Biden names Harris to lead efforts with Mexico to stem flow of immigrants

By Andrea Shalal, Steve Holland and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Wednesday named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries to try to stem the flow of migration to the United States.

Biden’s decision gives a high-profile assignment to his vice president, a daughter of immigrants who has forged a reputation as an ally of immigration advocates. As California attorney general, Harris had to deal with a major influx of unaccompanied minors at the state’s border with Mexico in 2014.

It is a task that comes with some political risks for Harris, a potential future presidential candidate. Border woes have been an intractable problem for multiple presidents.

Biden served in a similar role for then-President Barack Obama when he was vice president. By assigning her to handling diplomatic efforts with Central America, Biden is elevating the migration issue as a top priority.

Just two months in office, Biden is struggling to get a handle on a burgeoning migration challenge along the U.S. border with Mexico – a problem the Democrat blamed on “the somewhat draconian” policies of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who left office with his border wall incomplete.

Biden said the United States is going to need help from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and that Harris “agreed to lead our diplomatic efforts and work with those countries.”

“The best way to keep people from coming is to keep them from wanting to leave,” Biden said, listing gang violence, drug trafficking cartels, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes as factors spurring migration.

Harris said the job “will not be easy, but it is important work, it is work that we demand as a people of our country.”

U.S. officials are battling to house and process an increasing number of unaccompanied children, many of whom have been stuck in jail-like border stations for days while they await placement in overwhelmed government-run shelters.

Senior administration officials said Harris’s focus will be on regional solutions and working with leaders in the region to make it safer for people to remain in their home countries and make asylum requests there.

“We’re going to look at the possibility for people in their home countries in the Northern Triangle to have a predictable, regular process of seeking asylum there so they don’t have to take this phenomenally dangerous journey or, worse yet, send their children unaccompanied,” said one senior official who briefed reporters on the Harris move.

Another official said Biden had asked Harris to take on the job. She is expected to travel to the region at some point, but no trips are planned yet, the official said. Phone calls with leaders in the region are expected as well.

Since taking office in January, Harris has been carving out a role for herself as a key promoter of Biden’s U.S. coronavirus relief bill, the first major legislation the president signed into law.

Within that area, much of Harris’s focus has been on how the stimulus bill can help women and small businesses. She has also taken an active role in encouraging Americans to get vaccinated.

While she has not had a specific policy portfolio until now, she has had calls with foreign leaders, including key allies such as France and Israel.

Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the Immigration Hub, a migration advocacy group, welcomed Harris’s appointment, saying it “underscores the seriousness of the Biden-Harris White House to tackle every aspect of our broken immigration system.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Nandita Bose and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Mohammad Zargham and Steve Holland; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)

Biden set to accept more refugees

By Steve Holland and Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will issue an executive order to build up the country’s capacity to accept refugees, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during a White House briefing on Thursday, but the timing of the action remains unclear.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said later in the briefing that she did not expect Biden to issue the order on Thursday, but that Biden is “committed to looking for ways to ensure more refugees are welcomed into the United States.”

Biden has pledged to restore the United States’ historic role as a country that welcomes refugees from around the world after four years of cuts to admissions under former U.S. President Donald Trump. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 1.4 million refugees worldwide in urgent need of resettlement.

During his presidency, Trump portrayed refugees as a security threat and a drain on U.S. communities as he took a series of measures to restrict legal immigration. The Biden administration is confronting a refugee program hobbled by Trump’s hardline policies, which led to the closure of resettlement offices and disrupted the pipeline of refugees to the United States, a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden was expected to issue the refugee order in conjunction with a speech on Thursday at the U.S. State Department that aims to reinvigorate the workforce there, but the order was delayed, according to one person familiar with the plan. The reason for the delay was not clear.

Biden vowed on the campaign trail to raise the annual refugee ceiling to 125,000, up from a record-low 15,000 set by Trump for this fiscal year.

Biden eventually plans to raise refugee levels this year, but the target will be lower than his goal of 125,000, according to two people familiar with the matter.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Steve Holland and Ted Hesson in Washington, Editing by Franklin Paul and Aurora Ellis)

Biden orders review of Trump immigration rules as officials say time needed to unravel them

By Ted Hesson and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday will order a review of asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border and the immigration system as he seeks to undo some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline policies, two senior administration officials said.

Biden will also create a task force to reunite migrant families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by Trump’s 2018 “zero tolerance” border strategy, the officials said on a call with reporters on Monday.

Immigration advocates have urged the new Democratic administration to move quickly but officials say they need time to unravel the many layers of immigration restrictions introduced during the Trump era and to put in place new, more migrant-friendly systems.

