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Immigration To The U.S. Comes To A Standstill During The Pandemic


President Trump is urging the country to return to normal in many ways, but not when it comes to immigration. Yesterday, the administration renewed orders to close the Canadian and Mexican borders. And today, Vice President Mike Pence says the White House is considering restricting travel from more countries hit hard by the coronavirus. Meanwhile, legal immigration has nearly come to a standstill. NPR's Joel Rose joins us to walk us through all of this.

Hi, Joel.


SHAPIRO: First, just tell us what's happening on the border.

ROSE: Well, as you said, the administration is extending these orders to close the borders. This affects nonessential travel. So workers and commercial trucks, for example, can still get across, but not migrants who want to come to the U.S. to ask for asylum here. They are being turned away from the southern border. Even children who cross without their parents are being deported. And that's a big break from long-standing policy and U.S. law that is meant to protect these vulnerable people.

SHAPIRO: And how does the administration justify this?

ROSE: Well, the administration is framing this as a matter of public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says these policies are necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But public health officials across the country - some have cried foul. Dozens of them sent a letter to the CDC this week urging it to reopen the border to asylum seekers. They say that can be done safely. Instead, the CDC yesterday extended its justification for this policy indefinitely.

SHAPIRO: Also, the White House has limited travel from certain countries. What did Vice President Pence have to say about that today?

ROSE: Yeah. The U.S. has banned foreign nationals who's - who have visited China and Iran and most of Europe in the past two weeks. Now the vice president is talking about adding more travel restrictions.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We're watching very carefully what's taking place in South America, including in Brazil. We saw in recent days there was a significant spike in cases. And the president's made it clear that we are considering additional travel restrictions.

SHAPIRO: So those would be restrictions on people coming into the United States. What about immigrants who are already in the country?

ROSE: Well, the legal immigration system has also been disrupted by the coronavirus. Applications for green cards and citizenship are way down. That's partly because the offices that handle those applications have been closed to the public since March. And it's also because even before the pandemic, the administration had been making it harder for people to apply and to get approval for some of these things.

Now the system itself is starting to buckle. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says it's running out of money. The agency funds its operations with application fees that it charges immigrants. And so it's had to ask Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding to stay afloat.

SHAPIRO: And what have you heard about how all this news is being received within immigrant communities?

ROSE: Well, they are deeply suspicious of this administration and its motives. Many think the White House is using the pandemic as an excuse to get what it has always wanted on immigration. I talked to Ur Jaddou. She's a former chief counsel at USCIS, now with the nonprofit DHS Watch in Washington.

UR JADDOU: All you have to do is look back from the beginning of the administration and walk through policy after policy, which attacks every single area of immigration. Now, with a public health emergency, they can now claim that as a pretext.

ROSE: These measures have been billed as temporary, but many advocates believe that the administration wants to make them permanent because they achieve some of its long-standing goals - closing down asylum at the southern border, deporting unaccompanied children and limiting legal immigration. Now the White House is weighing cuts to temporary work visas. That idea was floated last month. It ran into a lot of opposition from big employers. But the pandemic hasn't gone away, and neither has that idea.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joel Rose, thank you very much.

ROSE: Yeah. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.