President Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” comments ricocheted around the world, spurring criticism from U.S. allies, rebuttals from Americans with roots in those countries and condemnation from some in his own party.
Lost in the furor over his “shithole” comment is the argument that Trump was making at the time.
The White House held the meeting to discuss a bipartisan immigration deal that would help undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who got relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, foreign nationals who fled manmade and natural disasters and received temporary protected status (TPS) in the U.S. and immigrants seeking to come to the U.S. through a diversity lottery.
That’s a lot to unpack, so we’ll walk through these one at a time. But here’s the short version: If you are upset about Trump calling African nations “shithole countries” and disparaging Haitians, you probably won’t like what he was proposing either.
(Note: Trump denies using the exact phrase “shithole countries,” though Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who was in the meeting, confirmed Friday morning that he said it “repeatedly.”)
As part of a harsher approach to immigration, the Trump Administration has sought to end TPS, or temporary protected status, for several groups of people who have been living in the United States for years:
• 200,000 people who fled El Salvador during a deadly civil war in 1990 and after a catastrophic earthquake in 2001,
• 58,000 people who fled Haiti after a deadly 2010 earthquake,
• 57,000 people who fled Honduras after a devastating hurricane in 1999, and
• 2,500 people who fled Nicaragua after the same hurricane
As the name implies, TPS was originally designed to allow refugees to stay in the U.S. for a short time, and it has to be renewed every 18 months. But since conditions have often not improved and ending the protection could pose a political risk, past administrations have typically done so.
That means some of these residents — who do not have a special pathway to becoming U.S. citizens — have lived here for decades, sometimes marrying U.S. citizens and raising American-born children.
Trump’s revocation of temporary protected status for these four countries, not all of which have been finalized, put all of them at risk of immediate deportation, which in some cases could mean breaking up families.
The bipartisan group working on an immigration bill to present to Trump were looking for a way to help those people remain in the U.S. That’s where the second part comes in.
Diversity Visa program
Another element of Trump’s stricter approach to immigration has been his proposal to end the Diversity Visa Lottery program, also known as the green card lottery. Under the program, the State Department offers 50,000 visas each year to immigrants from parts of the world where relatively few people have recently immigrated from.
Trump blamed a New York City attack in November on the lottery program, arguing that it was “helping to import Europe’s problems” and that the U.S. should instead move to a merit-based immigration system.
Trump has also criticized the program as a “Democrat Lottery System,” though it was created in a bill passed on a bipartisan basis by Congress and signed into law by a Republican president in 1990. The U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service have both found no evidence that the program leads to terrorism.
Nevertheless, both Democrats and Republicans have sought to do away with the program in recent years. A bipartisan 2013 bill would have ended the green card lottery while making broader changes to immigration policy, but it was blocked by House Republicans who argued it was not tough enough.
Not everyone wants to end it, however. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have sought to ensure that immigration could continue in some form from African countries that have benefited from the green card lottery in recent years.
That’s where the compromise came in. The bipartisan group recommended taking some of the diversity visa lottery slots for immigrants and instead giving them to people who had been covered under temporary protected status.
According to accounts of the meeting, that’s when Trump proposed removing Haitians from the plan.
During the discussion of the green card lottery, Trump repeated his criticism of the program, arguing that African immigrants were coming from “shithole countries.”
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he said, according to a Washington Post account.
The underlying reason the White House was even having the meeting was the looming end of DACA, which benefits the so-called “Dreamers” — people brought to the U.S. as children illegally.
The Obama-era program has shielded more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, but the Trump Administration announced in September that it would begin phasing DACA out.
Though DACA will ultimately end in March, each month thousands of recipients have been put at risk of deportation as their status has lapsed, potentially forcing them to leave school or quit jobs as well.
Recent polls have found overwhelming support for allowing Dreamers to remain in the country — one from the Washington Post and ABC in September found 86% support for allowing DACA recipients to stay.
Some Democrats want a so-called “clean” vote on legislation for Dreamers, meaning it would have no other provisions. The Trump Administration has insisted it be paired with other measures on border security, including funding for a wall on the border with Mexico.
The bipartisan proposal presented to Trump would have given Dreamers a path to legal citizenship, authorized funds for a border wall and other security, made some changes to family migration policy and reallocated some of the 50,000 green card lottery slots to people who lost temporary protected status.
Trump’s “shithole countries” and “take them out” remarks upset that delicate balance, however, potentially making it harder for either side to come to a compromise. And if he is adamant about changing those parts of the deal, it may be even harder.