Miller, the chief architect of the president’s immigration agenda and one of his longest-serving and most trusted advisers, spoke to a group of Trump surrogates Thursday in an off-the-record call about the new executive order, which had been signed the night before. Although the White House had seen the move as something that would resonate with Trump’s political base, the administration instead was facing criticism from immigration hard-liners who were disappointed that the order does not apply to temporary foreign workers despite Trump pitching it as helping to protect jobs for Americans.
Miller told the group that subsequent measures were under consideration that would restrict guest worker programs, but the “the most important thing is to turn off the faucet of new immigrant labor,” he said, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post. Miller indicated that the strategy is part of a long-term vision and not seen only as a stopgap.
“As a numerical proposition, when you suspend the entry of a new immigrant from abroad, you’re also reducing immigration further because the chains of follow-on migration that are disrupted,” said Miller, one of the executive order’s main authors. “So the benefit to American workers compounds with time.”
Miller declined to comment Friday. A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Trump administration has been trying for years to scrap the family-based U.S. immigration model, which Miller and other restrictionists call “chain migration.” Instead, the White House favors a more restrictive system based on job skills and U.S. labor market demands.
Although Trump described his order this week as a temporary “pause,” he also said it is an open-ended move that will remain in place until he decides the U.S. labor market has sufficiently improved once the coronavirus crisis subsides. He said he will reevaluate it after 60 days and might extend the immigration restrictions to help Americans find jobs when states reopen their economies.
From March 15 to April 18, 26.5 million Americans filed for unemployment, sending joblessness to levels not recorded since the Great Depression. The economic impact could be lengthy, as it remains unclear how long the pandemic will keep businesses closed and people in their homes.
The title of Trump’s order — “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the Covid-19 Outbreak” — makes explicit that the underlying rationale for the president’s restrictions are economic, not epidemiological.
Miller has been the leading proponent of the argument that immigrants compete for jobs with U.S. workers and depress their wages. The argument is anathema to many economists and pro-business Republicans who argue that immigration fuels long-term U.S. growth and keeps U.S. industries competitive.
The debate remains a significant fault line in the Republican Party, with many GOP members unwilling to support the more hard-line positions Miller backs. Trump’s efforts to overhaul the immigration system have floundered in Congress.
Ken Cuccinelli, who serves as acting deputy homeland security secretary and joined Miller on the call, said Trump had been considering an immigration freeze long before his 10:06 p.m. tweet Monday night announcing his plans to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”
“This is something the president has been looking at himself since the economic effects of the covid virus began,” said Cuccinelli, who spoke less than Miller during the 23-minute call. “We’ve had numerous conversations with him. And so what you saw yesterday was a continuation of his own thinking.”
Department of Homeland Security officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Miller was involved in crafting and selling the executive order, officials said, working quietly without many others in the administration knowing. Senior White House officials said the memo had not been vetted by lawyers or top officials before the president tweeted that he would be signing it.
Trump acknowledged sending out the tweet before the order was written, and the version he signed Wednesday was far less sweeping than the one he had teased on social media. It does not apply to immigrants already living and working in the United States who are seeking permanent residency, nor does it apply to the spouses and children of U.S. citizens, among other exemptions.
But the measure, which took effect Thursday, does block the other immigrant visa categories Trump calls “chain migration,” namely the ability for U.S. citizens to sponsor their parents, adult children and siblings. Last year, the State Department issued about 460,000 immigrant visas, and more than half were in the categories the order halts.
Numerous advocates for immigrants said the order was far less restrictive than they had feared and said it has more of a political effect than a practical one. Because the order has no bearing on farmworkers, medical professionals and other “nonimmigrant” visa categories, restrictionist groups panned the move.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a leading restrictionist group that has supported the president’s agenda, sent a letter to Trump on Thursday blasting the order for excluding temporary work visas.
“Under what craven notion of American equity would the United States continue a subordinated labor importation program at a time when American workers are in such distress?” Stein wrote. “The optics are devastating — we are becoming a two-class society, with a servant caste relegated to guest worker status continuing apace while Americans search desperately for employment.”
On the call, Miller sounded stung by the criticism from the right and urged surrogates and supporters to speak up for the president.
“All around the country, Americans of every political stripe will rally behind an initiative to make sure that they, their children, their parents, their husbands, wives, sons, uncles, nephews, cousins can be the first to get a job when it opens up, to get her old job back when they rehire or to keep their job if they already have one,” he said.
“Those individuals have a right and an expectation to get their jobs back and not to be replaced by foreign workers. That’s the action the president took, it is historic. It is vital, it is necessary, it is patriotic and it deserves the full-throated support of everybody on this call.”
International travel to the United States had already plunged since the coronavirus pandemic began. Cuccinelli told listeners on the call that the number of passengers arriving from Europe has dropped to about 500 daily, down from 60,000 before the crisis.