Donald Trump and the 'S..thole Countries'

The President’s remark reflects a lack of understanding about migration. Harry Melkonian
Harry Melkonian


Recently Donald Trump was reportedly heard to bemoan why migrants to America came from ‘s..thole countries’ like Haiti and African countries and not from places like Norway. Well, a significant number of Norwegians migrated to America – but that was long ago when Norway, too, was a so-called s..thole country!

Putting aside the uncalled-for vulgarity in the President’s remark1, it reflects a lack of understanding about migration. The United States was built on migration (called immigrants). Originally, the vast majority of settlers were of British descent. But, over the course of over 400 years of settlement, the migrant ethnic composition has changed. And, almost always, the current crop of new arrivals were from what might be called ‘s..thole countries’ - or more politely, troubled states.

The simple and straightforward truth is that people do not usually migrate because life is so wonderful in their homeland. Many of the first British settlers in the United States came because of fierce persecution by the Church of England. Others came because there was an opportunity to build a better life without the burden of British class restrictions. This pattern of migration to get a better life has remained consistent throughout history.

Now, there will always be a small number of migrants from affluent and peaceful nations. These migrants usually arrive because of marriage and family or corporate assignments (which may start out as temporary but which can morph into permanent relocation – again fuelled by marriage or other family commitments). A place to start is the President’s own lineage.

His grandfather Friedrich Trump was born to a poor German family in 1869. Apprenticed as a barber, he was unable to find employment in his hometown of Kollstadt and, at the age of 16, in 1885 he migrated to the United States for an opportunity denied him in his homeland. In fact, Friedrich (Frederick in the US) was just one of millions of Germans who migrated to the United States between 1820 and 1880. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars and the revolutions of 1848, Germany was a good place to depart from and many migrants began new and safe lives in the United States.

As for the Scandinavians, they, too, had their time for mass migration to the United States. While among the wealthiest and purportedly the happiest nations in the 21st Century, this was not the case in the mid to late 19th Century. Crop failures, over-population and lack of farmland led to massive migration from Sweden (1,000,000) and Norway (800,000) with a lesser number of Danes (300,000) and Finns (230,000). To a large extent, these Nordic migrants continued in agriculture in the northern midwestern states like Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Today, the Scandinavian countries are much more technology-focused and the availability of farmland is not a reason for migration.

20th Century migration to the US has followed the traditional pattern – people moving to get away from war, unrest, persecution and poverty. In 1960, in the aftermath of the devastation of World War II, it is not surprising to find that nearly 25% of America’s migrant population arrived from either Italy or Germany. Yet, by 2000, with the War’s effects in the distant past, Germans made up only slightly more than 2% of the migrant population and migrants from Italy numbered far less than that. But, whereas Mexicans constituted only 5.9% of the migrant population in 1960; by 2000, that number had swelled to nearly 30%. Since then, the percentage from Mexico has fallen as migration from China and India has steadily increased to the point where these two nations are now the homeland for nearly 10% of the migrant population.

What does this tell us? Well, no one, including the President, should be preparing for a wave of migration from Luxembourg or Switzerland. Not only are these small states but they are also incredibly affluent and peaceful places to live. Migration has been and will continue to be from troubled and distressed nations (and there are many of these) to more affluent and open countries like the US, Canada and Australia. The migrants who built America in the past and who continue to fuel innovation will arrive from whatever place is the ‘s..thole’ of the moment.


  1. Presidential vulgarities are by no means limited to Donald Trump. Both John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were frequently quite profane. But, in mitigation, their recourse to obscenity seems to have been developed during their military service in World War II. Donald Trump, however, was never in the military.

First published . Last updated 8 Feb 2018. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Harry Melkonian

Harry Melkonian is a freelance writer, educator, commentator and lawyer with a focus on US politics. He has conducted short courses on US politics in Sydney on topics ranging from current elections to historical issues including well-known events such as the Kennedy Assassination and Nixon and Watergate to less well-known American history such as When No One Was Elected – the Presidency and Vice Presidency 1974-1976. He has periodically appeared on the ABC and SBS as a commentator for Australian elections. Harry was previously a partner at the law firm White & Case in the US, and is licensed to practice law in the jurisdictions of New York, California, England and New South Wales. He is now an Honorary Associate at Macquarie Law School, specialising in US constitutional issues as well as media and defamation law.

The University of Newcastle, Sydney Campus is a leading provider of short courses in Australia, with industry qualified and experienced educators that bring up-to-date real-world skills directly to the classroom.