On shitholes* and immigration

Symbol of immigration: Statue of Liberty
Photo: Pixabay
According to our country’s most iconic monument, we are a refuge for “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Taking in immigrants from “shithole” countries is central to America’s identity.

Emily C. Skaftun The Norwegian American As is I’m sure old news by the time you’re reading this, the world having moved on to another outrageous scandal in the two weeks between my writing this and this issue of The Norwegian American arriving in your mailbox, the President of the United States may or may not have asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” about countries in Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador. Instead, he suggested that we could use more people from countries like Norway.


He had to mention Norway, didn’t he? See, because now he’s in my wheelhouse, and I have Things To Say.

First of all, a lot of the outrage around this quote has focused on the crude language. I hope we can all agree that it’s completely unacceptable to have our head of state referring to any other country this way, no matter what issues a country might have. People, oddly enough, love their countries. You would think that someone who claims to love his country so much would get that. You don’t talk shit about other people’s countries. Them’s fightin’ words.

Trump has argued that he didn’t use those exact words, but he hasn’t denied that the sentiment was the same. The White House attempted to explain by saying that the President wants to “make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy, and assimilate into our great nation,” according to The New Yorker.

Mr. President, as someone quite familiar with the history of immigration from Norway to America, and familiar with present-day Norway, I feel I have to tell you that that’s not how immigration works.

Immigration is hard. Even for people from non-shithole countries, the process of becoming an American is dehumanizing and difficult to manage (and that’s coming from a native English-speaking immigrant friend of mine!), and it takes many years during which the immigrant sacrifices much, including freedom to travel internationally.

People don’t uproot their lives and move from one country to another for no reason, or because they have something to “contribute” to that new country. People choose to immigrate when things aren’t going well for them.

That’s why our Norwegian ancestors came to this country, the largest wave of them back in the late 1800s—because they were poor in Norway. The country had more people than farmland and if they weren’t actively starving they sure weren’t eating well. All they had to offer this country was their hard work, and they gave that. They “assimilated”—often because nationalistic hatred by those already here forced them to—and they prospered. It was easy for them to assimilate. All they had to do was give up their language, and then, being white, the second- and third-generation immigrants blended right in to the dominant culture here.

Did they make our country stronger? I’ll leave that to the experts. But they didn’t weaken it.

Their story could become the story of immigrant populations from any “shithole” country, given the chance. What’s stopping people from the countries mentioned from having that chance? I’m not going to say that it’s definitely racism… but if you can think of a non-racist reason why Norwegians but not Haitians deserve the chance to thrive here, let me know.

Some Norwegians do still immigrate to the United States., sure. But not a whole lot. In fact, just 502 out of a population of 5.3 million people moved here in 2016, down 59 from the previous year, according to Statistics Norway. Wanna know why? Here are just a few of the things people in Norway would have to give up in order to move to the U.S.:

• Living in a country that consistently ranks near the top of the happiness index, a ranking that takes into consideration things like life expectancy, GDP per capita, social support, freedom, and confidence in government (Norway was No. 1 in 2017, while the U.S. ranked 14).

• Guaranteed health care that won’t bankrupt them.

• Many months’ guaranteed parental leave (for both mothers and fathers) and highly subsidized childcare.

• Free education not only through high school, but also college.

• A minimum of five weeks’ vacation each year when working full time.

• Guaranteed minimum pension for retirement, with subsidized nursing care and nursing homes for those who need them.

(Yes, their taxes are high. They don’t mind.)

Now, if you want to get started setting up all those benefits here in the United States, I’m all for it! In my opinion, that would really make us great, and I’m sure it would attract more immigrants from non-shithole countries, or, in more polite and jargony terms, make us more competitive on the global employment market.

But here’s the thing. Thinking of immigration in “what’s in it for me” terms is a disgrace to the ideals this country claims to stand for. I think Emma Lazarus, author of “The New Colossus,” said it best:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This is why we have people from “shithole” countries come here. Because, according to our mythology, that’s who we are.

* As an editor, I struggled, as newspapers across the country have been struggling, with whether to print this word. My reasoning is similar to that of New York Times associate managing editor for standards Phil Corbett, who wrote, “The specific, vulgar language the president was reported to have used was really central to the news here. So it seemed pretty clear to all of us that we should quote the language directly.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.