Among SoCal Immigrants, Alarm Over New Ban On Green Card Seekers

Folders of immigrants' permanent residency applications await processing at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Dallas, Tex. (John Moore/Getty Images)

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President Trump is temporarily blocking many green card seekers from coming to the U.S. during the pandemic — a move rippling through Southern California, where many in the region's large immigrant population have been waiting to reunite with family abroad.

The suspension takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Thursday and applies to those outside the U.S. It will last for 60 days, at which point Trump said he would review the measure. Many applicants for legal permanent residency have been waiting years, but there's fear among some that the order is the start of something that could lengthen the delay.

"When you've got people waiting for family reunification, it is going to impact them because they've been already waiting in line for ten, fifteen years," said Tammy Kim, managing director of the Korean American Center in Irvine.


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While Trump framed the order as a way to protect Americans and the existing immigrant population from new job competition, others saw it as an extension of anti-immigrant policies of his administration.

"It's part of the overall Trump administration effort to halt or dramatically decrease the number of immigrants coming to the United States," said Manju Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council.

LOCAL REACTION

Among community leaders, there's also the concern that the executive order will heighten animosity toward immigrants, particularly Asian Americans who have seen a spike in racist acts in the wake of the pandemic.

"It really seems like an attempt for Trump to move ahead an agenda where he's trying to create immigrants as a reason for any kind of economic problems that we have here in the United States," said Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles.

Soriano-Versoza questioned the point of the ban, noting that the processing of green card applications had already been almost stopped by the pandemic.

Already the Trump administration has introduced a host of immigration restrictions since the COVID-19 pandemic began, including a halt to refugee admissions, the suspension of some visa services and limits on travel across the U.S.-Mexico border.

There are some important exemptions in the president's order. Green card applicants who are the minor children or spouses of U.S. citizens will not be blocked.

Neither will applicants who are physicians, nurses, medical researchers or others who would "perform work essential to combating, recovering from, or otherwise alleviating the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak."

The order is less clear about temporary workers, such as those employed on farms, whose wages the White House has attempted to lower, or in factories.

But Joseph Villela, policy director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, interpreted the order to mean these workers would be exempted. The order as written makes exceptions for those doing "work essential to combating, recovering from, or otherwise alleviating the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their respective designees."

Villela said he found Trump's order to be a "lot of noise."

"This notion that he's protecting Americans from losing their jobs is a false premise, because immigrants complement the job growth and actually increase job creation," Villela said.

HEALTH CARE WORKERS

The carve-out for health care workers was an acknowledgement that the U.S. is the current epicenter of the pandemic and needs overseas help, said Soriano-Versoza of the Pilipino Workers Center.

"Unfortunately, it's looking at immigrants as just, 'How can they serve a very specific need?' instead of as whole people," Soriano-Versoza said.

She said the provision in the order that allows the minor children and spouses to accompany health care workers to the States is "one small bit of humanity that's included."

The order also reads that federal officials will "review nonimmigrant programs and shall recommend to me other measures appropriate to stimulate the United States economy" and ensure the hiring of U.S. workers.

The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to curtail the decades-old system of family-based immigration. The restrictions in the order are similar in scope to a Trump-backed bill from 2017 called the RAISE Act, which sought to eliminate family-based immigrant visas except for spouses and minor children.

One interesting carve-out: Exempted from the ban are wealthy immigrant investors who participate in the EB-5 program, which allows them to obtain immigrant visas for a minumum investment of $900,000 provided the project they invest in creates U.S. jobs. The minimum was raised from $500,000 last year.


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