Why Trump Can’t Understand Immigration From ‘Shithole Countries’

The president cannot seem to imagine Haitians, Salvadorans, or Africans as coequal citizens.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Speaking to lawmakers Thursday, President Trump angrily pushed back on their desire to restore protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries and said the U.S. should instead seek immigrants from Norway, the country whose prime minister he welcomed Wednesday.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to The Washington Post. NBC News confirmed the account. CNN reported that Trump said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” NBC added that someone in the room replied, “Because if you do, it will be obvious why.” The White House issued a statement in which a spokesman said the president “will always fight for the American people,” but did not deny Trump had made the remarks.

The president’s words are yet again shocking but not surprising. They are generally fitting with his comments on immigration, but it is practically impossible to interpret them without consideration of race. Trump, who has a long history of racist comments, especially about African Americans, and xenophobic comments about non-Americans, singled out Haiti, a predominantly black country; El Salvador, a predominantly Hispanic country; and Africa as “shithole” places whose citizens are undesirable, while singling out Norway, an overwhelmingly white one, as a more salubrious source for immigrants. Late in 2017, The New York Times reported that Trump had complained that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” and that Nigerians who came to the U.S. would never “go back to their huts” in Africa. The White House denied those comments.

There are economic reasons why Trump might want Norwegian immigrants, but Scandinavia has long been a touchstone for white visions of racial purity. The early 20th century Dillingham Commission, which was convened by Congress, concluded that immigration from certain regions was dangerous to American culture, and paved the way for national immigration quotas. It also produced a Dictionary of Races and Peoples, which noted, “Nor is it necessary to remind the student of ethnology that the Scandinavian is considered to be the purest type of one of the three great races of Europe; that is, of the ‘Northern’ or ‘Teutonic’ race.” Modern white supremacists still look to Scandinavia as a model of racial purity.

There was a time when many people immigrated from Norway to the United States, especially in the late 19th century. One’s definition of what makes a shithole may vary, but Norway at the time was economically undeveloped, an agrarian society with a rapidly growing population where two-thirds lived in rural areas, most of them landless—and as a result, many people wanted to leave. Many of them came to the United States. Now, however, Norway is a prosperous place. The less racially charged reasons that Trump might desire immigration from Norway include things like high per-capita GDP and high levels of education—precisely the reasons why Norwegians are no longer flocking to American shores. According to a Migration Policy Institute analysis, there are fewer Norwegians living in the United States than people from any other European country, excluding microstates like Luxembourg.

Trump’s emphasis on Norwegian immigration is a symptom of a broader disconnect that endangers talks on an immigration deal. For most leaders in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, there are a range of reasons why the United States accepts immigrants, though individuals weight these factors differently: humanitarianism, American leadership, economic development, a recognition of America’s history as an immigrant nation. While some might want more immigration and some might want less, there is a shared recognition that the reasons people want to come to the United States from places like El Salvador, Haiti, or Nigeria are the same reasons that Norwegians once wanted to come to America: They view their countries as places with restricted opportunities, and they see the United States as a place where they can find better opportunities, greater safety and stability, and a freer political system. Some, as well, are fleeing violence or persecution. Congressional leaders recognize that immigrants can contribute to economic dynamism.

This is not the case with Trump. Since the start of his campaign, Trump has depicted immigration as a zero-sum game. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said during his candidacy announcement. “They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

His presumption seems to be that other nations are deliberately sending to the United States their least-desirable citizens. That sounds a lot like the Mariel boatlift of 1980, in which Cuba released a number of inmates from jails and mental facilities, dispatching them to the United States as part of a massive refugee exodus. It seems to shape the way Trump views all immigration—he and aides have cited it repeatedly.

But in the vast majority of cases, this is not how immigration works. Governments are not deciding who to send. People are deciding to leave, often at great risk, out of personal motivation. Those who come are the ones “who had a special love for freedom and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land to build a New World of peace and freedom and hope,” as Ronald Reagan once put it.

This entirely different paradigm is one reason Trump, unlike most of his fellow Republicans, wants to limit not only illegal immigration but legal immigration as well; he seems to object not just to illegality, but to much immigration itself.

This zero-sum mentality is why he approaches refugees as safety threats and drains on U.S. government resources, seldom considering the reasons refugees have been driven to leave. There’s a middle ground—there are people who believe that on the one hand, refugees deserve aid but that on the other hand the United States must work within its means, and safety threats must be eliminated—but Trump’s comments, both previously and about Haitians and Salvadorans now, demonstrate this is not his view.

Trump’s decision to label these places “shitholes” is coarse and revolting, but the greater failure is his inability to connect his assessment with what it means for the people who live there. He either cannot see or is not interested in the conflicts and violence and poverty that immigrants are seeking to leave behind, and he is not interested in the extent to which the U.S. has contributed to these problems through interventions in El Salvador and Haiti. Thus his cavalier attitude about Haitians (though he was more than happy to acknowledge Haiti’s problems when that was an effective political weapon against Hillary Clinton) or Salvadorans, 200,000 of whom the government announced this week would have to leave, having been allowed to stay following earthquakes in 2001. The historic U.S. role as a hemispheric hegemon and as a symbol of humanitarianism simply does not interest Trump—aides last summer held a 90-minute crash course on this topic—because he cannot fit it into his calculus.

The congressional leaders who Trump stunned with his comments on Thursday have real differences over how to handle immigration. But for the most part, they see immigration as a complex issue, requiring them to balance competing interests. The president, however, cannot seem to see any way that black and brown people from impoverished, disaster-stricken, or violence-torn countries fit into his zero-sum scheme or his overwhelmingly white vision of what America should look like.