Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Donald Trump’s late-night Monday tweet—declaring plans to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States”—is at once less and more significant than it seems.

It is less significant because the Trump administration has already used the COVID-19 crisis to stop most migration into America. The country has halted almost all visa processing and postponed visa interviews. Both the Mexican and Canadian borders have been shut down. Migrants and asylum seekers found at either border are now deported immediately. And it’s now clear that the president’s newest executive action won’t be as expansive as his tweet. Today, for example, the administration said it will continue letting some guest workers in.

The declaration is more significant because it signals that Trump has now carried out perhaps his most notorious promise—to end almost all immigration. For years, Trump has used the language of crisis to try and halt immigration. It’s no surprise that he’s now taking advantage of a genuine emergency. His presidential campaign famously began with a declaration that Mexican immigrants were “rapists” and that the U.S. had become “a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.” After stoking breathless Fox News coverage of an arriving migrant caravan (or, as he called it, an “invasion”), Trump deployed thousands of military troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. And to make good on his trademark pledge to “build the wall,” Trump actually declared a national emergency and redirected billions of military dollars to construct new barriers.

In the past, some of Trump’s sweeping attempts to halt immigration by executive fiat have been circumscribed by the courts. But the coronavirus changes the balance-of-powers calculus. To respond to the disease’s outbreak, the federal government needs more power, including over entry to the country. For as long as the pandemic persists, Trump may face less institutional opposition to his immigration policies.

But what happens once the pandemic ends? Scientists currently estimate it will take at least another 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is available. If that’s correct, the country may not be pandemic free until well after the November presidential elections. The “new normal” for American immigration, then, will rest on who wins. Under a Biden administration, it’s reasonable to assume that almost all of these policies will eventually be reversed. But under a continued Trump administration, America’s COVID immigration regime might become permanent.

As Gaby Del Valle writes in the Monthly’s most recent print issue:

Should Trump win a second term, he will likely nominate at least one additional Supreme Court justice and add to the nearly 200 federal judges he has appointed so far (a quarter of all federal judges). The legal firewall that has held back the most radical of his executive orders could crumble. He will continue to target not just undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, but legal immigrants as well.

It’s not just the courts that may sign off. As Del Valle argues, faced with a second Trump term, it’s even possible that a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would trade broad cuts to immigration for dreamer protections.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. If the Court lets the program end, Trump may go to Democrats in Congress and promise protection for Dreamers, but only in exchange for broader immigration cuts. The party shut down the government for several days in January 2018 to try to make sure Dreamers wouldn’t be deported, and failed…. It isn’t hard to imagine that to protect them, come 2021, Democrats would give Trump what he wants.

Right now, Trump’s orders may seem transient. But a second Trump term could mean they will be with us long after the coronavirus is gone.

Daniel Block

Daniel Block is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly. Follow him on Twitter @DBlock94