Trump's latest controversy should spark a real conversation about immigration policy

The World
Woman with hands together looking at a computer screen, with man looking on


It’s the word President Donald Trump reportedly used to describe Haiti and African countries during a meeting on immigration policy on Thursday night. And by now, it’s a word you’ve probably heard more times in the past 24 hours than in your entire life.

Controversial Trump statements can create entire news cycles unto themselves. And as usual, there’s a deeper story behind the superficial outrage loop.

Trump used the word shithole to refer to entire nations at a moment when the nation he governs is engaged in a potentially transformative debate about immigration policy. Those American debates have historically been shaped in part by ideas about foreign countries, cultures and people. Shithole, in that context, isn’t just a vulgarity — it’s a statement about people and policy. It’s a statement we should try to understand by taking seriously the context in which it’s being used.

To understand shithole, we need to look closely at the immigration debates happening now, including the ideologies that drive debate about DACA, Temporary Protected Status and family-based immigration. We need to understand how today’s debates figure in the long history of US immigration policymaking. And we need to hear from actual people who will be affected.

So, that’s what we did Friday on The World.

What happened

During a conversation with lawmakers over a bipartisan immigration bill, Trump reportedly asked, "Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They're shithole countries ... We should have more people from Norway."

Lawmakers and the president were discussing several immigration programs, including Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. The program gives people from certain countries permission to stay and work in the US in the case of natural disasters or civil strife in their home countries. The senators mentioned Haiti, El Salvador and referred generally to several countries in Africa.

Trump tweeted a convoluted denial early Friday but Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois pushed back, saying the president repeatedly used the term "shithole" during the meeting.

What it means

There’s a lot of chatter and tweets about the word shithole, but if there’s one detail to remember in the context of all the noise it’s this: The conversation at the White House Wednesday night happened during negotiations over the status of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children and who received temporary protections under an Obama-era program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. DACA is still the primary concern for more than 800,000 people who have applied for the program since it began in 2012, plus their families, employers and schools.

The proposal Trump rejected would have reportedly given DACA recipients a path to legal status and citizenship. It came with restrictions that keep DACA recipients from sponsoring their parents, eliminate the diversity visa lottery and fund border security projects.

This potential legislation matters because, in September, the Trump administration began dismantling DACA. People will begin losing their status in March 2018, unless Congress passes legislation to give them a reprieve.

On Tuesday, it appeared a deal on DACA was possible. Trump held an on-the-record discussion with House and Senate members about immigration, touching on security and the DACA deal. He indicated then that he would negotiate and that he would like to pass a DACA bill first and then consider broader immigration reform. But late Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reinstate the DACA program while legal challenges to his September order proceed.

Over the course of the week, negotiations began to sour.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted that Democrats “seem intent on having people and drugs pour into our country from the Southern Border.” Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona replied: “I’ve served with "The Democrats" for 17 years, and not one has ever been intent on "having people and drugs pour into our country.""

For DACA recipients, it appears that their state of limbo might continue a while longer.

What it really means

Indeed, for many who have DACA or who are lobbying for legislation, the week was chaotic. Christian Ramirez, an activist with the Southern Border Communities Coalition, told The World on Thursday that it has been a “roller coaster of emotions.”

“Watching and hearing all of the different updates in terms of DACA and immigration on the news and social media is overwhelming because things change by the hour,” said Itzel Guillen, a DACA recipient and immigration advocate who works with Alliance San Diego. “To be living in that uncertainty every single day is exhausting.”

Guillen says she was brought to the US from Mexico City when she was 5 years old.

“I always knew there was something different about [my family]. But I don't think I understood what it meant to be undocumented and the limitations that I would have to face until I was in high school,” Guillen says.

When President Barack Obama introduced the DACA program in 2012, Guillen says it “changed my life completely.” She was able to get a job and pay her way through college.

Guillen’s status isn’t set to expire until 2019, but the 23-year-old says she’s worried about what may happen to her and her family if Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal on DACA before the March deadline.

“My life would be severely impacted. I would lose my ability to work and do what I love,” Guillen said, adding that she’s also worried about her “safety, especially here in the border region. Without that protection from DACA, we will be subjected to the deportation machine that’s already here in our communities.”

What history tells us

Shithole or not, a 1965 law makes it illegal to discriminate against immigrants on the basis of where they’re from.

For much of its history, the US has been selective and discriminatory about who is allowed to immigrate. The first law that outlined who could become a US citizen came in 1790. Then, to become a citizen of the US, you had to be a “free white person,” excluding, for example, Native Americans, free African Americans, slaves, indentured servants and Asians. Later laws were explicit in their attempts to prefer Western European immigrants over other groups.

In the fight for civil rights, however, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 changed US policy. The act replaced race-based immigration with a system based on skills and immigrants’ family connections in the US. It says expressly that “no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.”

It laid the groundwork for changing demographics, while also establishing quotas to limit immigration by country.


UCLA professor Hiroshi Motomura, an expert on the history of America's immigration laws, says it's a myth that the United States has had an open-door policy to immigrants. For most of the 20th century, the US tightly restricted immigration from most parts of the world as a way to ensure white dominance in America's demographics. 


Saul Gonzalez

"What it did was say, 'OK, we're going to end the formal discrimination, but that means we're going to treat all countries the same,'" Hiroshi Motomura, a UCLA professor of law and an expert on the history of America's immigration laws told The World on the 50-year anniversary of the 1965 law. "But treating all countries the same meant now, for the first time, we're going to limit Mexican immigration. That created a situation that has led to more than 10 million people in the country without lawful status."

Trump has said from his campaign through the first year of his presidency — and said it again several times in the on-the-record meeting with lawmakers on Tuesday — that he wants the US to move toward a “merit-based” immigration system.

With the uncertainty in negotiations around portions of that system — DACA, the southern wall and TPS, for example — it is unclear whether this president and this Congress will be able to make a deal to significantly change the Immigration and Naturalization Act, however.

And, finally, about that word

We decided not to say shithole on the radio today.

“ ... Here's a word I never thought I'd say on the radio,” said our host, Carol Hills, at the top of The World’s broadcast today. We bleeped the word.

Like a lot of newsrooms today, we spent time deciding whether to bend our ordinary content standards to say on air the exact word our president reportedly said. There were a bunch of considerations. By the time we aired, we figured many of our listeners would have heard shithole more times than they ever wanted to in a 24-hour period. We also knew saying shithole even once would risk a hefty fine from the Federal Communications Commission. And in the end, we decided saying or not saying the word was of secondary importance to diving deeply into the real story behind the outrage. So, that’s where we put our energy.

“This was a tricky decision, and we discussed it basically all day in the newsroom,” explained our show editor, William Troop. “We made the decision that today we would prefer to focus on the substantive issues behind the vulgar word that the president reportedly used, issues relating to immigration and the way the US relates to other countries in the world. That’s what I hope our audience saw in our coverage today.”

We asked our audience whether we got it right. And we heard from a lot of you.

We’re still listening. If we find ourselves in this situation again, what do you want to hear?

Angilee Shah, Lidia Jean Kott, Lydia Emmanouilidou, Alex Newman and Tim McGrath contributed to this report.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.