“Fully remedying the actions will take time and require a full-governance approach,” one of the officials said.

Biden’s executive orders on Tuesday will not address repealing a coronavirus-era order, known as “Title 42,” that was issued under the Trump administration and allows border officials to expel almost all people caught crossing the border illegally.

He will also mandate a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a program that pushed 65,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for U.S. court hearings. Most returned to their home countries but some remained in a makeshift camp near the Mexican border.

The Biden administration has already stopped adding people to the program but crucially it has not yet outlined how it will process the claims of those already enrolled.

“I can’t tell you exactly how long it will take to put in an alternative to that policy,” another official told reporters on Monday in response to a reporter’s question about processing people enrolled in the program.

Chad Wolf, former acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary under Trump, said in an interview that halting the MPP program was a mistake because it had been an effective deterrent to illegal immigration.

“If you do have a surge (of migrants), you’re taking one of your tools off the table,” he said in reference to the program.

Biden advisers have said in recent months they will not immediately roll back Trump’s restrictive border and asylum policies due to concerns about encouraging illegal immigration during the coronavirus pandemic. Biden himself said in December that his administration needed to set up “guardrails” so that the United States does not “end up with two million people on our border.”

Biden’s actions on Tuesday will follow six immigration orders he issued on his first day in office and will further jumpstart his ambitious pro-immigrant agenda that seeks to erase Trump’s restrictive policies on legal and illegal immigration.

HURDLES

But Biden’s efforts face logistical challenges and opposition from Republicans, according to immigration policy experts, former officials and activists on both sides of the issue.

Lawsuits by conservative groups could potentially slow down Biden’s agenda. A federal judge last week temporarily blocked one of his first immigration moves – a 100-day pause on many deportations – after the Republican-led state of Texas sought an injunction.

Trump won the presidency in 2016 while making border security a major theme of his campaign. If Biden fails to prevent surges in illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, he could give ammunition to Republicans in the 2022 congressional elections, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

“This is the thing that rallied Donald Trump supporters,” she said.

Biden’s review of Trump’s so-called “public charge” rule is expected to start the process to rescind it, according to two people familiar with the plan. The rule makes it harder for immigrants who are poor or need government help to secure residency and stay in the country.

Biden’s expected order setting up the task force to reunite parents and children separated at the southern border was a key election promise.

The task force, however, will face a daunting challenge in trying to track down the parents of more than 600 children who remain separated, according to a January court filing in a related case. The children are living with relatives or in foster care, according to an attorney representing plaintiffs in the litigation.

The task force will be led by Alejandro Mayorkas, one of the senior officials said on Monday. Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, is expected to face a Senate confirmation vote on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin, Aurora Ellis and Alistair Bell)

Exclusive: Canada deporting thousands even as pandemic rages

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada deported thousands of people even as COVID-19 raged last year, data seen by Reuters shows, and lawyers say deportations are ramping up, putting people needlessly at risk in the midst of a global health emergency.

Like many other countries, Canada is struggling to stop a second wave from spiraling out of control, and its political leaders are begging residents to stay home to prevent the spread.

Lawyers and human rights advocates are decrying Canada’s November decision to resume deportations. Until now, the extent of the country’s pandemic deportations was not known, but recent interviews with immigration lawyers and scrutiny of government numbers has shed light on the situation.

Canada counted 12,122 people as removed in 2020 – 875 more than the previous year and the highest number since at least 2015, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data seen by Reuters. The government says this was necessary and done safely.

The CBSA says the high number last year is because it includes people who decided to leave on their own, termed “administrative removals.” In 2019 there were 1,657 administrative removals, compared with 8,215 last year.

Even subtracting those numbers, that leaves thousands of people deported as the pandemic raged and governments cautioned against travel of any kind for safety reasons.

Even as Canada continues to deport non-citizens during a health crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden paused deportations for 100 days within hours of being sworn in on Wednesday.

Canada officially imposed a moratorium on deportations in March that it lifted at the end of November.

“As much as a human rights concern it’s a common sense concern,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.

Countries’ deportation practices have varied over the course of the pandemic. Several, including the United Kingdom, suspended deportations before resuming them. Others, like Ireland, have kept suspensions in place.

The CBSA said it has been prioritizing deportations for reasons of “serious admissibility,” including criminality.

The vast majority of people deported in 2020 were for reasons of “noncompliance.” Even taking into account administrative removals, more than 1,000 people were deported during the suspension, the data shows.

