By Edwin Quinabo
The COVID-19 crisis is revealing irony in the popular saying, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
As President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant supporters reach into their refrigerators, cook their favorite meals, and take a bite of whatever they’re eating – they should be aware that the hands, sweat, and hard labor of immigrants made this all possible.
The fact that they are eating – as well as all Americans — during this pandemic is because of immigrants, many of whom are seasonable H-2b workers, who toil the fields, work at farms and meat processing centers throughout the United States.
Already a debt of gratitude owed to immigrant farmworkers is playing out in the oddest, most unlikely way.
On Monday, April 20, President Donald Trump made an alarming tweet saying that he would sign an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration to the U.S.
Due to pressure from the farm industry that made it clear any disruption in the food-supply stream during this time could be devastating, the President (two days later on Wednesday, April 22), signed an Executive Order banning immigration as he said he would, but scaled back dramatically and made major exemptions to include farmers, health and other essential workers.
On face value, the ban was a tacit acknowledgement of immigrants’ vital role in American society, particularly while under COVID-19’s grasp. But bad politics oftentimes follow illogical patterns; and the President already is threatening that his Executive Order could take on harder measures anytime soon.
Immigration advocates say while this new Executive Order appears to be more bluster than substance at the moment, it could all change as early as tomorrow with this President.
Reason for the immigration ban
The President said the ban “will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens.”
He insists that American citizens who had lost their jobs in recent weeks should not have to compete with foreigners when the economy reopens. He said this would be “wrong” and “unjust.”
“We must first take care of the American worker,” said President Trump.
Critics say it’s more political posturing
Critics of the Executive Order say it was a ruse from the start, a distraction to reignite support from his right-wing base amid falling popularity ratings over the President’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Whenever his approval rating takes a dive, the go-to for the President has always been to scapegoat immigrants.
“I think this is a malevolent distraction,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a policy institute in Washington, D.C.
Andrea Flores, a deputy policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued over a number of Trump immigration policies, said Trump appeared “more interested in fanning anti-immigrant flames than in saving lives” with his latest proposal
What is in the new immigration ban?
The ban went from being a broad moratorium on immigration when Trump first tweeted; but two days later the final Executive Order contained limited changes. The highlights include:
• Temporary visa guest workers programs will continue.
• New green cards (for those who have not already started filing paperwork) will not be issued for 60-days. But applications could be processed for permanent residents who are children or spouses of U.S. citizens or any spouses of U.S. military.
• The status doesn’t change for immigrants already with green cards
Media fact-checkers say the issuance of new green cards was already put on hold before the Executive Order because the State Department and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, both responsible for processing applications, had suspended their services temporarily due to the coronavirus lockdown.
Immigration experts say the Executive Order amounts to a mere delay on the issuance of new green cards for a minority of immigrants.
But the president says the Executive Order could be amended or extended anytime to protect the interest of American workers. He also said a second executive order is also a possibility
Is shutting down legal immigration good for the economy or workers?
Counter to Trump’s reason for the temporary ban, multiple independent studies have shown that typically immigrants do not compete with U.S. born workers for jobs.
Employment-based immigration must meet a labor test. Workers are only allowed entry into the U.S. where there is a shortage in filling jobs such as in farming, tech- or health-related industries.
Sarah Pierce, a lawyer and policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said a labor market test is done in order to “guarantee that there’s no available U.S. national to take that position.”
Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, “As a general matter we don’t have to close down legal immigration to reopen America, and that is what we are focused on: safely reopening and getting the economy going again.”
Jason Oxman, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group, said “the United States will not benefit from shutting down legal immigration.”
Rob Larew, the president of the National Farmers Union, said even talk of restrictions on immigrant farm workers was disruptive. “It just adds to an already stressed food system,” he said.
Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO, Alvina Yeh said, “Trump is trying to pit vulnerable workers against immigrant workers as if they are mutually exclusive communities. The labor movement knows this is a false dichotomy that seeks to distract us from his failures.
“Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are all too familiar with attempts by leadership to put blame for tough economic conditions onto the backs of immigrant workers. Trump’s administration is already separating millions of families every day that they fail to effectively address the COVID-19 pandemic: now they want to separate even more families across and at the border.
“We denounce Trump for inciting fear and hatred against immigrant communities. Trump wants to claim that he’s helping black and low-income workers with this Executive Order, but we know the truth. Black and brown workers are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 because of Trump’s racist policies and willful inaction on the crisis. We need a real plan for working people. This is not it,” said Yeh.
