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U.S. federal agents inspect vehicles leaving the United States at the U.S.-Mexico border after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States during the COVID-19 outbreak in San Diego, California, on April 21, 2020.

MIKE BLAKE/Reuters

President Donald Trump says he will freeze immigration into the United States because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, using the current public-health crisis to push forward his nationalistic agenda.

The unprecedented ban – which will halt the issuing of permanent resident cards for at least 60 days – drew swift fire from civil-liberties advocates and Democratic legislators, who decried it as xenophobic and racist. Immigration experts said the ban would do nothing to fight COVID-19 or to help the country’s decimated economy.

Mr. Trump made the surprise announcement in a tweet at 10:06 p.m. on Monday, apparently catching even his own administration off guard. “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” the President tweeted.

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At a White House news conference on Tuesday evening, the President said the freeze would apply to people seeking permanent residency, or “green cards,” and would contain some exemptions. After 60 days, he said he would re-evaluate the measure and decide whether to extend it. Mr. Trump said the order was still being worked on and he would most likely sign it on Wednesday.

The ban will not include temporary work visas for now, the President said. But he said he is also considering a second executive order with more restrictions. Mr. Trump vowed to use immigration restrictions to “become more and more protective” of native-born American workers who have lost their jobs because of coronavirus.

The United States suspended the processing of most work permits last month as the pandemic took hold. But State Department officials can still make exceptions, such as for people in essential sectors. An executive order could eliminate this discretion and impose a uniform ban.

Reuters, citing an administration source, said the White House is also considering imposing new requirements on applicants for H-1B visas – which are for high-skilled workers and widely used in the tech sector – to prove they are not displacing Americans.

Mr. Trump has already blocked travel by anyone who has been in China or Europe in the previous 14 days. He reached agreements with Canada and Mexico last month to suspend non-essential travel between them and the United States. Those deals exempt some people with cross-border work permits.

A senior Canadian official said the Trudeau government’s impression is that any presidential action would be largely symbolic because immigration processing has ground to a halt.

Since his election in 2016 on a pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border and to stop Muslim people from entering the United States, Mr. Trump has pursued a wide-ranging agenda to clamp down on both legal and unauthorized immigration.

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In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld one of Mr. Trump’s most contested measures, a ban on travel from a group of mostly majority-Muslim countries. That split decision pitted five Republican-appointed judges against four Democratic-appointed ones.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law expert at Cornell University, said stopping all immigration to the U.S. would be “outrageous and likely unconstitutional.” He said the move could be challenged on several grounds: the right of U.S. citizens to freely associate with non-citizen family members by helping them immigrate, for instance, or the right of workers already in the country to due process.

“From a policy perspective, it just does not make any sense. It’s one thing to require extra testing of people immigrating, but it’s overbroad to deny immigration visas to everyone outside the United States simply because you think they carry the disease,” he said.

Prof. Yale-Loehr pointed out that the 2018 Supreme Court decision found the travel ban to be above board only after the White House had added exemptions and produced a report to explain why it was justified.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought Mr. Trump’s previous efforts to curb immigration, called the coming freeze a distraction from efforts to fight the pandemic.

“President Trump seems more interested in fanning anti-immigrant flames than in saving lives,” Andrea Flores, a policy director with the group, said in a statement. “We cannot allow President Trump to exploit this pandemic to advance his racism and xenophobia.”

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Don Beyer, a Democratic congressman from Virginia, tweeted that Mr. Trump was engaging in “xenophobic scapegoating” to shift blame away from his failure to manage the pandemic.

Republican legislators, meanwhile, lined up behind the President. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted that the U.S. should not “import more foreigners to compete” for jobs. Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan told Fox News that because Americans have to stay at home, “it kind of makes sense that we’re not going to let new people into the country.”

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, said there is no precedent for the U.S. completely shutting down immigration. Even during the Spanish Flu pandemic and the Second World War, the country allowed in hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

In a study of county-level data, Cato found no correlation between immigration levels and rates of coronavirus. And there is no evidence immigration causes job losses, he said.

“It’s purely political at this stage, especially since the order is redundant,” Mr. Nowrasteh said. “This is basically a big signal to a bunch of the President’s supporters that he’s still trying to limit legal immigration as much as possible.”

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