action is aimed primarily at distracting his supporters into thinking he’s actually doing something to protect them and their jobs. But stopping immigration in the long run will cost everyone. While most immigrants work in the service economy, a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution indicates that nearly a third of our STEM workers and students are also immigrants or the children of immigrants. When researchers find a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, we shouldn’t be surprised that an immigrant or first generation American will be on the team, or even leading it.
In the meantime, the orderlies, nurses, and doctors caring for patients in hospitals around the country are increasingly likely to be foreign born, with immigrants accounting for almost a third of physicians and nearly 40 percent of health aid workers, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute. This is no time for President Trump to be riling up his base when immigrants are literally risking their lives to save us all.