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Author Edwidge Danticat On The Immigrant Experience


This past week, President Trump used an especially vulgar slur to describe African nations and El Salvador. And a warning - I'm going to say it now. He called them, quote, "shitholes." He also said the U.S. should welcome immigrants from Norway rather than places like Haiti. He made these remarks while having a bipartisan policy discussion on immigration inside the White House. Today, throughout the show, we are going to focus on the issue of immigration. In 2016, 752,800 people became naturalized citizens of this country. And I was one of them. Sitting next to me at the ceremony happened to be a Haitian woman with a big smile. We were both dressed up for the occasion. And together we spoke the oath of allegiance along with dozens of other people. And after, we were shown a video where President Trump welcomed us to this country. Here's part of it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You enjoy the full rights and the sacred duties that come with American citizenship - very, very special. There is no higher honor. There is no greater responsibility. You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life and uplift America by living according to its highest ideals of self-governance at its highest standards.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Immigrants, in particular, have been roiled by this most recent controversy. And to get reaction, I'm joined now by another immigrant from Haiti.

Award-winning author Edwidge Danticat, welcome to the program.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Friday - the day after the president made his comment about Haitian immigrants among others, it marked a somber anniversary for Haitians and Haitian-Americans - the devastating earthquake. Help us understand what that day was like, especially after you heard about the president's comments.

DANTICAT: Well, for a lot of us, it was a day that we were planning to mourn and reflect and reach out to our loved ones who had gone through that terrible day eight years ago. And then we found ourselves in another kind of similar pattern of Haiti being insulted, being stigmatizing, being stereotyped. But this time it was by the president of the United States - a country where many of us work, where our parents have given their labor and their - brought their dreams and have - you know, try to contribute to. So it was very - it wasn't surprising given the nature of his presidency and other things that the president has said before. But it was certainly disheartening and disrespectful and profoundly racist, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How would you describe your country and the people there?

DANTICAT: My country is a country born out of revolution. And the people are very hardworking because we've always had to fight from the beginning of the creation of our republic. We were isolated in this atmosphere because Haiti was a nation of black people in a hemisphere where slavery, including in the United States, was still happening. So we were isolated economically. We had to pay our debt to France for our independence, which really hindered progress to - at the very beginning of the country. So we're a country that's always been somewhat marginalized and stigmatized, but that's always made us stronger, want to try harder. We are certainly not the country that the president is describing. We're a poor country. But we're a country full of pride, proud and strong people who are simply, when they leave, looking for better opportunities elsewhere.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should mention that the president denied having used those exact words, although others who were in the room have confirmed it. I'd like to hear a little bit about your story. You came to the United States as a child. You lived in a predominantly Haitian-American neighborhood. What was that experience like for you?

DANTICAT: Well, I came when I was 12. My parents - my father had migrated before, and then my mother had joined him. And when we came, it was 1981. And I feel in some way that I'm living that moment again because Haiti was one of the only countries put on a list of people for high risk for AIDS. So we were people who lost their jobs at that time because of - the Center for Disease Control had said that, you know, we could pass on AIDS. And so people who were working with sick people, who were working in kitchens lost their jobs. And, me - I was beaten up in school a lot because of that. And this is why the president's words also bring all of that back.

And what we realize is that if someone says something like he did about Haiti and El Salvador and these countries in Africa - if someone like that say something like that, it gives others permission to discriminate. It can even lead to violence, which I think is really the consequence of having something like that said about you. It happened to me when I first came when people said, oh, you have AIDS. And then kids felt like they could - they had - they could beat us or call us names. So it's something that the community has lived before. Name calling has - of that nature - has very, very - sometimes really strong and detrimental consequences.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just briefly. We have a few seconds left. What is the mood among the Haitian community now? We've had TPS revoked and these comments.

DANTICAT: We are chill - we're going to fight. I think that's what we just have to continue and do - you see our struggle. We have to see that Haitians are always part of the larger struggle for immigration rights and for, you know, racial equality in America. We're going to continue that struggle however we do it, put letters on the streets. And we're going to try to take care of our neighbors who have come to this country, just like we did in the past, for a better opportunity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you so much. Edwidge Danticat joined us from Key West, Fla. She's the author of many novels and memoirs. Thanks for joining us.

DANTICAT: Thank you for having me.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language. It is “absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.” ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.