American media is reporting that, during a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress on immigration matters on January 11, President Donald Trump asked why the United States should accept immigrants from Haiti and African states, which he characterized as “shithole countries.” Instead, he said he wanted more immigrants from countries such as Norway (he had met with the Norwegian prime minister the previous day). As the New York Times pointed out, this presidential discourse was similar to that in 2017, when he allegedly said that Haitian immigrants all had AIDS and that Nigerians in the United States would never go back to their “huts.” In the 2017 case, the White House denied that the president ever made those alleged remarks. This time, the White House did not deny what he said on January 11, and it has been confirmed by some members of Congress present. However, in tweets, the president is now saying that “this was not the language used.” His Deputy Spokesman, and the president himself in after-hours tweets, sought to portray the episode in the context of “America First.”
Predictably, the president’s comments have produced a storm of criticism and indignation from both parties. Some members of Congress directly characterized the president’s remarks as racist. Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) said, “We can now say with 100 percent confidence that the president is a racist who does not share the values enshrined in our Constitution or Declaration of Independence.” Congresswoman Mia Love of Illinois, a fellow Republican and who is of Haitian descent, said that the president’s comments were unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of the nation’s values. “This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”
The White House deputy spokesperson is trying to put the president’s comments in the context of the debate over changes to the immigration system. There are proposals, most from the Republican Party, to shift immigration criteria from family unification to skills, the latter sharing similarities with the Canadian system. There are also proposals, supported by the president, to eliminate the visa lottery. The immediate context is the debate over the future of the “Dreamers,” children who came illegally to the United States with their parents. That issue is also connected to federal financial issues, which, if unresolved, risk shutting-down the federal government next week. The president consistently advocates the reduction of immigration to the United States.
For the record: African immigrants have higher levels of educational attainment than Americans and much lower crime levels. Often arriving with little other than their education, they move rapidly into the middle class. I have written before about African immigration to the United States, here and here. Also for the record: there is virtually no Norwegian immigration to the United States. Norway consistently outranks the United States in most measurements of national economic and social well-being, and its per capita income is higher.
Americans would be naïve if they thought that Africans would pay little attention to what the president said or put it in a more favorable or understandable context. Popular African outrage—which is likely to be all but universal—is bound to have a negative impact on the image of the United States in Africa and on American political, security, and even economic interests. It is fair to say that the United States has suffered a serious setback in sub-Saharan Africa.