New US immigration limits causes anxiety for businesses, families

The new policy would close the doors to thousands of people hoping to enter the United States or lay down permanent roots in the country through long-term work or family connections

By Caitlin Dickerson and Miriam Jordan
Published: Apr 22, 2020

bg_us immigration_shutterstock_1157861293Image: Shutterstock

Families that have waited years to be reunited, businesses that rely on foreign workers, universities that recruit international students with the promise of high-paying American jobs — all of their plans faced new uncertainty on Tuesday as the Trump administration announced new temporary restrictions on permanent residency in the United States.

President Donald Trump signaled that a 60-day ban on most green cards, which could be imposed as early as Wednesday, was intended to protect work opportunities for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic. But, if it is extended, its effect on businesses and families could be much broader.

The new policy would close the doors to thousands of people hoping to enter the United States or lay down permanent roots in the country through long-term work or family connections — at least temporarily.

“It’s really worrying news,” said Elsa Ramos, whose 22-year-old son, Eder, is in Honduras, waiting for a green card that would allow him to join his parents and sister in the United States. They are among many families and employers who have spent thousands of dollars on years of legal work and are now on hold.

“Imagine the excitement that you have that your son is on his way into the country and then Trump destroys that. It’s really hard,” Elsa Ramos said.

Eder Ramos applied for residency through his father, a legal permanent resident who lives in Philadelphia. His application had already been mired in months of unexpected delays because of the extra reviews applied to green card applications since Trump took office.

Living alone in the small house the family left behind, which is in a dangerous neighborhood, her son is vulnerable to exploitation by gangs because of his connections to the United States, Elsa Ramos said. But because his father is not a U.S. citizen, he would most likely be ineligible to enter the country under the planned new order.

“He’s desperate and sad. He told me, ‘I never thought I would be stuck here for so long,’” Elsa Ramos said.

Newly tightened policies have already imposed drastic limits on immigration in recent months, all but ending prospects of asylum for most people fleeing troubled situations in their home countries, and imposing higher fees, added scrutiny and longer wait times onto those pursuing visas.

The announcement that, amid a global pandemic, Trump planned to impose a temporary block on most permanent residency applications opened the door to a situation with few parallels, in which almost no level of family connection, education or resources guarantees the right to immigrate to the United States — though it was not clear for how long.

Administration officials said the pause would be reevaluated after 60 days, and Trump said he could extend the ban “based on economic conditions at the time.”

Of the roughly 1 million green cards that were issued in 2019, nearly two-thirds of applicants, like Eder Ramos, were granted on family-based petitions for permanent residency in the United States. The spouses and children of U.S. citizens would still be eligible for green cards under the new policy, but their parents would not, nor would the family members of current legal permanent residents who do not hold citizenship.

About 50,000 permanent resident slots a year, issued in a lottery aimed at diversifying the immigrant population, would also be blocked under the new policy.

A smaller, yet economically important group of immigrants who also could be severely affected are those who apply for green cards through employers. The science, technology and engineering industries rely heavily on those petitions.

Such employers would still be able to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis, for instance through H1-B visas, but the ability to offer permanent resident status is often seen as crucial to recruiting highly sought-after workers with specialized skills who demand stability for themselves and their families.

Brad Smith, the CEO of Microsoft, a major employer of foreign workers, spoke out on Twitter on Tuesday, saying immigrants were “vital to our company & the nation’s economy” and an important source of workers in health care, research, information technology, infrastructure and food supply.

Because the new restrictions would not curtail guest worker programs that bring high-tech employees in on temporary visas, it is unlikely that the new policy would open up many of those jobs to Americans, who often command higher salaries than immigrants.

“If the order only applies to foreign workers coming in on green cards, then it is words with no teeth because the foreigners competing with most Americans are on H-1Bs and other nonimmigrant visas,” said Sara Blackwell, a lawyer who represents displaced tech workers.

She added, “If this temporary moratorium does not include those visas, then I am without understanding of its purpose.”

About 14,000 employment-based green cards were granted in 2018, often to people who were educated in the United States or who first arrived on temporary work visas. Even if the new policy allows workers to continue renewing their temporary status, as it appeared it would, the announcement caused widespread concern among foreign professionals who have long sought the stability of being able to settle in the United States.

Among them are Twinkle Anand Pullat, a dentist, and Sushita Surendran, a pediatric cardiologist. The couple work in Olive Branch, Mississippi, where they have built a life, bought a home and had a son, Vivaan, 3.

The uncertainty “has thrown all our plans asunder and we are extremely anxious about our future,” said Pullat, adding, “We want to be focusing on our patients instead of visa status.”

Groups advocating restrictions on immigration, which have long argued that importing foreign workers diminishes the earning potential of Americans, celebrated the planned new limits and expressed hope that they would become permanent.

“There’s nothing more useful for improving the opportunities of working Americans than an acute labor shortage,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

But Stein expressed concern that, much like many of the president’s previous attempts to curtail immigration, the latest policy could be blocked by the courts.

“Hopefully the president will draft a rationale which is tight enough to satisfy even the most intrusive activist judges,” Stein said.

After Trump’s surprise announcement of the coming new policy on Twitter on Monday night, a variety of immigration lawyers said, clients began contacting them with questions for which answers at the time did not exist.

For Sandra Feist, who practices immigration law in Minneapolis, said the emails began to pour in seconds after the president’s tweet. “It’s an absolute barrage of email from people who saw this tweet, with no details, and assumed it was going to be devastating for their case,” she said.

She said she heard from a South Korean energy analyst, an Iranian engineer, a Brazilian scientist and a French researcher — all in the process of securing employment-based green cards. A Minneapolis church contacted Feist to ask whether a Colombian pastor whom the congregation was expecting would still be able to come on a religious worker visa.

But it became apparent after the policy was clarified Tuesday evening that many of the worries clients expressed to their lawyers may have been unwarranted, given that the ban would last for 60 days and many people would be exempt from it.

For green card applicants of all kinds, navigating the legal immigration system has become significantly more arduous under Trump: All are now required to attend in-person interviews at government offices before being approved, and many more than under previous administrations are asked to provide additional evidence of their work, health histories and education, which can cause months of delays.

Even before the ban, the added hurdles had already affected immigration to the United States. Green cards that were issued to new arrivals in the country, as opposed to people who were already living in the U.S., declined by 13% from 2018 to 2019.

Some of those who have been waiting years to settle in the United States said both the substance of the ban and the way that it was announced made them wonder whether they should keep pursuing a process that seems to keep getting longer all the time.

“The combination of restrictions we have put in place since January of 2020 have effectively barred a large section of immigrants from entering the United States already,” said Muzaffar A. Chishti, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “This is just one more.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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