President Trump’s upcoming executive order to suspend the issuance of any new green cards for the next 60 days is not as drastic as it sounds, but it still takes the United States in exactly the wrong direction as the country begins to emerge from the coronavirus shutdown.
The number of potential immigrants affected by the suspension—which only applies to those seeking legal permanent residency— will be small if the order is limited to the next 60 days. Earlier actions taken by the administration since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged have already reduced immigration flows to a trickle. Those actions include a halt to visa interviews and processing and a suspension of refugee admissions. The number of non-immigrant tourists and business travelers entering the United States has also plunged in the wake of the virus.
In normal times, the number of permanent immigrants entering the United States is just a small fraction of a much larger inflow of foreign-born people entering the country temporarily for school, business, and pleasure. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s most recent Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 1,096,611 foreign nationals were granted a legal permanent resident green card in Fiscal Year 2018 (see table 7). That compares to 81.2 million temporary I-94 admissions in the same period, of which 80 percent were for tourism (see table 25).
Of those roughly 1.1 million green cards issued in FY 2018, slightly more than half—52 percent—were an adjustment of status granted to foreign nationals already residing in the United States. The remaining 528,727 green cards were issued to new arrivals to the United States, nearly half of whom were immediate relatives—spouses, children, and parents—of U.S. citizens. Only 27,824 green cards were issued to new arrivals under employment-based preferences, and most of those were for spouses and children and not the primary workers themselves. So compared to the size of the total US workforce and normal inflow of foreign-born people, the number of immigrant workers who will be blocked by the president’s order over the next 60 days is relatively small.
The biggest flaw of the executive order is that it is based on a false narrative that permanent immigration threatens public health and economic recovery from the pandemic. The biggest threat to public health right now is not foreign nationals entering the United States, but the domestic spread of the virus by Americans already infected. Travel has already been tightly restricted between the United States and Asia, Europe, Canada, and Mexico. A new analysis by Alex Nowrasteh and Andrew Forrester of the Cato Institute found no correlation between the rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths by county in the United States and the share of the county’s population that is foreign‐born.
In reality, immigrants are helping Americans combat the COVID-19 virus. As Jack Salmon and I note in an recent Mercatus policy brief, foreign-born doctors, nurses, and medical researchers are playing a vital role in working alongside native-born Americans to treat victims of the COVID-19 virus. We outline ways the federal government should be opening the door for more immigrant healthcare workers.
As for jobs and the economic recovery, contrary to President Trump’s justification for his order, there is no evidence that immigrants have caused higher unemployment or lower wages among native-born American workers. In fact, before the virus outbreak, as the president himself often noted, American workers were enjoying rising wages and a 50-year low unemployment rate—alongside a record number of immigrant workers in the US labor force.
The preponderance of economic evidence supports the fact that immigrants fuel economic growth and rising productivity across the US economy. When America begins to reopen in the weeks ahead, immigrant workers will play an essential role in helping important sectors of the economy such as farming, hospitality, construction, transportation, and retail to bounce back, which will restore jobs for millions of native-born Americans as well.
President Trump’s 60-day ban on issuing new green cards will keep relatively few people out of the country. Instead, the executive order is more a symbolic act to send a political message rather than a serious effort to protect the jobs and health of American citizens.