“Why are we having all these people from sh*thole countries come here? Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
—alleged remarks made by President Trump, January 11, 2018
This isn’t about politics or party.
This isn’t about who you voted for.
This isn’t about immigration policy or how we balance a legitimate need for border security with a refugee’s legitimate need for safe-haven.
This is about something more fundamental: how we see each other. How we see the world we live in, our part in it, and those we share it with.
This is about whether or not we truly believe that we belong to each other.
Because let’s be honest. The president’s words, if he said them—he’s since denied the exact wording attributed to him—are not his alone. If, as alleged, he described Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “sh*thole countries,” he is far from the only one to use dehumanizing language to distance those who are “not like us.”
This kind of prejudice lurks in our hearts, blinding us to how connected we really are to these so-called “sh*thole countries.” Our stories are intertwined. Our countries have had a profound impact on them—not always for good. Few of us realize just how much of a role we’ve played in creating or contributing to the very conditions that cause so many people to look to us for refuge.
Take Haiti and El Salvador, as two examples…
Haiti is one of the oldest republics in the Western hemisphere. A slave colony of France, Haiti won its independence in 1804, just two decades after the U.S. won its freedom from Great Britain. But French warships extorted heavy compensation from Haiti for the loss of their former slave colony, imposing a debt worth more than $20 billion today. It took Haiti well over a century to pay it off with interest. The last installment—the price of their freedom from actual slavery—wasn’t made until 1947. (That’s not a typo.)
In the early twentieth century, American investors turned their eyes toward Haiti and took a controlling interest in the national bank. They were supported by the U.S. government, which was anxious to counter German influence in the Caribbean. Haitians objected to a foreign takeover of their financial system, prompting American banks to complain to the U.S. government, which invaded Haiti in 1915.
When local leaders refused to endorse a new constitution written by Franklin D. Roosevelt (then Assistant Secretary of the Navy), the U.S. military dissolved Haiti’s parliament. When impoverished Haitians couldn’t afford to pay for roads the military wanted to build, they were forced into servitude. America maintained control of Haiti’s finances for more than a decade after withdrawing its military forces.
The U.S. continued to assert its influence over Haitian politics well into this century, and the country still wrestles with the lingering effects of debt and occupation. Even humanitarian efforts to help Haiti have been marred. A deadly cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake was traced to a UN peacekeepers who’d traveled to Haiti to help with recovery efforts. Thousands of displaced Haitians lived in disintegrating tents for years after the quake—I saw some of them when I visited Port-au-Prince in 2014. Much of the permanent housing promised by the big aid industry failed to ever materialize.
Beginning with the Carter administration, the U.S. government poured billions into El Salvador during its civil war, to help an authoritarian regime defeat leftist guerrilla rebels in what the U.S. saw as a proxy battle in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Thousands of civilians were killed by government-backed “death squads,” including the massacre of more than 800 people in one village in 1981. As these death squads terrorized the Salvadoran people, American officials either looked the other way or hoped in vain that their support would persuade the Salvadoran military to reform itself. As one reporter notes, the success of American policy in El Salvador “was built on a foundation of corpses.”
The civil war triggered a wave of migration from El Salvador to the US. Finding themselves in an unfamiliar country with no community network to support them, a small number of these young refugees formed what eventually became the MS-13 gang, originally to protect themselves from other, larger, more violent gangs. This led to many Salvadorans being arrested and deported in the 1990s, as President Clinton and Congress expanded the list of deportable criminal offenses to include drunk driving, petty theft, and “moral turpitude.”
Back in El Salvador, the ranks of MS-13 swelled with deportees. “For two decades [El Salvador has] been on the receiving end of planeloads of tens of thousands of young men with criminal records and tenuous ties to their ‘home’ countries,” writes Michael Paarlberg, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor specializing in Central American politics. “Facing few job prospects and under-resourced police forces, gang-affiliated deportees built their networks with relative impunity.“
El Salvador has had one of the highest homicide rates in the world, much of it connected to gang violence. Crime is such a problem in El Salvador that the U.S. government says it’s too dangerous for Americans to travel there, even as it plans to deport a quarter million Salvadoran refugees who’ve lived in the U.S. legally for years.
Our hands are not clean. Our leaders, our governments, and our actions have had real impact on these so-called “sh*thole countries” and the people who have fled them. We are more connected than we’d like to admit. No amount of dehumanizing, distancing language can hide this reality.
We have a choice. We can use that connectedness to further unmake their world, to pile onto the physical, economic, and environmental violence that has degraded their countries—all while pretending they have nothing to do with us. Or we can recognize our connectedness as an opportunity to build each other up. To see our Haitian friends, our Salvadoran friends, our African friends—as well as our Iraqi and Syrian friends—as fully human, fully equal, full of dignity and worth.
This will not necessarily simplify the immigration policy debate. This is not a “Republican” or “Democrat” issue. We belong to each other—all of us—whether we see it or not. The question is whether we will use our connectedness to unmake violence, rather than make more of it.
This choice starts by acknowledging a fundamental reality:
There are no sh*thole countries. There are no sh*thole people. There is only us, and we belong to each other.