President Donald Trump’s remarks about “shithole countries” in a meeting at the White House drew strong responses from immigrants in North Carolina and local volunteer groups.
During a meeting in the Oval Office Thursday regarding a potential deal on immigration reform, Trump asked why the United States should accept immigrants from Haiti, Central America and African countries.
“What do we want Haitians here for?” Trump asked, according to two people briefed on the meeting, Tribune Washington Bureau reported. “Why do we want all these people from Africa here?”
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Trump then suggested that the United States should accept more people from countries like Norway, Tribune reported.
Widnie Pierre, a senior at UNC Chapel Hill studying biology who moved to the U.S. six years ago from Haiti, was shocked when she heard about Trump’s comments Friday morning.
“I didn’t want to sit in a classroom with a bunch of white people after the president said something so racist,” she said. Pierre did go to class Friday but said she found it hard to concentrate.
Pierre was 20 years old when she immigrated to Miami from Haiti before moving to North Carolina to attend UNC. Her mother still lives on the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
“Our country is not a shithole,” she said. “People are well-educated in Haiti. Although people are poor, we have dignity and pride and we are really generous people.”
Trump in a tweet denied having said anything derogatory about Haitians, though he did not specifically comment on his use of the word “shithole.”
North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans, didn’t respond to requests for comment. It appears the first Republican member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation to make a public statement about Trump’s remarks is U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger from Charlotte, who defended the remarks in a few interviews Friday.
“You have to look at the context,” Pittenger told television station WSOC. “Was he talking about people, or was he talking about governments? I think he’s looking at these countries ruled by despots.”
Reps. Alma Adams of Charlotte and David Price of Chapel Hill, both Democrats, spoke out against Trump’s comments on Twitter.
State Rep. Greg Murphy, a Pitt County Republican, led a relief effort in Haiti shortly after the earthquake. Though he supports revising U.S. immigration policy, he said if reports are true, he’s disappointed in the president’s comments.
“My time in Haiti has shown me that it’s a devastated, desperate country and needs our help, our thoughts and prayers more than anything,” he said.
In November, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke announced she would end Temporary Protected Status for Haiti, a status granted after the 2010 earthquake. Now, Haitians residing in the United States have until July 2019 to return home. On Jan. 8, Homeland Security also ended TPS for El Salvador, which was granted after a 2001 earthquake.
In North Carolina, 5,900 Salvadorans and 1,000 Haitians have Temporary Protected Status, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The organization estimates that $256.8 million would be lost from the state’s gross domestic product annually without Salvadoran workers with TPS, and $48.6 million without Haitian TPS workers.
“These are now folks who have been in the country for eight years; many of them have their families here,” said Mark Peifer, a biology professor at UNC and a trustee of Hearts with Haiti. “When my immigrant great-grandparents came here, should they have been sent back?”
Karen Ziegler, a retired minister who has organized protests outside Tillis’ office in Raleigh, said Trump’s reported comments could help immigration activists bring lawsuits against recent changes to immigration policies.
“To have it be so plainly stated will help in legal challenges to his immigration policies which are clearly so racist,” she said.
Chris Marlow, CEO of Help One Now, which works with orphans in communities in Haiti and other countries, said the organization’s leaders in Haiti and Africa reached out to him Thursday to express their frustration.
“Now they feel like they’re being denied that friendship and that camaraderie that we’ve had as a country, especially Haiti as our neighbor,” Marlow said.