Mr. Sessions: Shouldn't What Your Boss Says About Haiti Apply To Alabama?

Jan 17, 2018

COMMENTARY

If you’re still wondering why U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions puts up with all those humiliating public smack-downs from his boss, President Trump, then hop on the Internet and watch the video of him on Fox News Tuesday night.

Trump’s immigrant-bashing schtick – which reached a new low last week when he reportedly said the U.S. takes in too many people from “shithole” countries like Haiti – is often just dog-whistle demagoguery for his bigoted base. What's different about Sessions – and why he sticks with Trump the way Igor shuffled behind Dr. Frankenstein – must be that he really believes that, um, crap about immigrants.

President Trump at the White House immigration meeting last Thursday in which he allegedly used an obscenity to describe certain countries.
Credit Carolyn Kaster / AP via Miami Herald

Defending Trump, who’s denied using the vulgarity others at the White House gathering say they heard, Sessions argued the President is right to be spooked by migrants from impoverished and often dysfunctional nations. And just as right to wish out loud, as Trump allegedly did, that we'd get more folks from Norway.

“What good does it do to bring in somebody who is illiterate in their own country, has no skills and is going to struggle in our own country and not be successful?” Sessions asked on Fox.

For good measure, Sessions also made sure to cast uncertainty on whether those non-Norwegian arrivals “are going to be lawful” and “not threats to us.”

READ MORE: Trump's Alleged 'Sh--Hole' Remarks Embolden Caribbean Writers at Key West Event

But there are two big flaws in Sessions’ thinking.

The first is the hysterical assumption that everyone who’s coming from countries like Haiti or El Salvador – or the entire continent of Africa that Trump also allegedly trashed in his remarks last week – are illiterate. Unskilled. Threats. Bad hombres.

Of course we want good, able people here. But as someone who has covered countries like Haiti and El Salvador for three decades, and who’s lived in Miami for two, I can say from sheer observation that folks who come here from there, legally or illegally, usually have smarts, aren’t violent criminals – and do ultimately succeed. What was true of immigrants from basket-case places like Italy a century ago applies to those from nearby nightmares like Honduras today.

If you accept Sessions' xenophobic premise, then you need to turn it on his home state of Alabama - whose high illiteracy and poverty rates should, by his standards, make me pretty skittish about Alabamians migrating to my state of Florida.

The second problem is that if you do accept Sessions’ xenophobic premise, then you need to turn it on the state he once represented as a U.S. Senator: Alabama.

It was more than a little ironic hearing Sessions fret about illiterates when his home state’s functional illiteracy rate is 25 percent, according to the Literacy Council of West Alabama. (The national rate is less than 15 percent.) And when the same Justice Department he heads today has cited illiteracy as a key factor in high crime rates. Not surprisingly, Alabama is one of America’s poorest states; some of its counties have poverty rates as high as 40 percent.

So by Sessions’ standards I should be pretty skittish about Alabamians migrating next door to my state, Florida. I mean, according to him I can make a fairly good case that they likely wouldn’t succeed here. That they’d be a threat. Bad Bubbas, right?

And yet, just as the facts don’t prop up Sessions’ facile assertions on a national level, nor do they in the state scenario. For example: a large share of the domestic migrants who come to Florida’s northwest Panhandle are from Alabama. But these days the Panhandle is reporting the emergence of a more high-tech economy – particularly CDR technology (cyber, drones and robotics).

What’s more, the Panhandle’s crime rates are below the national average. In fact, the Panhandle city of Niceville is ranked the sixth safest in Florida.

LICENSE FOR BIGOTS

I of course can’t claim Alabama migrants are responsible for the Panhandle’s positive profile. But they don’t seem to have dragged the place down, either – as Sessions and his boss seem to suggest migrants from “shithole” countries inevitably do.

Shortly after Trump’s alleged remarks hit the headlines last week, Miami author Edwidge Danticat, an immigrant from Haiti and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship – you know, one of those U.S. genius grants – told me the scariest thing about a President branding a country a “shithole” is that it licenses bigots to brand those who come from it as “shithole people.”

That’s wrong when it comes to nations like Haiti, Mr. Sessions – and states like yours.