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Presidential insult adds to a long history of US injury to Haiti

The spiral of the current White House administration into the deepest depths of awfulness continued apace last week. The latest abomination, as bravely related by US Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois: the president’s expletive-laced rejection of people from African nations and Haiti in favor of Norwegians as his preferential immigrants at a White House meeting on immigration policy.

Durbin said the president used the word “shitholes” to describe Haiti and other countries that he deems unwelcome here in the United States. “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out,” the president is alleged to have said in reference to an attempt to include Haitians with Temporary Protected Status in an immigration reform package.

It was very clear long before this incident that the president is beyond salvation. He’s a xenophobe, a racist, and a fool.

A more pressing question might be: Who among his compatriots in the majority party will stand tall, reject his excesses, and join the fight for common decency.

Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House, is a dark-horse candidate for such a distinction. But, to date, Ryan has been a grave disappointment. His muted response to Trump’s transgressions last week underlined that reality.

When asked to respond, Ryan could only muster that the president’s behavior was “unfortunate” and “not helpful.” He compared the countries disparaged by the president to Ireland, his ancestral nation of origin.

Ryan was not alone in reaching back to his own immigrant roots in reacting to Trump’s words. Many fellow Irish-Americans, most of them well meaning, have invoked their own family’s immigrant story in light of the president’s white supremacist outbursts. That’s a natural instinct to seek common ground. And there are parallels, to be sure.

But in the instance of Haiti, in particular, it’s important to keep in mind how poorly our nation – the US – has behaved toward our neighbor over our shared history. Our nineteenth- century policy with respect to Haiti was outwardly hostile, with the US seeing its successful slave rebellion as an existential threat to our then-slaveocracy.

When we did “soften” our stance after the Civil War, it was with an eye to annexing Haiti and, indeed, all of Hispaniola as part of our doctrine of dominating the hemisphere. Later, in 1915, we actually invaded Haiti, and the occupation lasted nearly two decades, the longest in US history.

So, while it’s true that the Irish who came to the US fled famine and colonial rule and civil war and poverty – much of it perpetrated by malevolent British imperialism – our government’s role was limited. That’s not true in the case of Haiti.

Put simply: Haiti is not Ireland. In the 1920s, the US did not seek to undermine the new Irish Republic with embargoes and threats of invasion or occupation. We did not participate in a conspiracy of hostile powers to seek to injure another aspiring republic. We did all of those things to Haiti.

Our nation, for all of the good works of individuals and organizations that do relief work there, has systematically sought to strangle and stifle Haiti’s sovereignty and meddle in its domestic politics and economy since 1804.

That’s what makes the viciousness and outright bigotry of this president all the more appalling. His ignorance knows no bounds. But we as Americans have a duty to remember these facts of our own history. We hope Speaker Ryan and other leaders with a modicum of decency and a connection to their own immigrant roots will embrace this reality.