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The U.S. President, seen here leading the coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 22, 2020, signed a proclamation Wednesday evening stopping the issuing of permanent resident status for 60 days starting 11:59 p.m. Thursday.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

President Donald Trump has frozen some immigration to the U.S., citing the coronavirus pandemic, and says he will consider whether to also clamp down on temporary work permits.

Mr. Trump signed a proclamation Wednesday evening stopping the issuing of permanent resident status – better known as green cards – starting at 11:59 p.m. Thursday and lasting for at least 60 days. The move is the latest in the President’s long-running agenda to curb immigration.

The executive order contains numerous exemptions, including for the spouses of U.S. citizens, people already in the U.S., health-care workers, and applicants to the immigrant investor program.

The freeze also does not apply to non-immigrant visas, such as TN work permits under NAFTA, H1Bs for high-skilled professionals or temporary foreign agriculture-worker visas. Numerous U.S. industries, from farms to technology giants, rely on foreign labour and have opposed previous efforts to curtail their workforces.

But the proclamation instructs the Secretaries of Labour and Homeland Security to report back to Mr. Trump with recommendations in 30 days on whether he should place restrictions on temporary work visas as well.

“This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens,” the President told a White House briefing Wednesday evening.

Economic evidence suggests immigration is generally a benefit to employment, rather than a drag. And there is no evidence that immigration is worsening the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. has already stopped processing most work permits amid the public-health crisis, but had left some discretion up to State Department officials. The U.S. has also barred travel from Europe and China, and negotiated deals with Canada and Mexico to prohibit most border crossings. Nearly all U.S. states are also subject to stay-at-home orders.

Exempting temporary work visas, at least for now, provides some breathing room for most Canadian expatriates in the U.S., which include numerous health-care workers who cross daily from Windsor, Ont., to staff Detroit hospitals, tech workers in Silicon Valley and financial-sector employees on Wall Street.

An estimate for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2016 found that there were roughly 140,000 Canadians living in the U.S. on non-immigrant visas, the fourth-highest number after India, China and Mexico. Numbers for the first three quarters of last year showed more than 10 million entries into the U.S. by Canadians with non-immigrant visas.

It is unclear how many Canadians will be affected by the freeze on some permanent residency applications. The U.S. issued 17,821 green cards to Canadians last year.

Ravi Jain, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, said the executive order, like Mr. Trump’s other previous restrictions on immigration, could push valuable workers toward Canada instead. Even as the President has tightened the U.S.’s borders, Canada has taken measures such as speeding up the Global Talent program to allow highly skilled workers to get visas in as little as two weeks.

“Not only are people more interested in Canada because Trump has been so nativist, but Canada has also deliberately worked to attract those who might choose Canada,” said Mr. Jain, of the firm Green and Spiegel.

Mr. Jain said that, in contrast with the U.S., Canada is still processing immigration applications and conferring permanent resident status despite the pandemic.

The numerous exemptions in Mr. Trump’s order are likely meant to blunt challenges to the policy from U.S. employers and to fight off court challenges.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law expert at Cornell University, said the exemptions would make the order more legally defensible, but that the logic behind the policy was still flawed.

“First, if the purpose of the proclamation is to protect against the coronavirus, it makes no sense to temporarily suspend entry of people applying for green visas but not those coming temporarily to the United States. Second, if the purpose is to protect U.S. workers, it also makes no sense to exclude temporary foreign workers from the proclamation,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The administration appeared to be in disarray over the drafting of the order. Mr. Trump first announced it by surprise in a 10:06 p.m. tweet on Monday. He did not provide any additional details until late the following day. On Wednesday, he did not announce the actual signing until half an hour into the briefing, and it took even longer for the White House to issue the text of the order.

Civil-liberties advocates and Democratic politicians have vowed to fight the restrictions, labelling them as efforts by Mr. Trump to whip up xenophobia to distract from his mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Joaquin Castro, a Democratic congressman from Texas, accused Mr. Trump on Twitter of making “an authoritarian-like move to take advantage of a crisis and advance his anti-immigrant agenda.”

Republicans have lined up to defend the President. Senator Ted Cruz told Fox News that cutting off immigration would help “millions of workers here at home that we need to get back to work.”

Since campaigning in 2016 on a signature pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border and to ban Muslim people from entering the United States, Mr. Trump has rolled out a series of policies meant to reduce the numbers of both legal and unauthorized immigrants coming to the U.S.

One such move, Mr. Trump’s order barring travel from a group of mostly majority-Muslim countries, was upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional in 2018. But that decision – which was split between the court’s five conservative and four liberal justices – came only after Mr. Trump revised the order several times to narrow it, and provided a detailed rationale.

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