Denouncing Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as "shitholes" – while pleading for more immigrants from Scandinavia – Donald Trump did more than reveal personal racism. He made plain that U.S. immigration policy is now being driven by animus toward black and brown people.
Trump's comments were made Thursday in the Oval Office, during a meeting with legislators discussing immigration reform. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who attended the bipartisan gathering, Friday confirmed the president's "vile and racist" outburst: "He said those hateful things," Durbin told reporters, "and he said them repeatedly." (Trump, an inveterate liar, disputed the widely reported remarks, tweeting that his words were "tough" but adding: "this was not the language used.")
The president's racist remarks color dramatic immigration policy shifts from the Department of Homeland Security. Earlier this week, the administration announced it was terminating the protected status that has given nearly 260,000 Salvadorans the right to live and work legally in the United States. In November, the administration revoked the same protected status for 60,000 Haitians. The administration gave both groups of immigrants 18 months to self-deport to their countries of origin.
The immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti are living in the United States under a program called Temporary Protected Status. The TPS designation was offered in the aftermath of major earthquakes in each nation. Previous administrations have repeatedly renewed this temporary status – creating a de facto form of permanent residency. Haitians first received TPS in 2010. Salvadorans have enjoyed safe harbor in the U.S. since 2001.
Officially, the Trump administration is revoking TPS for Haitians and Salvadorans because, it argues, these nations have recovered from their respective temblors. In the case of El Salvador, the Department of Homeland Security wrote that "the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated."
But this bland legal reasoning has been undercut by the flamboyantly racist argument the president presented in the Oval Office. On Thursday, after lawmakers suggested a deal to offer permanent protection for many TPS holders from El Salvador, Haiti, as well as several African nations, Trump reportedly lashed out: "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" He then appealed for increased immigration – from the predominantly white country of Norway.
The president's remarks were met with disbelief even among hardcore conservatives. The right-wing commentator Erik Erikson wrote on Twitter: "So the President would prefer we allow Norwegian socialists with no special love of America into the country, but not the Ghanan who will work his ass off with a grand appreciation for our free market system and raise his kids to be proud Americans."
This is not the first time the administration has attempted to dress up the president's bigotry in the guise of legal necessity. Battling the courts, the White House legal team has repeatedly attempted to deliver on Trump's campaign promise of a temporary Muslim immigration ban, by blacklisting immigrants from many Islam-dominant Middle-East and African nations, ostensibly in the name of national security.
The move to deport more than 300,000 Salvadorans and Haitians represents an alarming escalation for an administration translating Trump's racism into national policy. The Salvadoran immigrants with TPS have been living in this country for at least 17 years – and many far longer than that. They are deeply woven into the fabric of American society; more than 190,000 U.S. citizen children have at least one Salvadoran parent with TPS status.
The administration wants to uproot these immigrants – and return them to the murder capital of Latin America – because the president of the United States believes they are inferior. White House deputy spokesperson Raj Shah defended the president's remarks Thursday night, arguing that Trump wants "merit-based" immigration to welcome those "who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate." Shah added that Trump "will always reject temporary, weak and dangerous stopgap measures that threaten the lives of hardworking Americans."
By presenting Salvadorans, Haitians, and Africans as dangerous, non-contributing, and unable to assimilate, the president has given his mass-deportation scheme the taint of ethnic cleansing. Philip Gourevitch, who chronicled Rwanda's genocide, tweeted ominously about Trump's language: "To speak of whole categories of people as coming from shitholes & other categories as desirables – that's the language of apartheid and race war and annihilation," Gourevitch wrote. "The verbal violence invites physical violence – & in this one realm, at least, he knows exactly what he's doing."
Trump's vile outburst toward Haiti is particularly galling in light of the way he campaigned for the support of Florida's Haitian community in the presidential election. Appearing in Miami's Little Haiti in September 2016, Trump criticized Hillary Clinton's response to Haiti's earthquake when she served as Secretary of State, and Trump insisted to the audience: "I really want to be your biggest champion." Asking for the support of Haitian voters, Trump said: "What do you have to lose?"