Dr. Gitika Talwar, a clinical-community psychologist, works at an American university where she helps college students manage anxiety, depression and the effects of trauma, but for a few days now, she has been trying to clamp down on her own feelings of fear. It has been that way since U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly and vaguely announced in a tweet that he was temporarily suspending immigration into the country.
“As soon as I read the tweet, I was very scared. Every moment in the past few years has been a distinct choice between worrying about my immigration or allowing myself to think of other things,” said Talwar, who did her doctorate in the U.S. and has been living there with her husband for over 13 years.
On Wednesday, Trump signed a proclamation that will suspend some immigration into the U.S. for 60 days—among other things, this will temporarily halt the issuing of green cards to immigrants currently outside the U.S.
“This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens,” Trump stated at a press conference held to announce his executive order. “It will also preserve our healthcare resources for American patients.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, over 840,000 people have tested positive and 46,785 people have died of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Due to the economic slowdown, over 26 million people have filed for unemployment aid in the last five weeks.
Trump’s order will likely face legal challenges, and experts have repeatedly pointed out that restricting immigration will not lead to more jobs for Americans. But the coronavirus pandemic—U.S. is currently the worst-affected country—may have given the Trump administration the excuse it wanted to begin reducing legal immigration—though Trump has denied this—and there could be worse in store.
Thousands of Indians immigrate to the U.S. every year, and form a diaspora of around 4 million in the country. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that “further immigration restrictions could have particularly acute consequences for India”.
“As a mental health professional, I am doing both things right now: I am feeling really scared about the pandemic and my immigration status and putting all of that aside, entering a room, being calm and composed and acting like everything is normal,” said Talwar.
In emailed comments, Rebecca Bernhard, partner at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said that “the most significant thing in the EO (executive order) is the language suggesting the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Labor will be working on additional EOs on the same topic”, implying that there could be further restrictions in the offing.
As of now, the immigration moratorium would affect only those applying for green cards to the US in the next 60 days, exempting temporary visas of any kind, EB-5 investor visas, special immigrant visas and spouses and minor children of American citizens. This could lead to the US not approving around 33% of the 1.1 million green cards it issues every year until the order is in effect.
According to a recent study by the Cato Institute, skilled Indians account for 89% of the employment-based green card backlog, with most facing a wait of over 90 years to receive lawful permanent residence in the U.S. Over 200,000 will die of old age before receiving a green card, says the study. Indians are also disproportionately affected by the 7% caps on countries as they make up over 50% of the applicants.
“I have felt like a sitting duck for so long, I have felt exposed for so long, and I am really upset about the people who have allowed me to be this exposed,” said Talwar about the stalled Senate vote on Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act, that would have eliminated the annual per country cap on employment-based applications. “At the end of the day, I just don’t know where I am supposed to go.”
David Bier, the author of the Cato study, believes that the new order might not have a huge impact on Indian green card applicants, as more than 92% of employer-based EB-2 and EB-3 Indian green card applicants are already working in the US on a temporary status like the H-1B non-immigrant visa. As of now, the order only applies to those who are applying for permanent residence from outside the U.S. and not to temporary non-immigrant visas.
However, the new executive order also mentions a review and additional measures of non-immigrant programmes (H-1Bs, H-2As, student visas and others) in the next 30 days to “stimulate the United States economy and ensure the prioritisation, hiring, and employment of United States workers.”
For Indians, who make a majority of the H-1B workers, the temporary programme is a bridge to the permanent system. Some believe that Trump’s new immigration policy was a response to calls for pausing the H-1B programme by organisations such as the US Tech Workers as unemployment soars in the US. This year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 275,000 unique H-1B registrations, of which around 68% are Indians.
Tucker Carlson, Fox News host and conservative pundit, has said that the original draft of the executive order also included “guest workers” such as H-1B and H-2A workers but was changed as the administration was afraid of “angering corporate leaders”.
Immigration was the cornerstone of Trump’s 2016 election campaign and he is pushing for the same with the November 2020 presidential elections. Boundless, an immigration company, writes that the new executive order mirrors Trump’s unsuccessful 2017 “RAISE Act” with many parallels on who will be impacted by the order.
The US has already imposed travel restrictions on China, Canada, Mexico, and many parts of Europe. Additionally, the Trump administration has announced visa sanctions on countries that do not take back their deported citizens. For Indians on visas like the H-1B who lose their jobs, it may be impossible to go back given the travel ban in India.