WASHINGTON: Outrage mounted Friday over US President Donald Trump's reported description of African nations, Haiti and El Salvador as "shithole" countries, with the United Nations slamming his comments as "racist".
During a Thursday meeting with lawmakers on immigration reform, Trump demanded to know why the US should accept citizens from what he called "shithole" countries, according to comments first reported by the Washington Post.
The reported comments angered among Democrats and Republicans and revived questions about Trump's tendency to make racially charged remarks.
They also spurred a harsh reaction from the UN, with rights office spokesman Rupert Colville describing them as "shocking and shameful."
"Sorry, but there is no other word one can use but 'racist'," he told reporters in Geneva.
"You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as 'shitholes' whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome", he added.
Trump met with lawmakers at the White House to discuss a proposed bipartisan deal that would limit immigrants from bringing family members into the country, and restrict the green card visa lottery in exchange for shielding hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.
"Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" Trump said, according to people briefed on the meeting who spoke with The Washington Post.
The New York Times later reported the same comment, citing unnamed people with direct knowledge of the meeting.
The president was referring to African countries and Haiti, both newspapers said, with the Post including El Salvador on its list.
Trump then suggested the United States should instead welcome immigrants from places like Norway, whose prime minister met Trump on Wednesday and whose population is overwhelmingly white.
"The positive comment on Norway makes the underlying sentiment very clear," Colville said, warning that Trump's comments should not merely be brushed aside as "vulgar language."
"It's about opening the door wider to humanity's worst side, about validating and encouraging racism and xenophobia that will potentially disrupt and destroy the lives of many people," he warned.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin had come to the White House Thursday to outline their bipartisan compromise, but found themselves in the room with several Republican immigration hardliners.
Graham and Durbin are leading efforts to codify protections for so-called "dreamers", immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.
In exchange, the deal would end extended family "chain migration".
The president and lawmakers are in the midst of intense negotiations about how to shield nearly 800,000 "dreamers" from deportation.
Last year, Trump scrapped the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protected the immigrants, and set a deadline of March 5 for Congress to legislate a fix.
Colville, whose boss, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein is a harsh Trump critic, urged Congress to "provide a durable solution" for the "dreamers".
Their future, he insisted, "should not be used as a bargaining chip to negotiate the most severe and restrictive immigration and security measures possible. These are human beings, not commodities."
The White House did not deny the account of Trump's use of language, but instead suggested the president was "fighting for permanent solutions" that strengthen the nation, in part through the use of a merit-based immigration system.
"Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people," White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement.
Trump has previously raised eyebrows with his stance on sensitive race issues.
He has denounced NFL players who kneel during the national anthem in protest at police brutality against African Americans, and made questionable comments about a white supremacist rally in Virginia that turned violent.