AURORA | President Donald Trump last week reignited a firestorm of controversy surrounding charges that he is racist, and ensuing fiasco highlights the divide over immigration exemplified in Aurora and Colorado.
For years, a movement to limit the number of migrants into the U.S. and end a system that favors family members of legal residents has had to fend off criticism that it’s as a poorly veiled attempt to produce a whiter America.
Then its most prominent supporter told members of Congress in the Oval Office this week that the U.S. needs fewer immigrants from Haiti and Africa and more from places like Norway.
President Donald Trump’s describing African nations a “shithole” countries triggered widespread condemnation, and left the small cluster of immigration hard-line groups whose agenda Trump has embraced scrambling to distance themselves from the president.
Aurora Republican Congressman Mike Coffman was one them.
Coffman and his campaign for re-election chimed in on Trump’s reported comments separately — one more pointed than the other. Coffman’s campaign referred to the African nations he sullied, which are places where thousands of Aurora immigrants originally hail from.
These communities love their home countries and they love America beyond measure too. A guy who made his living in Atlantic City has no business calling another man’s home a shithole. #COpolitics https://t.co/y0vOapa8dS
— Team Coffman (@Team_Coffman) January 12, 2018
On the congressman’s official Twitter account Coffman said, “I am honored to represent a diverse tapestry of immigrant communities – from El Salvador to Ethiopia, my constituents came from all over the world to pursue the American dream. They haven’t improved just their own lives – they have strengthened the fabric of our entire community with their contributions. The president could learn a thing of two from them.”
Quoting that tweet, @team_coffman, which says is run by a campaign staffer, called out Trump’s comments as rather contradictory.
“A guy who made his living in Atlantic City has no business calling another man’s home a shithole,” it said.
Atlantic City officials did not respond to a request for comment on the tweet.
The controversy unravelled at the Colorado State Capitol Friday as well during annual celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Aurora State Rep. Jovan Melton was reprimanded by House Speaker Crisanta Duran during a speech Friday for quoting Donald Trump’s vulgar description of Haiti and African countries.
“We’ve seen him say that people from Africa and Haiti — they live in shitholes. And I’m sorry to repeat that word, but this is what has been said,” the Democratic lawmaker said during a speech for a resolution honoring Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.
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
Duran gaveled at Melton during his speech and asked him and House members that they not use profanity during the presentation of the resolution.
“Again, I apologize for the word,” Melton continued. “I’m quoting the current leader of the free world. And it’s those types of words, though, that make me wonder: did Dr. King’s message die? Did that message die in terms of love and hope and equality and dignity?”
Melton condemned some of Trump’s other comments and said the resolution may be the most important resolution of the session.
“Because we’ve got to turn things around,” Melton said. “We’ve got to end this attitude of divisiveness. We’ve got to come together as one and put aside our differences of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and belief.”
The resolution passed both the House and Senate.
The incident highlighted the controversy here and across the country.
“They say it’s about numbers, merit, security and control,” Frank Sharry of the immigrant rights group America’s Voice said of organizations that share Trump’s desire to reduce both illegal and legal immigration to the U.S. “All of those are coded words that mean fewer brown, black and yellow immigrants into a white nation.”
Hard-line immigration activists, who prefer the term “restrictionists,” argue that the system they espouse — fewer overall migrants, an end to the family-based system that favors relatives of people already legally in the U.S. and a greater emphasis on picking immigrants with skills — is not racially motivated. They note, for example, that immigrants from some African countries have higher rates of education that the U.S.-born population and may benefit from a more skill-based approach.
“People who suggest merit-based may inherently favor white, northern Europeans — that is inherently racist,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“Immigration is not tied to Donald Trump. This preceded Donald Trump,” he added, dismissing the president as someone “whose tweets cause people to cringe.”
Groups such as Mehlman’s helped torpedo immigration overhauls in 2006 and 2013, but they have few overt supporters in Washington. Before Trump, the most prominent one was Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who became Trump’s attorney general and whose former aide, Stephen Miller, is a top White House adviser to the president on immigration.
Sessions is a longtime critic of the country’s system that allows people with relatives in the United States a chance to apply for visas. “Almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming here because they have a proven skill that will benefit us and would indicate their likely success in our society,” he said on the Senate floor in 2006. “They come here because some other family member of a qualifying relation is here.”
Trump has embraced Sessions’ cause of trying to end “chain migration,” a term opponents have long applied to the family-based system but one that got little attention until the president tweeted it in capital letters as he abruptly demanded its end amid immigration talks in September.
Trump also favors stopping the diversity lottery, a system that reserves visas for people from countries that have relatively few immigrants in the United States. It favors African countries and was part of an immigration deal Trump was negotiating with a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers Thursday when he made his explosive comments.
Trump disputes some of the accounts of the Oval Office exchange reported by others in the room but hasn’t denied using an expletive to describe African countries or the overall tenor of his comments.
Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, which advocates for reduced immigration, contended the president is mischaracterizing his own immigration agenda. “The president’s emphasis on doing away with chain migration and the lottery is about people who are brought into the country with no regard to their skills, education or what their effect will be on the country,” Beck said. “It’s a mistake to focus on what country anybody comes from.”
The Trump administration has announced its intention to end temporary protections for Salvadorans and Haitians who have lived in the U.S. since natural disasters in their countries more than a decade ago, as well as President Obama’s deportation relief for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The president also has backed a long-shot bill authored by two Republican senators that would sharply cut the number of immigrants allowed into the country and prioritize those who speak English, have a doctorate and have existing job offers.
Both sides of the immigration debate have long agreed that the U.S. should move toward a more skills-based program. But Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said recent data suggest the current system may be headed there already: Since 2011, 48 percent of all new legal immigrants have possessed college degrees, well above the 33 percent of U.S. residents with them.
“His vision seems to not only be less immigration but more high-skilled,” Selee said of Trump, “and that may be the system we’re already getting.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.