President Trump’s use of the word “sh*thole” to describe Haiti and certain African nations has produced many emotions.

For some, to describe a country as a “sh*thole” is racist.  Disparaging a country is equivalent to disparaging the people of that country.  Demeaning Haiti is said to be the same as demeaning Haitians.  Trump’s comments that he would prefer immigrants from Norway only serve as evidence that he is a racist as Norwegians are mostly white.

For others, they concede that the United States is a far better place to live than Haiti or various African countries, but argue that this is why we should admit them as immigrants.  After all, that is the American story: coming from some far away economic and or political hellscape to restart your life in The Land of the Free.  Our ancestors came here looking for a better life; why should we now deny that opportunity to others?

Today’s immigrant, they say, is just as American as those who trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower.

Still, for others, the nation of origin of would-be immigrants has a direct correlation of how immigrants would assimilate or not assimilate once they arrive.  They defend Trump’s comments on the grounds that someone from Norway has a basic understanding of Western Civilization and its norms and conceptions of rights and equality, while someone from Syria or Pakistan, for example, probably does not.  Furthermore, they argue that Norway is a more economically successful country than Haiti and is therefore likely to produce fewer immigrants that would end up on some sort of taxpayer funded assistance.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin accused Trump of using the word “sh*thole” to describe certain countries that he believes should not be the main source of immigrants to this country.   Most Republicans who have commented on the controversy have condemned it in one form or another.  Trump responded by saying that he is not a racist.  In response, Durbin said that Trump and Republicans have a chance to prove it with a DACA compromise.

Why Our Immigration Debates Go Nowhere

Durbin’s response is why we cannot have an honest debate about immigration in this country.  “Agree with me or you’re a racist” is textbook character assassination that makes debate impossible.  Our immigration debates more often than not revolve around simple catchphrases than actual policy proposals.

For example, too many people think that a poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty placed there in 1903 should represent American immigration policy forever.  Any suggestion to the contrary is anti-American, probably racist, and is “not who we are” as “a nation of immigrants.”  They confuse a poem that is well over 100 years old with actual immigration policy and ignore realities that did not exist at the beginning of the previous century, but do exist today.  There was no massive welfare state in 1903, but even if you were to repeal the entire welfare state and minimum wage laws that can incentivize under-the-table hiring of those here illegally, you still need to account for the security-related concerns of a post 9/11 world.

Immigration is also not meant to further ethnic diversity for the sake of furthering ethnic diversity.  A country has an immigration system to further the betterment of that country.  The fact that the immigrant also benefits is icing on the cake.

Meanwhile, people who support Trump’s comments also have somethings wrong.  First, it does not follow that someone from Norway is necessarily going to be more receptive to MAGA’s definition of American values than someone from West Africa.  An immigrant from Norway may be the typical European socialist who ends up voting for Bernie Sanders.  Meanwhile, Nigerian immigrants have a higher percentage of degrees than Chinese or Korean immigrants and have a median income well above the American average.

The problem with our current immigration discussion that the Trump-Durbin spat has highlighted that our premises regarding immigration are wrong. Instead, of arguing about whether it would be better to accept immigrants from this country or that country, we should look at meritorious factors.  Whether the immigrant be from Central America, Africa, Asia, or Europe, a merit based plan would judge would-be immigrants based on their individual merits.  It may be necessary to consider an applicant’s country of origin for one reason or another, but we should ditch quotas and chain migration.  Those who want to immigrate to this country should be judged on what they could possibly contribute, not some politician’s arbitrarily desired ethnic or demographic preference.