AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump said in a tweet late last night that he would sign an executive order to temporarily suspend immigration into the U.S. Today he announced a more narrow plan to limit immigrants coming here on a green card.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad. We must first take care of the American worker.
CHANG: He said he would do this to protect against the American - to save American jobs and to protect against the coronavirus, but it is unclear if such an order would do either. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and is here to explain.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right, so what did the president exactly announce today?
ROSE: Well, the president, just moments ago, said that he is issuing a temporary suspension of immigration into the United States. But he said it would only apply to immigrants who are receiving green cards to become lawful permanent residents. The president said this temporary pause would be in effect for 60 days. After that, he and a, quote, "group of people" would decide whether to extend the suspension. And I should say that hundreds of thousands of people come here every year on a green card.
CHANG: All right, so the administration, however, has already been tightening immigration, right? So what does this order mean?
ROSE: Well, in the short run, it may not mean that much. The administration's coronavirus response, as you say, has already done a lot to clamp down on immigration. The borders have been closed to nonessential travel. Travel from Europe and China has been restricted, and even green cards have been affected already. It was already hard to get one because the immigration system has slowed to a crawl. U.S. embassies and consulates are not at full strength. Immigration offices in the U.S. are closed to the public. All of that has made it impossible to interview green card applicants, so in a sense, this executive order will reinforce what was already happening.
CHANG: I mean, we had been hearing up until now that this order would be more far-reaching, so I'm curious. Do you know what happened?
ROSE: It's hard to know what happened behind the scenes, but it was obvious that businesses that rely on immigrant labor did not want immigration to be suspended, as Trump had hinted he would do. Take agricultural workers. Tens of thousands of immigrants come here on temporary work visas every year, so that industry did not want to see a sweeping shutdown. Another big industry that was certainly pushing back here was health care. Almost 30% of the doctors in this country are immigrants. Many of them are here on temporary visas. About 4,000 foreign doctors start their residencies at U.S. hospitals on training visas every year. And, you know, they're supposed to start in a few weeks this summer.
CHANG: So if immigration is already way down, what is the point, ultimately, of this order to limit green cards?
ROSE: Well, the Trump administration has been trying to cut the number of legal immigrants coming into the country for years, and his immigration crackdown is popular with his base. And then, you know, you add in this pandemic, which prompted immigration hawks to call for a moratorium. For weeks now, Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson have been talking about this.
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TUCKER CARLSON: In a year where tens of millions of Americans could be looking for work, our government is importing more than 150,000 workers from abroad. The president needs to stop this from happening, and he can.
ROSE: I should point out that economists say it is not that simple. There is evidence that immigrants hurt wages for low-skilled workers. But on balance, most economists say immigration is good for the U.S. economy.
CHANG: The president does say that this order is intended to protect Americans from the coronavirus. Is there any evidence that this order would help?
ROSE: It's hard to see how, considering that the U.S. is already the world's biggest hotspot for the coronavirus with more than 800,000 cases. So the virus is already spreading here. Immigrant advocates say this order is really about the Trump administration looking for a scapegoat and a distraction. Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
ALI NOORANI: At a time when Americans are fearful for their physical or their economic security, he is preying on that fear by directing people to blame the other.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Joel Rose.
ROSE: In reality, Noorani says immigrants are not a threat.
CHANG: Thanks, Joel.
ROSE: Sorry. Thanks.