Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent Opinion contributor to CNN and the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
President Trump’s outrageous remark about immigration leaves us stunned – embarrassed for him and for this country.
During a meeting in the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump complained, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” The Washington Post first reported on Trump’s comment and CNN has confirmed it.
The President was griping to members of Congress who were in his office to discuss a possible bipartisan immigration compromise. According to sources, he was referring to immigrants from Haiti and Africa. And just in case it escaped anyone what Haiti and Africa have in common, Trump reportedly suggested that America should bring more immigrants from countries like Norway – one of the world’s whitest, blondest, richest nations.
Just 24 hours earlier, Trump was bragging about what a “phenomenal” job he did when he allowed television cameras into a negotiating meeting in the White House, a performance that drew generally, though hardly universally, positive reviews. In typical fashion, however, we are back to the Trump we’ve come to know, a man who simply cannot hide his baser instincts.
After his remark Thursday, the White House issued a statement that said, “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries,” – as if allowing people to come to a country built by immigrants amounts to disloyalty – adding, “but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” and claiming that the current programs, “allow terrorists into our country.”
Trump doesn’t want immigrants from “shithole countries,” to come to America. He wants to make America his kind of great again, by taking it back to a time when most immigrants were white, when all decisions were made by coteries of wealthy white men, men who didn’t have to worry about pesky women demanding equal treatment, and other minorities demanding their voices be heard; a time when people from poor countries could only dream of coming to America. But even then, the President of the United States knew better than to call other nations – including American allies – shithole countries.
This latest lament is in keeping with one of the most consistent aspects of Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, a call to return the country to its past. Judging by Trump’s suggestion that a Scandinavian immigrant is more desirable than one from lower latitudes, it seems Trump’s immigration vision, beyond his border wall, or whatever is left of that plan, is something resembling the old immigration system, from back in the ’50s and earlier, from the days of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”
Before 1965, when Americans woke up to the transparent racism of the law, immigration was governed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which tacitly ranked potential immigrants by the color of their skin, giving preference to Northern Europeans over Mediterranean Europeans; giving Mediterranean and Alpine Europeans preference over Jews and Asians, and so forth.
President John F. Kennedy called the system “nearly intolerable,” and after he was killed, President Lyndon Johnson spearheaded a reform that aimed to give an equal chance to people from all corners of the world.
Immigration law is extraordinarily complicated. There are refugee conventions, asylum procedures and thousands of pages of rules and laws. The United States has created special categories, including temporary protected status for people from countries enduring natural disasters or grave unrest.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced its decision to end temporary protected status for people from El Salvador, apparently another country in Trump’s shithole category. The decision will prove calamitous not only for more than 200,000 people who have lived legally in the United States for much of their lives, but it could also have catastrophic consequences for El Salvador and end up being harmful for the United States, as well, by making conditions so much worse in a fragile country that it would spark a massive wave of illegal immigration and a worsening in criminal activity.
Members of Congress had suggested a fix for that misguided idea, restoring protections for people from El Salvador, Haiti and African countries as part of the plan. That’s apparently what prompted Trump’s malodorous screed.
Immigration is a topic that sets Trump’s emotions and political instincts in a swirl. At times, he appears to have a soft spot for the so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought to the United States as children. But immigration also excites his nationalist side and his political gamesmanship. Nothing gets his base going like a speech attacking illegal immigrants who commit crimes or, better yet, have ties to terrorism. It is a favorite register for his dog whistle. But immigrants occasionally find a rare soft spot in him. That’s why he keeps changing his mind.
Apparently, Trump had seemed open to an emerging deal early in the morning, but changed his mind by the time lawmakers met him in the Oval Office in the afternoon
Responding to outrage after the revelation of Trump’s insulting vulgarity – the kind that strengthens anti-American politicians around the world – the White House did not deny the President’s statements. That may come later. For now, the press office opted to make lemonade out of the bitter words, and use them to bolster support among Trumpians who might feel uneasy after Steve Bannon was pushed off the reservation.