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in-focus

Trump signs order pausing immigration for 60 days, offers no details


WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he signed an executive order to suspend U.S. immigration for the next 60 days, but he offered no other details about the scope of the directive in remarks to reporters at the White House.

The president has said his restrictions could be extended far longer than the 60 days, and affirmed again that his move would prevent foreign coronavirus exposure while protecting American jobs at a time of excessively high unemployment and economic uncertainty due to the crisis.

The president said he signed the order just before the start of the daily task force briefing. 

Two days after Trump said he would shut down the country's immigration system as part of his approach to the coronavirus crisis, the White House has yet to release the details of the official executive order spelling out the impact of his decree, sowing anxiety and confusion among Americans and their foreign-born family members, friends and co-workers.

Trump said the suspension will be in effect for 60 days and could be extended, but other key details of the plan remain foggy. In particular, it is unclear whether the order is aimed at curbing immigrant visas issued abroad, or whether it also will apply to the even-larger number of green card applicants already living and working in the United States who are seeking to become legal permanent residents.

The president has framed his decision mostly in economic terms, citing the need to protect American jobs amid soaring levels of unemployment and an economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. Yet Trump and his aides have said several categories of foreign workers will be exempted from the measures, frustrating supporters seeking tighter restrictions. The president called it "a pause."

"By pausing, we'll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs," Trump told reporters Tuesday. "It would be wrong to be replacing them with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad."

Before the order was signed, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway insisted it was not "rushed," though Trump tweeted about it before it was ready. "This has been on his mind and part of his platform for a very long time," she said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved about 577,000 green card applications last year, most of which went to immigrants who already were living and working in the United States with some sort of provisional or temporary status. A presidential order affecting those immigrants could cause hundreds of thousands to lose their work authorizations and legal status over time.

The U.S. State Department issued an additional 460,000 immigrant visas last year, but the majority went to close relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Trump indicated Tuesday that some of those categories would be exempt from his order.

Families remained concerned. For those who already have faced long and confusing delays with their green- card applications, they fear Trump's order could slam the door shut.

Sohrab Mokhtari, a 29-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, where he served as an interpreter for the U.S. military, said he has been trying to bring his 27-year-old wife, Hasina, to this country since 2016. After years of unexplained processing delays, he filed a lawsuit last month in the District of Columbia, saying his wife's visa to come to the United States has been illegally delayed because the family comes from a predominantly Muslim country. 

Mokhtari lives with roommates in the four-bedroom house in Dayton, Ohio, that he bought for her and, he hoped, their future family.

"I'd like to have children," he said. "She's been waiting a long time to get the visa."

He fled Taliban death threats in Afghanistan, and he now fears that the regime will target her. He says his wife has severe depression because of their long separation.

"I'm very worried, too much stress," he said. "I was thinking about my wife. Now what will happen?"

He said he has not told his wife about the president's plans for the executive order when they have spoken by phone. 

"If I tell her any bad news, she gets headaches," he said. "I don't want her to get aware of this news."

Sandra Feist, a Minneapolis immigration attorney, said many immigrants potentially affected by Trump's order were hired because U.S. companies needed their skills and could not find them anywhere else. Many have worked for years on visas, have paid thousands of dollars in fees and have undergone background checks. Now they face potential limbo. 

"This is really impacting the mental state of really exceptional people who are contributing a lot to this country," she said. "It's just creating a lot of upheaval in hundreds of thousands of people's lives."

One 28-year-old scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said he hoped to apply for a green card soon. He said Trump's order filled him with "a lot of anxiety, and a lot of stress."

The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared it could affect his green card application, said he moved to the United States more than a decade ago to attend college, and intended to return to his native India. But he excelled in school and went on to earn a doctorate. He said he stayed because "the types of scientific and research opportunities that I got here were frankly not available to me at any other place."

"I'm very, very, grateful to this country. There's a reason I came here and I chose to stay," he said. "It's a place where not only do I feel like I've professionally developed tremendously, I also feel like I have friends who have become like family."

If Trump's order is extended indefinitely, he said, the scientist would be forced to confront the possibility of leaving the United States for more stability - a thought that saddens him.

"Most immigrants who have been here this long really love it here and want to help," he said.

In Houston, Michael Naguib has kept his computer on the USCIS website all day, waiting for news. It is helping him manage his anxiety about what will happen with his green card application after Trump announced that the executive order would halt petitions like his.

The timing couldn't be any worse for Naguib, an engineer in the oil and gas industry, as he watches the business crumble. His family's visas are expiring, and he was nearing the end of the permanent residency process when the pandemic paralyzed the nation. Naguib, a native of Egypt, came to the United States nearly a decade ago after transferring within his company to work temporarily in the country. He later was sponsored for an H-1B - a foreign worker visa - and settled in Houston with his family. 

Naguib decided to apply for a change of status and seek a green card after nine years of living and working in the United States. 

"I do respect the president's decision, however, since we have no understanding of the boundaries of the decision, we are left wondering how this affects my life?" Naguid said. "My visa will expire and everything in my life is put on hold. We don't know what's going to come next."

Naguib said his application has been moving through the process: Immigration officials asked him for more information and a medical screening. This week, he obtained the work permit that allows him to stay employed through the public health emergency. But the required in-person interviews - the final step for many applicants - have been suspended since mid-March.

Naguib said anyone who has applied for a visa or worked with the U.S. immigration system is accustomed to delays and waiting. The problem is the uncertainty, he said.

If Naguib's company collapses with the price of oil cratering globally, his work permit is not transferrable. If he is laid off, he cannot begin working for another company while the Trump administration executes a 60-day moratorium.

"We are still people who have bills to pay," Naguib said. "I can't hop on a plane and go home. We have a life here, a house, two cars, a mortgage and a daughter. We are literally exactly like every other family around us."

There is another layer of complexity, Naguib said. The visas of both his wife and daughter - which are attached to his H-1B - have expired. If Naguib were to get sick with the novel coronavirus, he said, he could not legally give his wife power of attorney to make life or financial decisions at the hospital because of her status. 

 

 

Published : April 23, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Nick Miroff, Maria Sacchetti, Arelis R. Hernández · NATIONAL