WASHINGTON — President Trump’s decision to suspend family-based immigration because of the coronavirus is the beginning of a broader strategy to reduce the flow of foreigners into the United States, Stephen Miller, the architect of President Trump’s immigration agenda, told a group of conservative allies on Thursday.
During a private conference call with the president’s supporters, Mr. Miller sought to reassure them of Mr. Trump’s commitment to their cause and urged them to publicly defend his executive order. He pledged that it was only a first step in the administration’s longer-term goal of shrinking legal immigration.
“The first and most important thing is to turn off the faucet of new immigrant labor — mission accomplished — with signing that executive order,” Mr. Miller said, according to an audio recording of the conference call obtained by The New York Times.
The executive order Mr. Trump signed this week bars people from receiving green cards for 60 days, a move that immigration advocates condemned. But it does nothing to limit visa programs that bring tens of thousands of workers to the United States, infuriating groups that call for deep reductions in the number of foreign citizens entering the country.
Mr. Miller said that further restrictions on programs for foreign workers were likely.
“In terms of dealing with some of these seasonal flows of guest workers and developing a strategy for that, that’s what the president directed us to do,” he said. The existence of the tape was first reported by The Washington Post.
But immigration hard-liners have repeatedly urged the president to do more to permanently reduce the number of foreigners allowed to enter legally. Mr. Miller has made that a top priority in the last several years, pushing through regulatory changes aimed at shrinking the opportunities for foreigners to live and work in the United States.
During the call, Mr. Miller said that the president’s executive order, while temporary, would have long-lasting effects because it would disrupt what conservatives call “chain migration,” in which the arrival of one immigrant in the United States opens the door to an extended family: parents, adult children, siblings and others.
“When you suspend the entry of a new immigrant from abroad, you’re also reducing immigration further, because of the chains of follow-on migration that are disrupted,” Mr. Miller said. “So the benefit to American workers compounds with time.”
Immigration is an issue that Mr. Trump has repeatedly turned to as a way to shore up his political base whenever his fortunes have appeared troubled. In late 2018, as polls predicted — accurately, it turned out — deep Republican losses in the midterm elections, the president pointed to what he claimed was an “invasion” by a caravan of immigrants who were heading toward the southwestern border.
During Mr. Miller’s call, the deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, echoed Mr. Miller’s comments by saying the president has been considering such a step “since the economic effects of the Covid virus began.”
Mr. Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general who has long pushed for less immigration, told the president’s supporters on the call that “your best approach, in my view, is just to note this is a positive step — note the president has opened the door to more steps.”
“You can certainly expect more actions from him as time goes forward,” Mr. Cuccinelli added.
In response to a question from a caller about how to “message” the intent of the executive order, Mr. Cuccinelli said, “Talk about the fact that the president is taking steps, is taking this seriously, and has instructed us to prepare for other steps.”
The issue of what to do about legal immigration has long divided Republicans, and many in the president’s party on Capitol Hill oppose proposals that would block businesses — including technology companies in Silicon Valley and big agricultural industries — from tapping into large pools of foreign labor.
But others in the party, including Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have repeatedly pushed for legislation that would reduce legal immigration. In 2017, Mr. Trump endorsed the RAISE Act, a bill that Mr. Cotton sponsored that would have cut legal immigration each year by about half, from about one million to about 500,000. The legislation ultimately went nowhere.
While Mr. Trump has often used immigration as a tool to rally his base, he has not been consistent in his approach. The administration is facing a potential inflection point when the Supreme Court rules in the next few months on whether the administration’s end of the program that protects undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, known as DACA, was done legally.
If the administration’s decision is upheld, Mr. Trump will face the possibility of deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of whom are in high school or college and have known no other life, while he is in the middle of a re-election battle.
On a recent call with Republican senators, Mr. Trump told the group that he would not “leave them hanging,” in reference to immigrants affected by the decision, but he said nothing further.
It is unclear exactly how the executive order that temporarily halted immigration was drafted. Two officials familiar with the discussions said that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who has taken on a bigger role in immigration discussions, was left out of the process of developing the order.
Officials said that the order was initially meant to be broader, putting what the president called “a pause” on both family-based immigration and the guest worker programs that are important to business groups.
But on Tuesday, after the president tweeted about the executive order the previous night — which caught several advisers by surprise — the White House faced fierce criticism from corporate executives, farmers and others who rely on temporary guest workers.
Mr. Kushner told the president that he should consider alternatives to the strict measures that were under discussion, according to the officials with knowledge of the discussions.