News Brief: Immigration Order, Senate Relief Bill, Georgia Businesses

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 22, 2020 8:15 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

First he announced it in a tweet. And then at yesterday's task force briefing at the White House, President Trump detailed his plans to temporarily block some immigrants from coming into the United States.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. His plan is basically that no new green cards would be issued for 60 days. The president says the point is to protect American citizens from losing their jobs to immigrants. It's worth noting that the White House has put other restrictions on immigration during the COVID-19 outbreak.

GREENE: And let's talk this through with NPR's John Burnett, who is on the line from Austin, Texas. He covers immigration. Hi there, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, David.

GREENE: So as Noel said, there were already other restrictions in place during this pandemic outbreak. So who exactly will be impacted by this latest order from the president?

BURNETT: Right. So what Trump said is that people moving to this country to seek permanent residency will have to wait for at least 60 days. And he may decide to extend that further. But the thing is, David, this is the suspension of legal immigration he's always wanted. He says immigrants who have the right skills should be let in. But he doesn't like immigrants coming to the U.S. just because they have family members already living here.

The expectation of this order got human rights activists sputtering in rage. One example - American Gateways here in Austin said the policy doesn't help workers. It's xenophobic and ignorant and is being used to scapegoat immigrants. But it's not really as extensive as we expected because a class of temporary workers, such as immigrants who harvest our food, can keep coming home.

GREENE: Well, if it wasn't as restrictive as expected, I mean, how many lives are we talking about here that could be affected?

BURNETT: Well, the U.S. gives out hundreds of thousands of green cards every year to people who want to come here. But remember that much of the immigration system had already been shut down because of this pandemic. Visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world have been suspended. Travel from Europe and China is stopped. Refugee resettlement is frozen. The northern and southern borders have been closed to all but essential traffic. And crossings there have plummeted by 70%.

GREENE: I mean, the president has brought up immigration before in the context of this pandemic. Can you give us just the reality check? Like, what is happening at the border? I mean, it has been such a focus of Trump's.

BURNETT: Yeah. Well, Trump has effectively shut out people who come to the U.S. border asking for asylum. And here, again, that's been another longtime goal of this White House. Immigration agents are using an order from the CDC to immediately expel anyone who crosses the border without authorization. They say it's needed to protect America from immigrants who may be carrying the virus.

This means whether it's an undocumented immigrant crossing the border to look for work or seek asylum, they're being processed, turned around and sent home - sometimes inside of two hours. Customs and Border Protection reports that nearly 14,000 people have been expelled since the CDC order went into effect a month ago. This has really riled up critics. They say the U.S. has effectively canceled asylum. And that's against the law. Here's Andrew Selee. He's president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

ANDREW SELEE: The administration has clearly gotten what they wanted on border control. And the question will be, do they let up on this as the pandemic passes? Or is - was this really just a convenient way of getting what they always wanted, which is making it almost impossible to get across the U.S. border even to request asylum?

BURNETT: And Selee thinks the government will find a way to keep these exclusionary border rules in place right on through the end of Trump's term in office.

GREENE: All right. NPR's John Burnett speaking to us from Austin, Texas. John covers immigration for NPR. Thanks so much, John.

BURNETT: You bet, David.

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GREENE: All right. So the Senate has passed a new coronavirus relief bill that's worth almost half a trillion dollars. This package contains more money to help small businesses, as well as money for hospitals and more testing. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell applauded both parties for coming together to pass this.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: After one of these bipartisan agreements, there are always a lot of claims about who won and who lost. But I think the American people are the ones who won.

KING: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been following this one. Good morning, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So this new bill adds about $300 billion for small businesses. Why did lawmakers make small business the priority?

GRISALES: Well, small businesses were - their loan program was established in a previous $2 trillion bill that Congress approved last month. It was very popular - so popular it ran out of money recently. So the administration called for new funds. They started out asking for $250 billion to replenish this program. And the plan grew. This bill grew over the last few weeks.

We should note that the House still has to pass it. They're taking this measure up tomorrow. But both parties are on board. That all said, even as lawmakers have rushed to make this infusion for small businesses, there's projections that the funds could run out of money yet again just days after they approve it.

KING: Well, you know, some of these concerns are real. In the first round of small business relief, there were some huge companies that got loans. Shake Shack is one that we know because...

GRISALES: Right.

KING: ...They gave $10 million back, right? This made a lot of people angry. Has the administration addressed that at all or said, you know, we have a plan to keep that from happening again?

GRISALES: Yes. Republicans and Democrats alike have conceded this was an error in how this program was planned out, allowing these larger businesses to pull these loans. Now even President Trump is urging more of these larger businesses to give the money back. And now Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is looking for ways to address this. He issued a warning to these larger businesses who take advantage of the small-business loans. Let's take a listen.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN: There are severe consequences for people who don't attest properly to this certification. And again, we want to make sure this money is available to small businesses that need it, people who have invested their entire life savings.