University of Hawaii at Manoa professor emeritus and political scientist Belinda Aquino, Ph.D., said the Executive Order “blatantly shows again Trump’s extreme prejudice against immigrants and people of color.
“The current pandemic crisis is a convenient excuse to push through his policies cutting off immigration from foreign countries. Immigrants are vital sources of labor and professional contributions to American society as a whole. Without them, many of America’s industries would suffer tremendously. There would be labor shortages and losses in the long run. Besides, immigrants dutifully pay taxes which continuously benefits the whole economy.”
She adds, “It should be no surprise that Trump should be resorting to his usual practice to blame anything that stands on his way to other parties or people. He has been obsessed with his anti-immigrant policies, which can be traced to his racist nature, that he will use any reason to act with impunity as usual.”
On a possible extension of the immigration ban beyond 60 days, Dr. Aquino remarked, “Playing for time is another of Trump’s odious tactics. The thing with Trump is that, only he wins the game. He will find ways to outwit his opponents by lying and manipulating the facts. If he is caught lying, he doesn’t back off. He will tell yet another lie. He has shown his true colors over time and people should be alarmed, as I am, over this pattern of behavior on Trump’s part, which is detrimental and deleterious to the country, especially in times of grave crisis, which as what we are currently undergoing. His administration has led a conundrum of sorts that only he can manipulate to this advantage, of course.
“For a president of the supposedly most ‘democratic’ society in the world, he is an embarrassment to the international community for his unconscionable and racist behavior against people like aliens whom he does not like,” said Dr. Aquino.
Ayessa Ramirez of Waipahu, an immigrant, said she agrees with the ban to a certain extent but for a different reason apart from the President’s economic excuse. “It would make sense to halt the spread of the disease by stopping passengers from coming in.
“However, banning immigration based on the idea of protecting American jobs is unethical. The issue (of a temporary ban) should be on stopping the spread of the virus itself, not on the overtaking of American jobs
“I think that the president is pushing through with the immigration ban because he uses the pandemic as a way to connect his agenda of not liking immigrants.”
Ramirez hopes the president doesn’t use the pandemic as an excuse to extend the ban. “It wouldn’t be fair beyond a few months.”
Like Ramirez, business owner and community leader Teodora “Dory” Villafuerte accepts the temporary ban for the reason of stopping the spread of COVID-19. “If we allow new immigrants to come in while we haven’t discovered a cure or vaccine, this would give added burden to our health system.”
She adds that more people allowed in would also worsen the current unemployment problem. “Unemployment is at an all-time high, so let’s not add more people who most likely could become unemployed after they are here.”
Villafuerte said, her opinion on the ban is only temporary. “After we conquer this virus, legal immigration should be allowed to continue.”
“The current pandemic crisis is a convenient excuse to push through his policies cutting off immigration from foreign countries. Immigrants are vital sources of labor and professional contributions to American society as a whole. Without them, many of America’s industries would suffer tremendously. There would be labor shortages and losses in the long run. Besides, immigrants dutifully pay taxes which continuously benefits the whole economy.”Belinda Aquino, PH.D. Professor Emeritus and Political Scientist, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Social Distancing, Stay-at-Home order
The acceptance of a temporary ban on immigrants due to containing the spread of COVID-19 is a palatable public health reason like Ramirez and Villafuerte laid out.
As most Americans have had to suspend their daily routines by mandated stay-at-home and social distancing orders, many could see a temporary ban not outside the norm in these extraordinary times.
Meanwhile, while a few states have opted to move closer to reopening businesses, Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell have extended the stay-at-home order until the end of May.
Gabriel Ildefonso, a high school student and Waipahu resident agrees with the stay-at-home order. “It gives the environment time to heal, even though the economy is failing without much business activity. When the crisis is over, there will be another crisis that revolves around how the government can rebuild the nation.”
He says mass testing of all individuals should be conducted before government decides to reopen businesses.
It’s been around a month since school closed. Gabriel said work is now done online through google classroom. “To be honest, I don’t really mind staying at home because I prefer no contact with others. I hope that the order lasts until maybe another month.
“To cope with staying at home I play video games on my computer and do class work that my teachers give me. I also work out from time to time to keep my body in shape,” he said.
Because the President hasn’t mentioned public health as the primary reason for the new Executive Order, some legal analysts say it could possibly be overturned in the courts.
Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at UCLA School of Law, said “when the president is on the record as not mentioning national security in any traditional sense and not even really mentioning public health, but mentioning jobs, that goes beyond what Congress intended.”
He says this would likely make it more difficult to defend if the Executive Order is challenged in the courts.
Like so many of the President’s legal matters pending, it’s a waiting game for his latest controversial Executive Order.