Portraits That Defy A President
President Donald Trump generated global furor after reportedly deriding Haiti, El Salvador and African countries with a vulgar obscenity during a Jan. 11 meeting with lawmakers.
According to several attendees of the meeting, Trump questioned the need for the United States to accept immigrants from “s---hole countries” and suggested instead bringing more people from countries like Norway, whose prime minister he met with the day before. The White House has since denied the president’s use of the term.
The bipartisan meeting culminated with Trump rejecting a compromise to increase border security while protecting participants of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides work authorization for eligible undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
The Hoya spoke with five members of the Georgetown community — from Haiti, South Sudan, El Salvador and Cameroon — who shared their thoughts on the president’s remarks and their families’ stories of immigrating to the United States.
Marcia Chatelain, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, Haiti
My parents left Haiti when it was the midst of a dictatorship. It was a place where there was very limited opportunity for people, educationally and financially, and they also started to notice that the people in their family were leaving. They didn’t want to be apart from them.
Like a lot of Haitian families, it was through the assistance of siblings and other family members that my parents were able to get sponsored to come to the United States. There’s a way that that type of immigration has become vilified — when people talk about chain migrations, there are still political conversations about why that’s bad, why you don’t want family members sponsoring each other. It’s interesting to me that the same people on the right who talk about chain migration as wrong or as a peril are the same people who are constantly trying to codify and legislate family values.
This recent conversation about immigration really does show that, for a large segment of Americans, some lives matter more than others. Some families matter more than others; some people’s quality of life matters more than others. It’s heartbreaking to see the ways that attacks on immigration are just about this myth of people stealing jobs. It has turned into vilifying children and vilifying refugees. It has turned into vilifying people who, if they had the freedom to make choices, would probably have not chosen to come to such a hostile country.
I am not as concerned about the fact that the president is racist as I am concerned that his racism shapes policy and influences global relationships. Even though his comments have gotten a lot of attention and have gotten a lot of people stirred up, I hope they take the time to understand that, beyond the comments, there are a series of policies that are under great uncertainty. Fifty-thousand Haitians stand to lose temporary protected status, as will TPS people from El Salvador. They all face a really tough decision about what to do with their family.
It’s also important to remember that, whether an immigrant won the Nobel Prize or becomes a professor or saves someone from a burning building, these are not requirements for a person to be treated with dignity. Every immigrant is a person, one that should be treated with respect and be allowed an opportunity to live with dignity.
Lula Deng (MSB ’21), South Sudan
My family migrated to the United States in 1999 as refugees of the Sudanese Civil War. I was born along the way there, in Cairo, Egypt, the youngest of eight, after my parents fled north from Sudan. Through Catholic Relief Services, we were granted asylum in the States, and Utah happened to be one of the states taking in refugees. We were randomly placed there — my mom, my siblings and me. My dad was politically involved, so he didn’t get to come with us.
People have this sort of misconception about Utah, since it is this homogeneous, predominantly white state. But the one thing I loved about Utah is that I felt like it was home. Even though I was culturally and racially different, the people there were very inclusive and actively trying to help us refugees. My family is Roman Catholic, but the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City was very active in helping us transition.
My background as a refugee gives me a different kind of perspective as an American living in the United States. I feel as though I have a dual identity; I speak Dinke and Arabic fluently, and English without an accent. I don’t want people to put me in a certain category because I’m a refugee, or have a stereotypical view of me before I even open my mouth to speak. I am just as intellectually capable of expressing myself as any peer who is white or not a refugee.
It seems to me that the president is making a poor judgement on character, versus looking at and analyzing the situation these immigrants are coming from. That’s all I have to say, as a refugee who has now become a citizen of the United States. America has always been my home, as long as I could remember. And now it feels less like home, because a home is where you’re supposed to feel safe and happy and welcomed.
Luis Rosales (MSB ’19), El Salvador
It’s funny, because I recently thought about how, specifically for my parents, things were sort of better off in El Salvador. From what I remember, the conditions weren’t the best in El Salvador. We lived under a tin roof. There was a lot of gang activity. Walking to school, I would see a lot of tagging. But my parents had government jobs, which were more stable. Still, the economy in El Salvador, along with the gang activity, drove them to move here, specifically because the future would be brighter for me and my sister, even though they kind of took that loss for themselves.