‘IT’S UNBELIEVABLE’

Public health experts have warned that travel of any kind can spread COVID-19 from one place to another, a risk that grows with the advent of more highly transmissible COVID variants.

Many of the deportation trips involve transfers at multiple airports and flights during which people are placed in enclosed space in close quarters with other people for hours at a time, a situation ripe for transmission.

Since August Canada has been conducting deportations with CBSA escorts, so Canadians are also making thousands of these round-trip flights for deportation purposes.

Organizations including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers spoke out against Canada’s decision to resume deportations.

“As everybody is putting in place more restrictions in an effort to flatten the curve … CBSA made a shocking decision to simply go back to business as usual,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

“Canada has taken the position that nonessential travel is barred yet people are now being removed and there’s no indication that those removals are essential.”

The CBSA said in a statement it lifted the moratorium on deportations because foreign government offices and borders had reopened, airlines restarted their routes and public-health protocols “have contributed to a high degree of safety for persons being removed by air.”

“Canada continues to uphold both its human rights and public safety obligations in relation to the removal of inadmissible foreign nationals,” the statement said. “The removal process includes many checks and balances to ensure that the removal is conducted in a fair and just manner.”

But these deportations are endangering not only the people being deported but the government officers tasked with accompanying them to their destination, lawyers say.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman’s Toronto office went from getting no removal cases to getting three or four in the space of a week, he said. He is now fighting for a failed refugee claimant with two young Canadian children who faces deportation to Egypt Monday.

“They’re ramping it up as if there was no pandemic,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)

Trump finalizes sweeping asylum restrictions in immigration crackdown

By Ted Hesson and Mimi Dwyer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration finalized a regulation on Thursday that greatly restricts access to asylum in the United States, part of an immigration crackdown.

The final rule cuts off asylum access for most migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border through a series of changes to eligibility criteria, according to experts and advocates. In addition, it directs immigration judges and asylum officers to deny broad types of asylum claims, such as those based on domestic abuse and gang violence, with some exceptions.

The new policy will almost certainly face legal challenges, which have sidelined other immigration initiatives put in place by President Donald Trump.

The latest restrictions are set to take effect on Jan. 11.

The asylum restrictions are part of a broader push to implement tougher immigration rules, a central focus of his years in office.

The new rule instructs asylum officers and judges to weigh negatively applications from migrants who crossed into the United States illegally, used fraudulent documents, or passed through other countries without seeking refuge elsewhere first.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. watchdog investigating immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies

By Ted Hesson and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the department’s internal watchdog is investigating a Georgia immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.

Wolf said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general would interview people at the facility on Wednesday and Thursday, but cautioned that “some of the facts on the ground” did not back up the allegations.

“At this point, they are allegations, and we need to make sure that they fully investigate them so that all sides have a chance to be heard,” Wolf said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The claims were made by Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, in a complaint filed to the inspector general last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has denied the allegations, which have shocked people across Latin America, from where many U.S. immigrants hail, and caused an outcry among Democratic lawmakers.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. immigration officials spread coronavirus with detainee transfers

By Mica Rosenberg, Kristina Cooke and Reade Levinson

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Public health specialists have for months warned the U.S. government that shuffling detainees among immigration detention centers will expose people to COVID-19 and help spread the disease.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued the practice, saying it is taking all necessary precautions.

It turns out the health specialists were right, according to a Reuters review of court records and ICE data.

The analysis of immigration court data identified 268 transfers of detainees between detention centers in April, May and June, after hundreds in ICE custody had already tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Half of the transfers Reuters identified involved detainees who were either moved from centers with COVID-19 cases to centers with no known cases, or from centers with no cases to those where the virus had spread.

The Reuters tally is likely just a small fraction of all transfers, former ICE officials said. ICE does not release data on detainee moves, and court records capture only a smattering of them.

At least one transfer resulted in a super-spreading event, according to emails from ICE and officials at a detention center in Farmville, Virginia, court documents and interviews with more than a dozen detainees at the facility.

Until that transfer, only two detainees had tested positive at the Farmville center — both immigrants transferred there in late April. They were immediately isolated and monitored and were the only known cases at the facility for more than a month, court records state.

Then on June 2, ICE relocated 74 detainees from Florida and Arizona, more than half of whom later tested positive for COVID-19. By July 16, Farmville was the detention center hardest-hit by the virus with 315 total cases, according to ICE data.

`THE WALKING DEAD’

Serafin Saragoza, a Mexican detainee at Farmville, said he and another detainee – who confirmed Saragoza’s account to Reuters – had contact with the transferees when they first arrived. His job was to distribute shoes and clothing to the new arrivals.

