WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump called refugees detained by Australia “illegal immigrants” multiple times on Thursday as he disparaged what he said was a “dumb deal” to welcome them into the United States.
The people in question aren’t “illegal immigrants” ― they’re persecuted individuals who risked their lives to seek asylum in Australia and, because of its anti-refugee laws, ended up languishing in offshore detention camps.
The U.S. made a deal under President Barack Obama to admit about 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center. Australia would admit refugees from Central America. On a call Saturday with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump called the arrangement “the worst deal ever,” according to The Washington Post.
In the days since, Trump has repeatedly disparaged the deal, which he said he will study. He signed an executive order on Friday halting refugee resettlement for at least 120 days and barring Syrian refugees from the U.S. indefinitely.
But Trump’s use of the term “illegal immigrants” goes beyond disparaging Obama or Australian leaders. It veers into denigrating the vulnerable individuals themselves, particularly when considering the president’s stance on unauthorized immigration. Much of Trump’s campaign was based on demonizing undocumented immigrants, suggesting at best that they were a drain on U.S. resources, and at worst murderous.
Trump first called refugees held by Australia “illegal immigrants” in a tweet on Wednesday.
He used the term, which many people consider a slur, again on Thursday.
“I love Australia as a country, but we had a problem where for whatever reason, President Obama said that they were going to take probably well over 1,000 illegal immigrants who were in prisons, and they were going to bring them and take them into this country,” Trump said at an event at the White House. “And I just said, ‘Why?’”
The refugees in question are living off Australia’s mainland on Nauru and Manus Island because the country mandates detention of people who show up on its shores. The Australian government takes a hard-line stance against asylum-seekers, and bans them from settling in the country if they arrive by boat. Since refugees can neither go into Australia nor be sent home, thousands are stuck on islands in “offshore processing” unless other countries agree to take them, as the U.S. did.
Until then, they are held in poor conditions on the islands, even if they have a valid refugee claim, as about 80 percent of detainees on Nauru do, according to its government. That means they were found to be people genuinely driven from their homes due to persecution, not “illegal immigrants,” or criminals, as the president’s reference to prisons implies.
Numerous human rights groups have condemned Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees and asylum-seekers as tremendously damaging to the mental and physical health of those individuals, including children. The refugees’ situations in the camps are dire, with reports of sickness, injury, sexual assault, suicide attempts and death.
It’s not surprising that Trump would call refugees “illegal immigrants.” He typically refers to the asylum-seekers in the U.S., most of them women and children from Central America, as a potential threat to public safety. Even calling refugees by the proper term wouldn’t imply much empathy. Trump’s recent policy change is based on the premise that it is so likely a terrorist will sneak through the system that it’s better to let tens of thousands of individuals remain in refugee camps abroad, even if they pass extensive security screening.
The refugees meant to come to the U.S. under the deal with Australia are also being vetted. The White House has sent mixed signals, suggesting both that the arrangement is still on and that it’s in doubt.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said on Thursday. “A previous administration does something, you have to respect that, but you can also say, ‘Why are we doing this?’”