Presidential Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Due to Wuhan Coronavirus

If American workers don't have jobs, they will be voters who want more benefits

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 23, 2020

Topic Page: Covid-19 and Immigration

  • The president issued a proclamation on Wednesday in response to the economic downturn caused by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic that would limit only a tiny fraction of immigrants from entering the United States,.
  • Excluded from the coverage of that order are temporary guestworkers, although many of those individuals have likely been certified to perform jobs that newly unemployed Americans are now available to do.
  • At least one news report indicates that government officials included this exclusion out of fear that Americans would prefer to receive government benefits instead of applying for the jobs that temporary guestworkers are slated to perform.
  • This is a questionable proposition, and one that ignores the benefits — both psychological and economic — that would accrue to those unemployed Americans in securing those positions, as well as the benefits to the American economy.
  • The president has stated that he will consider whether to apply these restrictions to nonimmigrants (including implicitly guestworkers), and he should do so from fiscal, economic, and political standpoints.

On Wednesday, the president issued his promised order (in the form of a presidential proclamation (PP)), suspending for 60 days the entry of a limited number of foreign nationals as immigrants in response to economic and health concerns resulting from the current Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. It is less than promised, but likely reflects an overstated assessment of the "moral hazard" of congressional action in dampening labor markets.

To recap, as I explained on Tuesday: "On Monday night, the president stated that he would 'be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States' in response to the economic downturn caused by the Wuhan coronavirus." Here is his actual tweet:


It has been said that "there are no books, only readers", meaning that each person who picks up a tome will view it through his or her own point of view and experience. Some people think Holden Caulfield is a self-centered jerk, some a young narrator who lacks the insight and introspection that comes with age, some a role model for civilization's discontents (among other interpretations). That is why Catcher in the Rye is required reading at most schools.

Applying this aphorism to the tweet above, readers can find whatever interpretation they want — all immigration (including temporary guestworkers), or entry involving only immigrants (as defined in section 101(a)(15) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)), or some subset of immigrants and nonimmigrants, or something else. That is the beauty of Twitter for the author, and the limitation for the pundit.

As it turns out, the PP is more limited in scope than some (including me) would have liked, and much broader than some immigrant advocates can stand.

Briefly, it bars only "immigrants" (as defined in the INA), with exceptions for: immigrants with green cards who are abroad or nonimmigrant aliens in the United States with pending immigrant adjustment applications; foreign nationals abroad who currently have an immigrant visa or other immigrant travel document (but no green card); healthcare professionals, researchers on the Wuhan coronavirus, and those who are needed to respond to the health and economic consequences of the disease (as well as their immediate relatives); immediate relatives of U.S. citizens; certain orphan adoptees; those coming to advance "important United States law enforcement objectives"; members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their immediate relatives; Iraqi and Afghan translators/interpreters and Iraqis who worked for/on behalf of the U.S. government coming on special immigrant visas; aliens whose entry is in the national interest; and, curiously, "any alien applying for a visa to enter the United States pursuant to the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program".

I say "curiously", because as my colleague Jessica Vaughan has recently stated, the EB-5 program is "the most scandal-ridden category of immigrants of all." That aside, she further notes: "The pause applies to only a few immigrants who represent a tiny fraction (about 5 percent) of total annual admissions, and will actually re-start admissions that have been paused, well before this health crisis is over, and well before the employment crisis is over."

Applying those restrictions to guestworkers would have made sense because, as I have noted:

There is a lag time in the certification process, and in the final certification and the foreign national actually obtaining the visa, meaning that many employers have applied for certifications, or aliens are seeking visas, based on a U.S. (or local) job picture months in the past — a snapshot that does not reflect the current availability of American workers in the United States today.

Simply put, potential guestworkers are currently applying for visas based on economic conditions that have changed drastically for the worse. Resetting the clock and requiring employers to seek unemployed Americans for jobs that would otherwise go to foreign nationals simply makes sense.

Given this, why would the president potentially promise so much and deliver so little? Some insight may be found in a Thursday editorial by the Wall Street Journal:

Much of the harm from the coronavirus is unavoidable, but it would be nice if politicians didn't compound the damage by ignoring the laws of economics. The worst blunder so far on that score is the $600 increase in federal jobless benefits that is already undermining the economic recovery.

