Trump's immigration freeze: Who's affected and who isn't

First came U.S. President Donald Trump's big announcement on immigration. Now comes the fine print. It appears Trump's immigration freeze order leaves cross-border workers mostly untouched, providing relief to huge numbers of Canadians.

His order spares huge categories of visa-holders. Some of Trump's own supporters wonder if it does anything

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to lead the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Tuesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

First came the big announcement: President Donald Trump declared via Twitter that he would suspend immigration to the United States.

Now comes the considerable fine print.

It appears the order will spare vast categories of temporary visa-holders, based on the initial details described by the president on Tuesday.

In fact, some of Trump's supporters complain it doesn't actually do much.

Trump said he will sign an order, either Wednesday or Thursday, that will, for at least 60 days and possibly longer, pause processing of immigration applications.

It creates additional uncertainty for a few thousand Canadians awaiting permanent resident status in the U.S. Last year, 17,821 Canadians gained that status — most of whom already lived in the U.S. under a non-immigration work visa.

"We'll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens. So important," Trump told a news conference Tuesday. 

"We must first take care of the American worker."

Work visas: untouched

But the announcement doesn't actually apply to work visas. Huge numbers of Canadians and other foreigners live in the U.S. as non-immigrants, under visas tied to their jobs.

Canadians made more than one million trips to the U.S. in 2018 under such visas linked to their employment, or to a family member's employment. Some of these visa-holders include Canadians fighting the pandemic in U.S. hospitals.

Trump said he'll decide after 60 days whether to extend the order.

A Canadian immigration lawyer said the fact that temporary foreign workers are currently exempt is great news for them, and for the many U.S. companies that rely on visa-holding foreigners.

"Many people will be relieved," said Andrea Vaitzner, a lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright in Montreal. "But at the same time, I suspect many will be waiting for the other shoe to drop."

That's because Trump issued a warning Tuesday: he did not rule out the possibility of eventually extending the freeze to additional categories.

He also said the details of this initial order were still being worked out. "It's being written now," Trump said during the news conference. 

Does this order actually do anything?

One Fox News host blasted the announcement.

"If it was to protect American jobs, it failed," said Tucker Carlson, a Trump supporter and immigration hawk. He accused Trump's entourage of watering it down.

"How did this happen, exactly? We're not sure, but we do plan to find out."

The order would delay processing of permanent-residency applications — more than one million people from around the world gained that immigration status in the U.S. last year.

U.S. immigration offices were already closed because of the pandemic, raising the question of just how much of a difference the president's 60-day freeze order will make. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)

But it's not clear how much immigration is actually happening right now, raising the question of how many cases this order will actually affect. 

U.S. immigration offices were already shuttered amid the pandemic. Air Canada had already cancelled flights to the U.S. And non-essential travel was suspended between Canada and the U.S. at the border. 

What is clear, however, is that the announcement was instantaneously thrust into presidential politics. 

Presidential politics

Trump's campaign began pumping out texts to supporters about the move.

One immigration expert said the act was more about politics than policy. 

"This is a move without enormous practical implications," said Justin Gest, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

"More than anything, it's an attempt to distract from the administration's incompetent response to the global pandemic."

The administration has faced significant criticism for its handling of the outbreak in the U.S., which has killed more than 44,000 Americans.

Trump has looked to adapt his coronavirus message to fit the nationalist, America First theme he's campaigning on. 

In recent days, Trump has frozen funding for one global institution, the World Health Organization, and accused it of covering up Chinese mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak. He's blasted Democratic rival Joe Biden as too China-friendly. Now, he's limited immigration as part of his pandemic response.

A screenshot of a text message sent to supporters by the Trump campaign. (Trump campaign)

Meanwhile, people who normally live their lives on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border are already feeling unique anxiety.

April Umbenhower, for one, doesn't know when she'll see her fiance again. 

The Kingsville, Ont., woman and her Michigan-dwelling boyfriend are planning to marry, and don't know how long travel restrictions will keep them apart.

"All you can do is hope and pray at this point. Because that's all you can do," she said in an interview.

"We're at a complete standstill."

April Umbenhower lives in Kingsville, Ont., while her fiance lives in Detroit. Cross-border travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have kept them apart. (Submitted by April Umbenhower)

She works at a hardware store in Ontario; her boyfriend, Steven Husak, works in the financial sector near Detroit.

He's planning to immigrate to Canada to be with her.

"You talk about your wedding date and preparing to maybe have children together," Husak said. "And you have to put it on hold without a timetable."

He's hoping that, before long, COVID-19 tests might be readily available, and given to people trying to cross the border.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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