President Trump said Tuesday he will halt immigration to the United States for 60 days, a freeze that will block green card recipients from moving to the country but will continue to allow temporary workers on nonimmigrant visas to enter.
Trump portrayed the action, which he first previewed in a tweet late Monday night, as an effort to protect American workers from competition overseas. He indicated during a White House briefing that there would be certain exemptions but did not elaborate.
The president provided a rationale for the unprecedented decision that was primarily economic, arguing that he wants Americans to have access to work as millions of people have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus crisis.
The text of the order was still being written, Trump said Tuesday night, but he expected to sign it on Wednesday.
"It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad," Trump said at the briefing. "We must first take care of the American worker."
The measure will include exemptions for certain groups, though it's unclear how extensive they will be. Trump said farmers will not be affected by the order, appearing to confirm that visas for agricultural workers would fall outside the scope of the measure.
On Twitter, he cited "the attack from the invisible enemy", as he calls the virus, and the need to protect the jobs of Americans, but did not give details.
Immigrant visas are issued for those who have been approved to move permanently to the United States. The majority are family members of US citizens or permanent residents.
The United States already has suspended routine visa services overseas, so that very few would-be immigrants are likely to be stopped just before they board planes.
Harvard Business School professor William Kerr, whose research focuses on how high-skilled immigrant labor has reshaped the US economy, said closing off the pipeline for foreign talent could create barriers to economic success.
Immigrants represent more than a quarter of US entrepreneurs and a quarter of inventors, Kerr said. "These are contributions that are very valuable to economic growth," he said. "We are going to need to restore large parts of our economy, and immigrants could be very helpful in that role."
Critics say the government is using the pandemic to crack down on immigration.
Immigration has traditionally been a strong campaigning theme for Mr Trump, but has taken a back seat during the pandemic and in the lead-up to the November election.
Over the past four weeks, more than 20 million Americans have registered for unemployment benefits. That amounts to roughly as many jobs as employers had added over the previous decade.
The US has more than 787,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 42,000 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Last year, just over one million people were granted lawful permanent resident status in the US, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The top countries of origin were Mexico, China, India, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Cuba.
More than half of those, though, were cases of "adjusted status from within the US" - meaning they were already there - and only 459,000 arrived from abroad. The latter group would be the ones presumably affected by an immigration ban.
When it comes to refugees, there were 30,000 people admitted into the US in 2019, most of them from Congo, Myanmar, Ukraine, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria.