Thursday, July 2, 2020

Thawing the freeze on integration of immigrant workers

The much-heralded Trump executive order imposing a 60-day freeze on immigrants seeking green cards in order to protect American workers losing jobs during COVID-19 closures was recently expanded to include 200,000 temporary workers; this time it is set to last until December, but it can continue indefinitely. The White House advisor who is the architect of the bill, Stephen Miller, has said that is his intent. And a federal court declined to strike down the original version. It threatens significant damage by blocking the path to immigrants’ integration in the U.S.

The restriction of immigrant workers is part of a broader immigration enforcement agenda that has motivated the Trump administration from its inception and expanded during COVID-19 and in the run-up to the 2020 election.


Rising Public Support for Immigrant Worker Bans

An April 21-26, 2020 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll showed that a majority of Americans are swayed by crisis logic behind the immigrant worker bans. The polls shows that 6 in 10 whites and nonwhites, men and women, and older and younger adults support the immigration pause. While there is considerable variation across political parties, the broad public support can nevertheless be seen across a wide range of political views and demographics who want to protect Americans first.


Research on Economic Impact of Immigrant Workers

And yet research from the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at U.C. San Diego suggests that these immigration restrictions will have no effect on the spread of the virus and other studies show it will not shield American workers from labor competition. This is because immigrant workers are diverse: the categories of immigrant workers excluded from entry will not displace native workers, and studies show the types of high-skilled immigrants most impacted by the recent ban complement and expand business opportunities for coworkers by stimulating growth. Meanwhile the bans permit agricultural guest worker programs that do not guard against adverse effects on native workers. The main thing the bans will accomplish is to keep out immigrants who contribute positively to American workplaces and the U.S. economy, a point made especially strongly by employers in tech companies who opposed the initiative and fought to limit its scope.


Psychological and Other Impacts of Immigrant Workers

Americans workers are struggling, and the federal government needs to be attentive to their needs. Yet the immigration bans will not help the economy and will harm society. The corrosive effect of policies threatening legal immigrants can be seen in the stories I heard while conducting interviews for my book, Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era (Stanford Press, August 2020). Mercedes, a green card holder, had lived in the US for 20 years and has been eligible for a green card for a decade. She sought to pursue citizenship because she heard about the travel ban – not only of the 47 immigration restrictions since COVID-19 began, but the 2017 travel ban that focused on Muslim-majority countries. Mercedes knows that Mexico is not one of the countries covered by the ban (and she is already in the country, making her outside the scope of recent bans), but she worried that the immigration laws surrounding green cards could change. Her fears are being borne out in the age of COVID-19. Pursuing citizenship as a defensive strategy reduces the meaning of becoming an American to a transaction.

Limiting immigration during crisis is not new. Even without COVID-19, immigrants up and down the citizenship spectrum are feeling “citizenship status insecurity” and feeling ambivalent about the benefits of living in the U.S. Add in COVID-19 and they become altogether ineligible.

Ming Hsu Chen is a professor of law and political science at CU Boulder and director of the Immigration and Citizenship Program. She is author of the forthcoming book Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era (Stanford University Press, August 2020).

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