Anger flared in the Philadelphia region’s Haitian community on Friday, sparked by President Trump’s reported remark that their homeland and African countries were “shitholes.”
Amid the fury, people were moving toward action, considering a response that could range from a protest march to an email barrage on the White House.
Options were being discussed as phone lines buzzed among Haitian immigrants, who tried to understand why the leader of the free world would put down their nation with so vulgar and demeaning a term.
Friday already promised to be a somber and difficult day for Haitians, who number about 7,500 in Philadelphia, with more spread across suburbs from Elkins Park to Langhorne. The day marked the eighth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince and killed an estimated 230,000 people.
That catastrophe helped propel thousands of Haitians to the United States, which sheltered them under a humanitarian program called Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Trump ended TPS for Haiti in November, meaning 46,000 people who had been allowed to live and work in the United States must return to a nation still suffering from the effects of the earthquake and the ruin inflicted six years later by Hurricane Matthew, which left as many as 1,000 dead.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world, according to the World Bank.
Philadelphia Immigrants Born in Countries Disparaged by Trump
“A lot of us are on fire right now,” said Merytony Pierre-Jean, a local Haitian talk-show host on Radio Nouvelle Alliance. “Friends are calling me, asking what we’re going to do, and how we’re going to do it.”
The president’s reported remarks were personally painful, she said, but also damaging and hurtful to the larger community. How, she wondered, do Haiti and its people regain a reputation now tarnished?
“Who do we sue?” she asked. “Do we sue President Trump for saying those things? Do we sue the government for allowing this man to sit there?”
Pierre-Jean said she hoped the government of Haiti would respond — and it did, issuing an official statement saying the nation was “deeply shocked and outraged” and calling Trump’s remark “racist.”
She and others see themselves as Americans, just like those who came to the U.S. from other lands in earlier eras.
Acceptance of newcomers remains a key American value. Last year, amid the Trump administration’s ongoing crackdown on immigration, a Pew Research Center survey found that for a large majority of Americans, the country’s openness to people from around the world was “essential to who we are as a nation.”
Pew found that 68 percent of Americans said openness to foreigners is a defining characteristic of the nation, while 29 percent said that “if America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.”
Mayor Kenney, who often has castigated Trump over immigration issues, tweeted on Friday: “Philadelphia is a better city because of our diversity. Immigrants, including those from El Salvador, Haiti, and African countries, make our city stronger. Calling those countries by such a vulgar name reveals a great deal about the President’s character. His comments were racist.”
The furor erupted on Thursday at a White House meeting with lawmakers, when Trump questioned a suggested deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some African nations. He asked why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, people with direct knowledge of the comments told news organizations.
A subsequent White House response included no denial. The president took to Twitter on Friday, however, to issue what sounded like one.
Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said “take them out.” Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings - unfortunately, no trust!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018
“Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country,” the President tweeted. “I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians.”
But Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois told reporters on Friday that Trump had in fact used the word to describe foreign countries, uttering the term not once but several times during the discussion. He called Trump’s remarks “hate-filled, vile, and racist.”
In Philadelphia, the Rev. Frantz Ulysse, pastor of First Haitian Church of God of Prophecy in West Oak Lane, said he was shocked by the president’s words.
“I think this president is crazy,” Ulysse said. “The way he acts, he better see a doctor, to see if he has dementia.”
The anger extended beyond the Haitian community.
“It’s just not a decent thing to do,” said Fatu Gayflor, a Philadelphia-area singer and once a household name in her native West African nation of Liberia. “He should sit and think about how he should compose his words.”
Gayflor, known in her homeland as Princess Gayflor, the title of her second album, was driven by the Liberian civil war through three countries to a home in Willingboro. To her, this nation was a savior.
People in troubled lands look to the U.S. as a beacon, a place of refuge and caring, she said. To hear the president denounce Africa in such cruel terms made her feel terrible, she added.
“I’m hoping Americans can talk to this president and tell him, ‘You are leading for the whole world, be careful of how you order your words.’”