The new group was kept in a separate dormitory, but about two weeks after their arrival, dozens of other detainees began falling ill, 15 detainees said in interviews. The Centers for Disease Control says COVID symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus.

“There are people with fevers, two guys collapsed on the floor because they fainted,” Saragoza said. “There is one guy who has a really high fever. He looks like the walking dead.”

Faced with an outbreak, Farmville tested all detainees in the first few days of July. Of 359 detainees tested, 268 were positive, according to an ICE statement in response to questions from Reuters. While the majority are asymptomatic, it said, three detainees are hospitalized.

The ICE statement said the agency was committed to the welfare of all detainees and continued some transfers to reduce crowding. ICE did not respond to a request for comment on Reuters’ analysis.

Former ICE officials and immigration attorneys say the agency regularly transfers people in custody for myriad reasons, including: bed space, preparing migrants for deportation, and security reasons. With the pandemic still raging in the United States, lawmakers have called on ICE to halt the practice.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease doctor studying COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional settings, said it is not possible to transfer detainees safely in the current environment.

“If you’re moving people, particularly from an area where there is an ongoing outbreak, even though you sequester them for two weeks or so, there is contact with people,” said Franco-Paredes. “You’re basically spreading the problems.”

In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, ICE halted detention center visits in mid-March and has slowed arrests. U.S.-Mexico border crossings have also fallen, leading to smaller detained populations overall.

RISING CASES

Prisons and detention centers have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus outbreaks. Large numbers of people confined in close quarters with insufficient access to medical care and poor ventilation and sanitation all create a breeding ground for viral infections, infectious disease doctors say.

As of July 16, ICE had reported 3,567 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its detention centers. The actual number of infected detainees is almost certainly higher, Franco-Paredes said, since not all centers are doing widespread testing.

About 22,000 detainees are in ICE custody now, and about 13,500 tests have been done, but that likely includes some immigrants who have since been released.

To be sure, detainee transfers are not the only means of introducing the virus to a detention center. Employees with the disease are another main source of transmission, public health specialists said. Nearly 1,000 detention center employees have tested positive for the virus.

Before it transfers detainees, ICE policy is to screen them for fevers and other symptoms, but not to test for the disease. Those with positive or suspected cases of COVID-19 are isolated from other detainees, ICE says.

MASS TRANSFER

But the case of Farmville shows that efforts to keep sick and healthy detainees separate don’t always prevent the spread.

A week after the out-of-state transferees arrived at the Farmville center, three of them tested positive for the virus while still quarantined from the general population. In response, center officials decided to test the entire group of new arrivals, according to an email from ICE deputy field office director Matthew Munroe to immigration attorneys. Fifty-one tested positive.

ICE data shows that the day before the transfers, two of the three centers where the detainees came from had reported cases. ICE’s Krome North Service Processing Center in Florida had 15 confirmed COVID cases, and Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona had one.

The Reuters review of immigration court records identified 195 transfers to or from detention centers where ICE had reported confirmed cases. These include:

–A May 6 transfer from New Mexico’s Otero County Processing Center, which at the time had 10 confirmed cases, to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, which had no known cases until two weeks later on May 19.

–A transfer on May 7 from the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Anson, Texas, which at the time had 41 confirmed cases, to the Johnson County Jail in Dallas, which had no known cases until May 19.

–Four transfers in late May from a detention center in Glades County, Florida, which at the time had no known cases, to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, which at the time had 19 known cases.

Immigration court data notes when the government notifies the court that it has moved a detainee in its custody to another location. Reuters only counted transfers if the data showed a detainee having a hearing in a new, known detention facility, prison or jail. The news agency then compared those records to ICE counts of infections at detention centers.

Saragoza, the Mexican detainee in Farmville, lived in the United States for 21 years before his arrest. He has diabetes and high blood pressure – two conditions that the CDC says puts coronavirus patients at higher risk of falling seriously ill. He said he started feeling ill in late June but was not as sick as some others in his dormitory.

On July 9, he got bad news. He and almost all the men in his dorm had tested positive for coronavirus.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York, Reade Levinson in London and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles. Editing by Ross Colvin and Janet Roberts.)

More migrants caught crossing U.S.-Mexico border despite pandemic restrictions

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Border Patrol detained roughly 30,000 migrants attempting to cross the southwest border with Mexico in June, a 41% increase from the previous month, even as sweeping coronavirus-related border restrictions instituted by President Donald Trump remain in place.

