The latest furor is over certain remarks that Trump is alleged to have uttered during a meeting about immigration with Dick Durbin, Lindsay Graham, and “other government officials.” His alleged remarks (some of which he has disputed) were criticized variously for both form and content: that the words were vulgar, and that they were bigoted.

The most salient thing on which accounts seem to agree is that Trump referred to some countries—perhaps in Africa, perhaps also Haiti—as “shitholes” or “shithole countries.” Let’s go with that, anyway, as a good possibility.

The definition of the word “shithole” is:

vulgar slang

An extremely dirty, shabby, or otherwise unpleasant place.

So the problem doesn’t seem to be the word’s definition; these are in fact pretty desperate countries in which to live, which is one of the main reasons so many people flee them in the first place. That’s what Trump was referring to in his later tweet where he wrote, “Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country.”

So the objection to the word is mostly about decorum and tone. What Trump said wasn’t couched in the sort of language presidents and diplomats ordinarily use in public, although it’s a good guess (and with some, a certainty—for example, LBJ) that they sometimes do in private.

But tone—vulgarity—was not the only issue here. And this is where we get into special difficulty because of the lack of a transcript or recording: what did Trump actually say and what did he actually mean?

It appears that the context in which Trump is alleged to have said this was a discussion of a program that favors immigrants from these countries:

The lawmakers were describing how certain immigration programs operate, including one to give safe haven in the United States to people from countries suffering from natural disasters or civil strife…

The program that was being discussed at the White House is called Temporary Protected Status.

In November, the Trump administration decided to end the status for immigrants from Haiti and Nicaragua. It gave the approximately 59,000 Haitian immigrants who had been granted the status until July 2019 to return home or legalize their presence in the United States. Nicaraguans were given until January 2019.

This week, Trump moved to end the status for immigrants from El Salvador, which could result in 200,000 Salvadorans legally in the United States being deported, beginning in September of next year.

The bipartisan Senate plan would attempt to maintain TPS in return for ending or changing a “diversity” lottery program that has been aimed at allowing up to 50,000 people a year from countries with few emigres to the United States…

Another source familiar with the meeting said Trump was questioning why the United States should take in unskilled laborers from the countries under discussion and should instead welcome immigrants from nations that can offer skilled workers.

That seems to make sense, so let’s just assume that’s what Trump was getting at when he made the remarks in question. I think it’s likely that he was asking why we should favor people from these countries over those from more functional countries. It’s actually a good question, although a non-PC one.

Liberals and the left (and some on the right, too) say that we actually have an increased duty to give safe haven to those who are from more dysfunctional countries. On the other side, there are people who think our first duty is to make sure our country only accepts the number and type of immigrants we can safely handle, and that too vast an influx of people from dysfunctional countries at one time can lead to trouble and is unnecessary and unwarranted.

When I was very young, the rules about immigration were still governed by the The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the passage of which had engendered a debate about our philosophy of immigration not unlike the debates we’ve had recently, although some of the details are different. The 1952 Act continued a previous quota system for immigrants from nations and regions based on their proportions already in the US population, and labor qualifications were part it:

The Act defined three types of immigrants: immigrants with special skills or relatives of U.S. citizens who were exempt from quotas and who were to be admitted without restrictions; average immigrants whose numbers were not supposed to exceed 270,000 per year; and refugees.

Harry Truman vetoed the bill; you can read his reasons why here. The gist of it was that he thought the bill was too inflexible in terms of reacting to crises and needlessly restrictive of immigration from Eastern Europe at the expense of Western Europe. But his veto was overridden and the bill enacted into law.

The remarks of one of the sponsors of the bill—Senator Pat McCarran, Democrat of Nevada—seem of special interest in light of more recent controversies:

I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. … However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States. … I do not intend to become prophetic, but if the enemies of this legislation succeed in riddling it to pieces, or in amending it beyond recognition, they will have contributed more to promote this nation’s downfall than any other group since we achieved our independence as a nation.

It’s certainly not difficult to recognize such sentiments, although they were made back in 1953. Interestingly enough, they came from one of Truman’s fellow Democrats, albeit one who was an ally of Joe McCarthy and was accused of having been anti-Semitic (McCarran’s statue may not be long for this world, either).

One of the challenges in discussions of immigration is how to voice very real concerns about the very real potential problems connected with the assimilation and absorption (or lack thereof) of immigrants from culturally different (in particular, “failed”) countries, and to differentiate those concerns from mindless bigotry. The left is pleased to call all such concerns bigotry, since they ordinarily emanate from Republicans.

Trump’s alleged remarks feed into the claims of those who say that Trump is both coarse and bigoted. Trump supporters feel he only stated what is true and raised important questions that need to be addressed. What Trump actually said and what he actually meant by it has thus far been nearly lost in the tsunami of commentary on it.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]