GRISALES: So now lawmakers are saying, with a new round of money for these small-business loans, they've installed a series of new provisions in this bill that they are poised to pass this week. And they say they'll be better prepared this time to ensure these smaller businesses get to take advantage of this newest wave of money.

KING: OK. And in the meantime, lawmakers are already talking about the next wave of relief legislation. What do we know about that?

GRISALES: Yes. We know there's a lot of wish lists out there for this next wave of funding that could be considered in the coming weeks. President Trump has his list. He's hoping to see infrastructure, payroll tax cut, among other measures. Democrats have theirs. They want to address this dire situation with states and local governments that are forecasting massive budget shortfalls. And they want to address worker protections, health care workers, child care - array of other issues.

But that all said, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is warning against how these next steps are taken for this next massive bill. He's worried about this ongoing spending spree. And he was asked about this yesterday after the passage of the latest coronavirus relief bill. And he said Congress shouldn't take up any more measures until they're back in session. And they need to consider the amount of debt they're adding. So lots of moving parts here.

KING: NPR's congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Thanks, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. Even with this coronavirus outbreak, continuing Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, wants to allow certain businesses in his state to reopen this week.

KING: That's right. On Friday, bowling alleys, gyms and salons will be allowed to open, and then on Monday, restaurants and theaters. Now, all these businesses still have to follow social distancing and cleaning rules. But Georgians definitely have feelings about this.

GREENE: All right. Let's turn to Emma Hurt from member station WABE in Atlanta. She's with us. Good morning, Emma.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So your state was one of the last, I believe, to go into lockdown about three weeks ago, and now one of the first to start trying to reopen. What is the governor saying about why - you know, why so quickly?

HURT: Yeah. So the governor's pointing, really, to the guidelines that the White House released last week outlining when states can consider reopening their economies. By the end of this week, the state is projected to hit two full weeks of declining positive cases and declining emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses. Georgia's been able to add hospital beds.

Kemp says he feels more confident that the state is getting better at testing, which has been a problem. And the state is expanding contact tracing, too. He says we have enough masks and equipment for health care workers to handle another surge from here. And he said he understood that very well may happen as a result.

GREENE: Oh, so he's not ruling out the possibility of another surge. I mean, so what is his argument here? Is this largely economic, that this has just been too much of a hit on businesses and the economy?

HURT: Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of businesses here in Georgia, just like across the country, really suffering and fighting to stay afloat that haven't gotten federal small-business loans. And this reopening would give them the chance to make some money. Of course, just because Kemp says they can doesn't mean that they will.

We've started compiling a list at WABE of a lot of restaurants who are going to stay closed or stay take-out only. Kemp said himself that the private sector is going to have to convince people it's safe to come back. I talked to one barbershop owner in Atlanta, T. J. Johnson. He says none of his 12 barbers or their clients will feel safe to come in this week.

T J JOHNSON: Right now, we are in very close proximity with the client. We are in their faces, even with masks. There's no way for us even to test them.

HURT: He's planning to open his doors on Friday just in case but is really not convinced there'll be any business. He said he doesn't feel safe cutting people's hair right now, nor does he have the things the state is suggesting they use to stay safe, like temperature-checking equipment and masks.

GREENE: So it sounds like people are still really worried. And, I mean, we've gotten all of these warnings from public health officials saying, don't do this too early. So what are public health officials, what are state, city leaders saying about the decision here?

HURT: Yeah. So public health experts, you know, a major hospital system leader I spoke with are all urging people to take ownership for what they're doing. Keep up the social distance. Wear a mask. Don't go out if you don't feel safe. And at the state level, they're urging an emphasis on testing and contact tracing.

Here in Georgia, less than 1% of the population has been tested. And hospitals still can't get all the tests they need. Politically, many Georgia mayors and Democratic leaders quickly responded, calling it reckless and dangerous. In Albany in southwest Georgia, Mayor Bo Dorough, his community has one of the highest per capita COVID rates in the U.S. And here's his advice for his community.

BO DOROUGH: People in their teens, in their 20s, they can have the virus and not be symptomatic at all. But they can also infect other people. So please continue to exercise the precautions even though it might be permissible.

HURT: This state order also, I should say, supersedes any local emergency regulations. So mayors really don't have any power in this instance. And across the border in South Carolina, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is worried, too. He tweeted that he is concerned Georgia is moving too fast and that this will have an effect on his state as well.

GREENE: All right. Emma Hurt with member station WABE in Atlanta. We thank you so much, Emma. We appreciate it.

HURT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.