I don’t know if it even fully hit me until I got here. My mom was explaining to me what was happening, and I cried. I knew I wasn’t going to see my friends for a while, but I didn’t think it was going to be forever. Then came the culture shock: not knowing how to speak English, not really knowing how to assimilate with friends at first. That was really when it started to sink in.
I was lucky, because I came here as a child. The guidelines for DACA are very specific … even if you came as a child to this country, if you don’t come here before a certain date, if you haven’t been here a certain amount of time, you don’t meet the very strict category and criteria you need to qualify.
If there’s one word that comes to mind with DACA, it’s opportunity. Before DACA, I didn’t even plan on going to school, period. I just planned on working, helping my family do construction. But because I saw that glimmer of hope, I decided that maybe I should try school after graduation, and so very last minute in high school I started to apply for schools and do my SATs. I ended up going to community college with a full scholarship, because that’s what I could afford, since DACA students don’t get FAFSA. Knowing that I almost didn’t go to school, I just like dove into work and made the most of it. I was fortunate enough that my hard work paid off and I got a scholarship to also come to Georgetown. So it’s been really life-changing, DACA.
My whole thing is that we are all essentially equal. That’s what I believe. I think about U.S. history, and how in the past the U.S. has intervened in countries like El Salvador. I feel like sometimes our government doesn’t look back to certain actions that they’ve caused that might be causing individuals to move, and the fact that sometimes there is no choice for people. It’s literally their lives at stake, and that’s why they decide to emigrate. That’s the history of this country — it’s literally built by immigrants. There’s so much talent out there that just isn’t given the opportunity to bloom and grow.
Chris Supplice (COL ’19), Haiti
January 1st is Independence Day in Haiti, so it kind of feels like the whole world is celebrating with us. There’s this soup my mom makes, called soup joumou, which is basically winter squash with potatoes, noodles and beef in it. The story goes that, back when the French had control of Haiti, winter squash was a luxury item that only they were allowed to eat. When the Haitians were able to defeat the French and gain their independence in 1804, they took the squash for themselves as a way of saying “we’re worthy of luxury goods as well.” It’s a tradition that’s upheld very strongly, even today.
I learned about the tradition in this Creole-speaking class I had in school in Miami, which was for Haitian students to develop their Creole skills if they didn’t practice at home. I lived in north Miami until I was seven, and there were a lot of Haitians there, and many other people from Caribbean cultures. But then we moved to Georgia, to a town that was not very big, and although it is predominantly black, it took out a lot of the culture I had grown up with.
I went to Haiti my freshman year of college, on a mission trip. I remember on the plane ride there, I was nervous and a bit anxious, because it had been years since I’d last gone and it was the first time I had gone without my family. But I remember getting off the plane and feeling like I was home. There was a sense of joy just being there, even when you could still see the devastation of the earthquake.
I’ve taken it upon myself to stay as far apart from politics as possible, not because I don’t want to be educated on what’s going on or because I choose to be ignorant, but because it’s hard to hear the things the president says. It’s very disheartening. Trump’s supporters can say that they prefer migrants from Norway because they are wealthier or more educated than say, immigrants from Haiti, but I know at the end of the day this is about race. The United States is so afraid to talk about race, and wants to erase race and pretend racism doesn’t exist, but I think if more people sat down and talked about it, that would open so many doors.
I have worked on campus for two years, and even though I look forward to doing other things, I appreciate the start that Georgetown gave my life here. But this is far from where I ever wanted to be.
I came here from Cameroon. I had a master’s degree in law. It happens the way it happens, and it’s always hard to start from scratch. I know that I have a long way to go.
Cameroon is a small nation in central Africa that has been ruled by a single leader since 1982. It’s an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship, which makes it very, very difficult for merit to come into play. Basically, very much in Cameroon is done through nepotism, and it matters who you know and how much you have. I very much want to be in my country, where I have some special ties, where I’ve gone to school and acquired all my credentials. But I would not say all hope is lost.
My purpose for coming here was to get opportunities in my life and my family, and to get a voice for myself. When I do get a voice for myself, I want to go back and change the policies. When I was in university, I had a professor who always told me that the degree you have now is not what you think it is. Rather, it is a platform, like a springboard, to dive to whatever you want to do. I see now he was right — it’s almost useless as far as the workforce is concerned here in the U.S., but if I want to dive into something else, it’s a path to start down.