Roughly nine in 10 of those caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in June were single adults, according to statistics released on Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The number of single adults from Mexico detained at the border is on pace to rise this year, a shift away from arrests of mostly Central American families and unaccompanied children in 2019.

Trump, a Republican, faces reelection on Nov. 3 and has made his efforts to restrict illegal immigration – including the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border – a focus of his 2020 campaign. His presumptive Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, would end the diversion of billions of dollars in military funding for wall construction.

As the coronavirus spread across the United States in March, the Trump administration restricted non-essential travel across the borders with Mexico and Canada to contain the disease. At the same time, the administration put in place health-focused rules that allowed U.S. border authorities to rapidly expel migrants caught trying to cross illegally, arguing they could bring the virus into the United States.

The number of migrants caught by Border Patrol – particularly families and unaccompanied children – plummeted in April as the new measures went into effect and countries in the region initiated lockdowns.

Despite gradual increases seen both in May and June, the crossings still remain far below last year, when arrests peaked in May at 133,000.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington D.C.; Editing by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Daniel Wallis)

Trump weighs executive orders on China, manufacturing, immigration, aide says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is considering several executive orders targeting China, manufacturing and immigration, his chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters at the White House on Monday, though he offered few details.

“It’s dealing with a number of executive orders that may go all the way from dealing with some of the immigration issues that we have before us, to some of the manufacturing and jobs issues that are before us, and ultimately dealing with China, in what we need to do there in terms of resetting that balance,” Meadows said.

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has tried to rescind a program that shields from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the United States illegally after entering as children – a group often called “Dreamers.”

The U.S. Supreme Court last month blocked Trump’s effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy put in place by former President Barack Obama, which protects roughly 649,000 immigrants from deportation.

Earlier on Fox News, Meadows said, “We’re going to look at a number of issues as it relates to prescription drug prices, and we’re going to get them done when Congress couldn’t get them done.”

It was not clear what any executive order on China or manufacturing would entail.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Catherine Evans and Nick Zieminski)

Trump says he will suspend all immigration into U.S. over coronavirus

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday he will suspend all immigration into the United States temporarily through an executive order in response to the coronavirus outbreak and to protect American jobs.

The move, which the Republican president announced on Twitter, effectively achieves a long-term Trump policy goal to curb immigration, making use of the health and economic crisis that has swept the country as a result of the pandemic to do so.

The decision drew swift condemnation from some Democrats, who accused the president of creating a distraction from what they view as a slow and faulty response to the coronavirus.

Trump said he was taking the action to protect the U.S. workforce. Millions of Americans are suffering unemployment after companies shed employees amid nationwide lockdowns to stop the contagion.

“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States,” Trump said in a tweet.

The White House declined to offer further details about the reasoning behind the decision, its timing, or its legal basis.

“As our country battles the pandemic, as workers put their lives on the line, the President attacks immigrants & blames others for his own failures”, former Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar said in a tweet.

Immigration is largely halted into the United States anyway thanks to border restrictions and flight bans put in place as the virus spread across the globe.

But the issue remains an effective rallying cry for Trump’s supporters.

Trump won the White House in 2016 in part on a promise to curb immigration by building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. He and his advisers have spent the first three years of his tenure cracking down on both legal and illegal entries into the country. Crowds regularly chant “Build the Wall!” at Trump’s political rallies, which are now idled because of the virus.

Trump has lamented the economic fallout of the outbreak; his stewardship of the U.S. economy was set to be his key argument for re-election in November.

The U.S. death toll from the virus topped 42,000 on Monday, according to a Reuters tally.

The U.S. economy has come to a near standstill because of the pandemic; more than 22 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the last month.

“You cut off immigration, you crater our nation’s already weakened economy,” former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro said in a tweet. “What a dumb move.”

The United States has the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 780,000 infections, up 27,000 on Monday.

But the president has made a point of saying the peak had passed and has been encouraging U.S. states to reopen their economies.

“It makes sense to protect opportunities for our workforce while this pandemic plays out,” said Thomas Homan, Trump’s former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “It’s really not about immigration. It’s about the pandemic and keeping our country safer while protecting opportunities for unemployed Americans.”

The United States in mid-March suspended all routine visa services, both immigrant and non-immigrant, in most countries worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak in a move that has potentially impacted hundreds of thousands of people.

U.S. missions have continued to provide emergency visa services as resources allowed and a senior State Department official in late March said U.S. was ready work with people who were already identified as being eligible for various types of visas, including one for medical professionals.

The administration recently announced an easing of rules to allow in more agricultural workers on temporary H2A visas to help farmers with their crops.

(Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)