In prepared remarks, President Donald Trump has made much of proposals to shift the United States to a “merit-based” immigration system—increasing the number of immigrants qualified by education level or the possession of rare skills, and decreasing the number who enter the country based on familial relationships to U.S. residents and citizens.
But statements made off the cuff or behind closed doors make explicit the racial undercurrent of Trump’s immigration platform: Mexicans are “rapists”; Haitians “all have AIDS”; Nigerians live in “huts”; Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations are “shithole countries.”
Comments like those the president reportedly made in the Oval Office on Thursday, asking lawmakers assembled to negotiate an immigration deal “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?,” expose a core motivation behind Trump’s most extreme policies. Trump, once again, has said the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet.
“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said in a statement that conspicuously avoided denying anything contained within The Washington Post’s original report.
In the past, White House officials have responded fiercely to suggestions that Trump’s immigration policies could be construed as racially minded. During a contentious exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta in August, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller condemned Acosta’s suggestion that Trump was “trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country” as “one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant, and foolish things” Acosta had ever uttered.
When asked why the official White House response did not push back against the most recent egregious statement attributed to Trump, however, a senior White House official simply replied, “Every once in a while, there’s no point denying something [the president] obviously said.”
If anything, Thursday’s outburst—made public on the eve of the eighth anniversary of an earthquake that claimed the lives of 160,000 Haitians—demonstrated a Trump who was perfectly in character.
The racist rhetoric that has pervaded Trump’s candidacy and presidency has manifested itself in some of the administration’s most highly prioritized policies. Each new program and protocol amounts to a brick in Trump’s as-yet unbuilt wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—and those programs and protocols are much more effective at keeping people from “shithole” countries from entering the United States.
After campaigning on the promise to forbid any Muslim from entering the United States, without carve-out or caveat, Trump’s “total and complete shutdown” became his bans on immigration from a half-dozen majority-Muslim nations.
The nation-specific approach to limiting immigration—pioneered in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act—has found more success when targeting other immigrant populations. In December, the Trump administration announced that it would suspend the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti in September 2019.
A TPS designation gives refuge to immigrants unable to return to their home countries due to war, civil unrest, or natural disaster. In the years since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that leveled the nation’s capital and ignited a seven-year cholera epidemic, nearly 60,000 Haitians have made homes and lives in the United States. Now Trump is effectively sending them home.
The Department of Homeland Security also announced on Monday that it would end TPS for more than a quarter-million Salvadorans—the bureaucratic version of telling hundreds of thousands of people to return to their “shithole” countries.
The Trump administration has also proposed making the process of legally immigrating to the United States more difficult. As The Daily Beast reported exclusively last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) intends to put new restrictions on how members of Congress can help immigrants looking to get green cards or citizenship.
Increases in paperwork, mandatory interviews, and a refusal to guarantee that ICE agents won’t show up at interviews to arrest would-be immigrants have ballooned the backlog for legal immigration. In many cases, the new paperwork requirements have made fees for lawyers, translators, and notaries so onerous that an increasing number of immigrants are giving up entirely.
“The prospect of having to go to the interview, and then if they’re here without papers, having an ICE agent there to arrest you when you’re trying to get your green card—it’s not great,” Andrew Free, a Nashville-based immigration attorney, told The Daily Beast last month. “This is their plan: to make legal immigration really hard.”
The tactics may be working. In the third quarter of 2016, USCIS data show that the immigration services approved more than 174,000 I-130s—petitions for alien relatives that serve as precursors for green cards. The administration denied roughly 16,000, and had 939,000 pending applications.
In the third quarter of 2016, however, the number of approved I-130 applications fell by 30,000—and the backlog increased from 939,000 to 1,289,000.
The president’s racist comments, in other words, have found fertile ground in becoming public policy, which might explain why White House officials spent Thursday evening anonymously telling reporters that Trump’s fans and conservative base would support him, and his “shithole” sentiment, 100 percent.