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White House Puts Immigration On Hold During Coronoavirus Pandemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump is offering more details now about his plan to temporarily block some immigrants from coming into the United States. Last night, he said a pause of 60 days on green cards for foreigners could help protect jobs for U.S. citizens.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want people that are in this country - I want our citizens to get jobs. I don't want them to have competition. We have a very unusual situation.

GREENE: Now, this is the latest in a series of sweeping restrictions the White House has put on immigration during this pandemic. And I want to bring in NPR's John Burnett. He covers immigration and is on the line from Austin, Texas. Hi, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, David.

GREENE: So the president, when he first announced this on social media, suggested he was ending all immigration to the U.S. It sounds like that's not necessarily the case. Explain who this covers and who it doesn't cover.

BURNETT: Right. What Trump said is that people moving to this country to seek permanent residency will have to wait for at least 60 days, and he may decide to extend that further. He says it's to protect American workers, but the thing is, David, the president and his adviser, Stephen Miller, have always wanted to slow down legal immigration, and that's what human rights activists think is really behind these new restrictions.

American Gateways here in Austin said the policy doesn't help the economy; rather it's, quote, "xenophobic and ignorant" and is being used to scapegoat immigrants. But, you know, it's not really as bold as we expected because a whole class of guest workers, such as immigrants who harvest our food, can keep coming in.

GREENE: Well, if that's the case, how many people are we actually talking about here?

BURNETT: Well, the U.S. gives out hundreds of thousands of green cards a year. But remember that much of the immigration system has already ground to a halt because of the pandemic. Visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world have been suspended. Travel from Europe and China is stopped. Refugee resettlement is frozen. The northern and southern borders have been closed to all but essential traffic, and crossings there have plummeted. Just this week, those border restrictions were extended for another month.

GREENE: But, John, it sounds like, from what you're saying, that the larger context here is really important, that the president may be doing some things in this pandemic that he and his policy advisers wanted to do all along. So can you talk about the situation at the border broadly right now?

BURNETT: Well, Trump has effectively shut out people who come to the U.S. border asking for asylum, and here, again, that's been another long-term goal of this White House. Immigration agents are using an order from the CDC to immediately expel anyone who crosses the border without authorization. They say it's needed to protect America from immigrants who may be carrying the virus. This means, whether it's an undocumented immigrant crossing the border to look for work or seek asylum, they're being processed and turned around and sent home, sometimes inside of two hours. Customs and Border Protection reports nearly 14,000 people have been expelled since that CDC order went into effect a month ago.

And this has really riled up critics. They say the United States has effectively canceled asylum and that's against the law. Here's Andrew Selee. He's president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

ANDREW SELEE: The administration has clearly gotten what they wanted on border control. And the question will be, do they let up on this as the pandemic passes or is - was this really just a convenient way of getting what they always wanted, which is making it almost impossible to get across the U.S. border, even to request asylum?

BURNETT: And Selee and some other analysts I talked to think that the government will find a way to keep these exclusionary border rules in place right on through the end of Trump's term in office.

GREENE: All right. Speaking about the president's order here and immigration more broadly with NPR's immigration correspondent John Burnett, joining us from Austin. John, thanks so much, as always.

BURNETT: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.