On Wednesday we ran an op-ed from Kurt Huffman, whose Portland, Ore., company helps chefs run and staff their restaurants. Because of the coronavirus, he had to lay off 700 people. But some restaurants have adapted with takeout and delivery, so he needs to hire some back.

Some extra unemployment insurance is necessary, but the rich extra compensation from the $2.2 trillion Cares Act is encouraging those employees to stay home. Mr. Huffman did the math in his op-ed: A starting wage for a line cook is about $640 a week. Oregon's unemployment offers about $416 per week. But thanks to the $600 federal bonus, that same worker now collects $1,016. Why would anyone take a pay cut to go back to work?

In immigration terms, this suggests there are Americans who have applied for unemployment since the economy was largely shut down (some 26.4 million since mid-March, or 15 percent of the American workforce), and who have the skills to replace intending temporary guestworkers currently abroad and waiting to come into the United States to work, but who have no economic incentive to do so.

In fact, Fox News host Tucker Carlson suggested on his Wednesday program that the fear within the administration that unemployed Americans would prefer not to take jobs that are currently slotted for temporary guestworkers prompted the president to limit his PP to exclude them from its scope.

Specifically, he asserted that "key White House aides were afraid of angering corporate leaders", and that "officials from the Department of Labor and the Council of Economic Advisors pushed for the vast guestworker exemption," arguing "the unemployment benefits in the coronavirus stimulus bill were so generous that American citizens would refuse to go back to work because it was easier to just get a government check. And so we have to bring in more foreigners."

This is an example of the economic concept known as "moral hazard", explained in a somewhat simplistic manner as follows:

Moral hazard is the idea that a party protected in some way from risk will act differently than if they didn't have that protection. We encounter moral hazard every day — tenured professors becoming indifferent lecturers, people with theft insurance being less vigilant about where they park, salaried salespeople taking long breaks, and so on.


Government safety nets create moral hazards that lead to more risk-taking, and the fallout from markets with unreasonable risks — meltdowns, crashes, and panics — reinforces the need for more government controls. Consequently, the government feels the need to strengthen these nets through regulations and controls that increase the moral hazard in the future.

The question becomes whether it is true in this instance that Congress has created a moral hazard that prompts Americans not to take new jobs and seek new opportunities that will consequently go to alien guestworkers. Respectfully, I have my doubts to some degree, and would note that the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal itself has a view of immigration that is somewhat more expansive and generous than the Center's.

As the Center has noted numerous times, "There is nothing more permanent than temporary foreign workers." Once jobs that American workers can — but choose not to — do are lost to temporary guestworkers, they are likely lost for the foreseeable future. There is likely some proportion of those American workers who would prefer to be on the government dole than working, but I seriously doubt that there are as many as the officials Carlson cites would believe.

The importance of valuable labor is likely best summed up in the following quote by "author and social scientist" Leo Rosten:

THE PURPOSE OF LIFE is not to be happy. The purpose of life is to matter, to be productive, to have it make some difference that you lived at all. Happiness, in the ancient, noble sense, means self-fulfillment — and is given to those who use to the fullest whatever talents God or luck or fate bestowed upon them.

You will not find such fulfillment sitting on the couch watching "Tiger King" and waiting for a government check. A job is more than a job — it gives life meaning. In addition, that job provides more security than the government benefit.

Of course, there are also moral hazards for politicians that accompany such benefits. Gerald Ford remarked (likely borrowing from others) that "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." That said, it is very difficult for government to turn off a benefit once it has been granted. As economist Milton Friedman noted: "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program." (We more likely paraphrased him than vice-versa — he said it a year before the Center was founded). That is likely more true in a hotly contested election year than ever. If American workers don't have jobs, they will be voters who want more benefits.

It is in the interest of the White House, therefore, from a purely political perspective, to push unemployed workers off of government benefits and into jobs, but the jobs have to be there. In his PP, the president made clear:

Within 30 days of the effective date of this proclamation, the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, shall review nonimmigrant programs and shall recommend to me other measures appropriate to stimulate the United States economy and ensure the prioritization, hiring, and employment of United States workers.

For the good of the American worker, and his own political prospects, he should mean it.