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There is only one Signal for me this week, and it’s the shameless, authoritarian way that Trump has used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to lock down immigration in a drastic manner. For at least the next 60 days, US immigration will basically be at a standstill, courtesy of yet another barrage of in(s)ane presidential tweets followed by a hastily drawn-up executive order. Guest workers and some specialized workers will still be allowed in, since business interests revolted against a complete lockdown. But for the vast majority of would-be immigrants in the coming months, Trump’s order means they are stranded overseas.
On one level, this is just Noise, a needless restatement of the obvious: After all, embassies are shuttered, regular visa processing isn’t taking place, the borders of North America are, by mutual consent, closed to nonessential traffic, and almost no international flights are taking place in and out of the United States. That’s true for not just this country but pretty much every country on earth at the moment. Inevitably, at the height of a pandemic, population flows between countries slow to a crawl.
But in formalizing this via executive order, in a way that explicitly casts blame on immigrants, Trump is laying down an election gambit—that despite the pandemic, despite record levels of unemployment, despite three years of corruption and governmental dysfunction and tantrums and bullying, he can win reelection by doubling down on xenophobia; that he and his hard-line immigration advisers such as Stephen Miller can use the pandemic to reinvent America in a way the fascist “accelerationists” have been urging from the dark recesses of the Internet. He has reserved the right to extend—and expand—his executive order two months from now. And while I guess it’s possible that Trump will allow regular, congressionally mandated immigration proceedings to resume this summer, it’s a fair bet that as the election nears, his anti-immigrant actions will actually get even worse, and that in the face of legal challenges and protests, he will stir up even more resentment and violence among his base.
Trump is blaming immigrants for the spread of Covid-19 and for taking jobs away from red-blooded Americans. Of course, neither of Trump’s claims is even close to being true. America has the largest number of infections and the highest number of deaths because, for the first three months of 2020, Trump refused to take the pandemic seriously. The federal government didn’t prepare, didn’t marshal industrial resources to meet medical needs, didn’t strategize about how to contain the epidemic, didn’t roll out mass testing and random serological tests. In short, at every step of the way, the administration chose to do pretty much the worst possible thing.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump’s response has been so inept, and so criminal, that he has a huge amount of blood on his hands.
Twenty million–plus Americans didn’t lose their jobs in March and April because of immigrants. That’s perhaps the most preposterous, malicious thing that this preposterous, malicious man has ever said or implied.
Last year, roughly 1 million immigrants received green cards, a few tens of thousands of refugees were admitted, and a few tens of thousands of asylum-seekers had their cases resolved favorably. That may seem like a lot of immigrants, but even if one accepts the false argument that each one has cost an American his or her job instead of cumulatively helping to grow the economy, it doesn’t begin to explain why we have now surged into an era of double-digit unemployment.
Immigrants work in health care, as entrepreneurs, taxi drivers, restaurant cooks, schoolteachers, and so on. During good times, they are an absolutely essential part of the country’s economy, and during bad times, they are at least as likely as anyone else to suffer. Immigrants have seen their employment and earnings dry up in the last couple of months—and because of Trump’s anti-immigrant animus, they are ineligible for stimulus checks.
But in Trumpland, where the buck stops anywhere but the Oval Office, the inability to craft a European-style wage-subsidy program so that companies wouldn’t lay off workers en masse has resulted in the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. By ordering an end to practically all immigration, Trump is distracting the public from his own culpability.
This response, which is contemptuous of the long-established role of Congress in shaping immigration policy, will devastate families, many of whom have waited years for relatives to join them in the United States. It will shatter economic renewal efforts, depriving the country of much-needed talent and entrepreneurial and scientific drive. If it includes students, it could bankrupt a large number of higher education institutions, many of which increasingly rely on the full-tuition fees paid by overseas students to keep their operations going.
Trump is crossing a particularly awful nationalist Rubicon. Having already alienated key allies by withdrawing from the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal, his response to the Covid-19 pandemic could be the last straw. Why should Germany or France, or any other liberal democracy, give the time of day to an “ally” that defunds the World Health Organization in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century; that commits what the German interior minister called “modern piracy” in seizing personal protective equipment paid for, and slated to be shipped to, other countries; whose president undermines globally accepted public health advice by urging citizens to ignore stay-in-place orders, lies about miracle cures that don’t work, and shreds by decree decades of US immigration law? This isn’t the stuff of democracy; it’s the rule-by-whim of a tyrant.
That’s the Signal. Cry, the beloved country.