Much of the international news coverage this weekend has surrounded a reported obscene remark made by United States President Donald Trump about Haiti, El Salvador and the fifty-four internationally recognised countries of the African continent (countries with majority non-white populations) during a bi-partisan meeting last week on immigration. He was further reported as stating, on the contrary, that immigrants from countries like Norway (majority white population) would be preferred.
The vulgar phrase attributed to the US President has been widely reported ad nauseum and there is, therefore, no need for me to repeat it here. Both the African Union and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have released statements strongly condemning the President’s reported choice of words. President Trump eventually denied using the obscenity, though conceding he had used ‘strong language’ in the meeting. However, the incident was confirmed by several persons who had been present at the meeting, including one Republican senator.
The underlying assumption that immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa have nothing to offer the US is erroneous and unfortunate for several reasons.
- It ignores the fact that the US is a land of immigrants and that the majority of immigrants to the US are law-abiding citizens who make sterling contributions to their adopted land. From colonial days to present, one can cite countless examples of Caribbean, Latin American and African immigrants who have made sterling contributions to US society, in fields from the arts, medicine, engineering, law, academia, the Armed Forces, and the list goes on.
- The assumption that immigrants from these countries are overwhelmingly low-skilled is also not borne out in the data. For instance, data from the 2015 American Community Survey show that some 13.5% of the estimated 4.165 million Caribbean born US immigrants had a Bachelor’s degree and 6.7% had a graduate degree
- Turning to Haiti in particular, President Trump’s comment shows a fundamental ignorance of the critical role Haiti played in the American colonies’ struggle for their own independence. A favour which was not returned when Haiti attained theirs given the fear that a successful black independent republic would inspire other slaves, including in the US, to follow suit.
- The statement forgets that migration is not a one-way street. Americans too have migrated to, and made their home, in some of these same countries.
The second fundamental flaw with the statement is that it is grossly incorrect and ignores the fact that all countries have their challenges. War, conflict, Mother Nature and other factors could change a country’s fortunes at any time. The prosperous countries of today all underwent periods of time when they too could have been described in such a manner as President Trump used to describe the countries concerned. The Germany which President’s Trump grandfather fled in order to migrate to the US is not the prosperous Germany of today.
It also ignores the role external political actors have played in shaping the fate of many of these countries. For all the development aid given to countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, history is replete with examples of western powers’ interference in the domestic politics of these countries, from supporting corrupt governments to overthrowing democratically-elected left-leaning governments. These foreign interventions have undoubtedly contributed to many of the problems faced by some of these countries, including corruption, poverty and inequality.
Haiti, no doubt, is perhaps one of the more tragic examples. It is a country which is rich in culture, beauty, spirit and natural resources, and occupies a unique position in history as the world’s first majority black republic. The colony of Saint Domingue was the crown-jewel of the French West Indian Empire, but was almost condemned to poverty from the beginning of its post-independence life after being forced to pay France reparations for decades. And if that were not bad enough, how can one overlook US government support for the brutal Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and his son Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) or more recently, the foreign-orchestrated removal of democratically elected leader Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004? Moreover, the island has had more than its fair share of natural tragedy, from hurricanes to earthquakes.
The racially-charged slur attributed to the President of the United States should shock no one given his suspect history on race relations, and his ethnonationalist worldview. It has revealed yet again the ideology underlying an increasingly more isolationist US foreign policy and immigration policy which has seen travel bans, increased deportations and the threat of ending once and for all the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme.
The biggest take-away, however, is that the inflammatory rhetoric used by the President to describe these countries is further evidence that US-Caribbean relations and US-Africa relations will not be a priority for this administration, outside of narrow US national security concerns.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.