When my ancestors came to America from Ireland, they left what many people considered a “s—-hole” country. A potato famine, combined with Ireland’s bad reputation in much of Europe, led many to call for an end to the immigration of the unwashed Irish.
“Filthy,” they called my family.
We would hope that such labels are an embarrassing relic of the past.
Yet on Thursday, President Trump was quoted as saying, “Why are we having all these people from s—-hole countries come here?”
Although the White House did not deny Trump’s remarks that day, on Friday morning Trump suggested on Twitter that the comment was “tough, but this was not the language used.” Either way, it was obviously shocking to those in the room, and he didn’t deny his underlying sentiments.
This is not the first time that Trump has horribly caricatured immigrants. During his presidential campaign he said of undocumented Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
So, the commander in chief used a filthy or “tough” word to the point that it stunned those who heard it. But beyond the profanity, the most startling part of his remark is his suggestion that certain people’s living conditions should disqualify them from immigrating to the United States.
Mr. President, we have all these people coming here because of who they think we are - the kind of nation that believes all people are worthy of dignity and respect. They want to come here just like my ancestors did, even when they were called filthy.
I’ve walked in places where words like this would literally describe the streets - open sewers, for example, in a favela in northeastern Brazil, or the slums outside Kumasi, Ghana. There is still poverty where I’ve walked in urban Johannesburg. And, yes, they are, at times, quite literally, places where feces run in the streets.
But those places are filled with people made in the image of God. Yes, they want to come to America, and let’s consider why.
First, they hope for a better life. The United States doesn’t just offer economic or medical benefits but the very freedoms we often take for granted. The freedoms to speak, worship, work and advance have been and continue to be the aspirations of immigrants. What was true for the Irish landing at Ellis Island is true for the Haitians landing at the Miami airport.
Second, they want what’s best for their children. The story of American immigration is a story about generational aspiration. Immigrants and refugees from filthy or “s—-hole” nations recognized that through their sacrifice their children might realize their full potential in America. My ancestors did.
It’s beneath us to speak of countries as “s—-holes,” perhaps in a way that it’s beneath us to say that undocumented Mexicans are “rapists” or murderers, though with “some” “good people.”
Maybe a country that consistently has one of the higher child poverty rates among developed nations, averages almost seven mass shootings a week and has seen its standing in education test scores drop to below average shouldn’t be so quick to disparage others. With a dose of humility, we can remember it is safer in some of the countries Trump cited than in some parts of Chicago right now.
Trump has courted evangelicals, some of whom have had access to him and his administration. I hope those evangelical leaders will speak clearly, reminding Trump that all people are worthy of dignity and respect because they are made in the image of God.
Also, just a reminder: The countries he is speaking of might seem far away, but the people who live there are not so different from you and me. In fact, what some might casually call “s—-hole countries” are filled with people whom evangelicals call their brothers and sisters in Christ. Africa, for example, has the fastest-growing evangelical community as a percentage of population and is projected to become the largest evangelical continent in the world. They are part of my family - and yours.
When I preach around the country, I see immigrants from all over the world. The bond that I share with worshipers outpaces any earthly citizenship. When the apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:20 that Christians are “citizens of heaven,” he was not only speaking of our hope. He was reminding us of the common identity believers share that supersedes all others.
Some come from places that some people call “s—-holes,” but they are part of my family. And I don’t like to hear my family and their homes disparaged, whatever the exact phrase.
And I don’t think we should speak up simply because some people from those countries are evangelicals but because all people - of whatever (or no) faith - are worthy of dignity and respect. However, I do think that it’s worth noting that a president who courts evangelicals should hear from them when he besmirches their brothers and sisters in Christ and the pain of their living conditions.
America’s immigration policy faces serious challenges that cannot be solved with simplistic political tropes. The government needs to be discerning about the who and why of immigration that correctly balances short-term and long-term benefits. I don’t believe in open borders, and I’m not looking for unrestricted and unwise immigration policy.
However, this is not up for debate: Describing Haiti and African countries as s—-holes, or some variant of that pejorative, is not worthy of our nation or its president. All people are made in the image of God, and when we speak of them or their living conditions, we should do so with dignity and respect.
Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College.