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Trump pauses green cards; Senate passes aid package

KUALA LUMPUR (April 22): US President Trump said on Tuesday that he would order a temporary halt in issuing green cards to prevent people from immigrating to the United States, but he backed away from plans to suspend guest worker programmes after business groups exploded in anger at the threat of losing access to foreign labor, the New York Times (NYT) reported today.

The report said Trump, whose administration has faced intense criticism in recent months for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, abruptly sought to change the subject Tuesday night by resuming his assault on immigration, which animated his 2016 campaign and became one of the defining issues of his presidency.

He cast his decision to “suspend immigration,” which he first announced in a late-night tweet on Monday, as a move to protect American jobs.

But it comes as the United States economy sheds its work force at a record rate and when few employers are reaching out for workers at home or abroad. More than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the economic devastation caused by the virus and efforts to contain it.

Trump said that his order would initially be in effect for 60 days, but that he might later extend it “based on economic conditions at the time.”

The NYT said numerous studies have concluded that immigration has an overall positive effect on the American work force and wages for workers, Trump ignored that research on Tuesday, insisting that American citizens who had lost their jobs in recent weeks should not have to compete with foreigners when the economy reopens.

“By pausing immigration, we will help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens — so important,” Trump said. “It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad. We must first take care of the American worker.”

The decision not to block guest worker programmes — which provide specific visas for technology workers, farm laborers and others — is a concession to business groups, which assailed the White House on Tuesday.

Jason Oxman, the president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group, said in a statement earlier in the day that “the United States will not benefit from shutting down legal immigration.”

The NYT also reported that the Senate on Tuesday passed a US$484 billion Covid-19 relief package that would replenish a depleted loan programme for distressed small businesses and provide funds for hospitals and Covid-19 testing, approving yet another huge infusion of federal money to address the public health and economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

The measure was the product of an intense round of bipartisan negotiations between Democrats and the Trump administration that unfolded as the small business loan programme created by the stimulus law quickly ran out of its initial US$349 billion in funding. The programme ran dry before many companies were able to have their applications approved, collapsing under a glut of appeals from desperate businesses struggling to stay afloat.

The money is just a fraction of the amount that Congress will consider in the weeks to come, as lawmakers contemplate spending another US$1 trillion or more on a sweeping government response.

The House is expected to pass the bill on Thursday, and President Trump has indicated he will sign it.

According to the NYT, the Senate passed Tuesday’s measure by voice vote — a necessity since most senators were not present because the chamber had been in a prolonged recess — though two Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, spoke against it beforehand.

Paul, a libertarian, said he had returned to Washington “so that history will record that not everyone gave in to the massive debt Congress is creating” with the multiple rounds of Covid-19 relief it had enacted over the past six weeks.

The agreement would provide US$320 billion to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers guarantees for forgivable loans to small businesses if a majority of the money is used to retain employees.

About a fifth of the funding for the small-business loan programme, US$60 billion, would be set aside for smaller lenders, in line with Democrats’ request to steer resources to businesses that typically have trouble accessing loans.

The bill would also add US$60 billion for the Small Business Administration’s disaster relief fund — divided into US$50 billion in loans and US$10 billion in grants — and farms and other agriculture enterprises would be made eligible. There would also be US$75 billion for hospitals and US$25 billion for Covid-19 testing.

The federal aid has not been sufficient to keep more than 22 million Americans from filing for unemployment. And the first round of loans issued through the small business programme bypassed many smaller businesses, who watched their larger competitors get help.

Small restaurants have been particularly hard hit. Now in the second month of compulsory closings, many owners of independent restaurants and bars across the country are starting to despair of getting the help they need to come back.

The NYT said Shake Shack, a national chain, came under fire this week for taking millions of dollars of stimulus money that was meant to help small businesses. “The intent of this was for businesses that needed the money,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. “The intent of this money was not for big public companies that have access to capital.”

The NYT also said Trump lashed out at another recipient of federal aid: Harvard University. The president joined mounting criticism of Harvard’s receipt of US$8.6 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act he signed into law on March 27.

“Harvard’s going to pay back the money,” Trump said at his news briefing. “And they shouldn’t be taking it.”

But Harvard said on Tuesday that Trump appeared to misunderstand the source of the funds.

Harvard was one of hundreds of American universities to receive stimulus money through a US$14 billion allocation distributed by the Education Department to help offset the financial hit of the Covid-19 and support low-income students. Harvard’s share was calculated according to a formula that depends heavily on a college’s number of students and share of poor students.

“It was purely mechanical,” Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a trade group, said on Tuesday. “Harvard got that money because that’s the way the formula allocated it.”

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