When President Donald Trump tweeted that four congresswomen should “go back” where they came from, Erika Almiron was reminded of the first time she heard the same comments. She was a new fourth-grader at a predominantly white Italian-Catholic school.
Since then, the daughter of immigrants from Paraguay has heard the remark dozens of times. “I was like, ‘I was born in South Philly, so what do you want me to do?'” said Almiron, now 42 and an immigrant-rights worker in Philadelphia.
For countless Americans, Trump’s words on Sunday sent a stinging message that they are not fully welcome in their own country. His comments echoed painful remarks they have heard throughout their lives. But this time, they came not from a stranger or even a political candidate, but straight from the occupant of the Oval Office.
Trump “feels so emboldened to believe that he has the right to be here and other people don’t, and he gets to determine what that looks like,” Almiron said.
The president doubled down on his remarks Monday, telling reporters that if the lawmakers “hate our country,” they can leave. He defended his tweets by saying the backlash he received “doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.”
“He likes to other-ize people and point to them as being the problem,” said the Rev. William Barber, senior pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. “What he’s doing is ugly and vile and un-American and not new. The rhetoric is cover for racist policy.”
Trump’s tweets hearken back to his entry into politics, when he questioned former President Barack Obama’s citizenship, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the Color of Change civil rights organization, who recalled being told to “go back to Africa” while growing up on Long Island.
“These are basically questions about who should be seen,” Robinson said. “This is at the heart of the execution of ‘make America great again,’ this idea that America was truly great when only some people were allowed to belong.”
On the same day as the president’s tweets, Amena Qureshi’s Uber driver said to her: “Your English is really good! How do you not have an accent?”
She did not take the comments as a compliment but a reminder that people who look like her are not considered American.
“It’s super frustrating to always be on the defensive,” Qureshi, a native Midwesterner and daughter of Pakistani immigrants who remembers first being told to “go back to your weird country” as a sixth grader. She is now 30 and living in Chicago.
Qureshi was recently at a downtown park and a stranger said: “I’m going to assume that you were not born here. Have you seen ‘The Wizard of Oz?'”
“I immediately looked at him and said, ‘I’ve seen ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Why would you assume that?'” she said. “He should not be asking that question. It’s the immediate assumption that because I do cover my hair in public and I am obviously a Muslim.”
She says she is “as American as it gets. Been here my whole life, visited my parents’ birth country once. It almost feels like we’re going backwards.”
Sheela Lal, 28, whose parents immigrated to America from India more than a generation ago, said she’s made a practice of loudly pushing back against people who assume the Missouri native is from somewhere else, in hopes that future generations won’t be subject to the same questions.
“These types of incidents happen because we are not seen as part of the fabric,” said Lal, of Dearborn, Michigan. The idea “that being in a predominantly white space means that we cannot be there either, and that we have no impact on the culture of a region, it’s really exhausting to constantly deal with.”
Michael Rashid, a 72-year-old businessman in Philadelphia, said Trump’s comments recalled for him a time he was told to “go back to Africa” by a woman over a decade ago. He replied, “I can claim a right to this country just as much, if not more than you.”
“My ancestors built this country,” Rashid, the grandson of slaves, told the woman. “Don’t tell me this is not my country.”
Maribel Ortiz, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the president’s comments were particularly hurtful to her as a native of Puerto Rico who grew up in Boston during more racially tense times in the city.
“Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and I’ve been treated like I’m from another country. I work and pay my taxes and contribute to this country like everyone else,” she said.
The 50-year-old laundry worker declined to say who she voted for in the last presidential election but was blunt in her assessment of Trump, calling his ignorance “mind blowing” and saying he can’t “even express himself like a decent man.”
But Ryan Hanslik, a white 29-year-old from Waltham, Massachusetts, who was passing by jumped in to defend the president, chanting, “Make American great again” over and over.
An independent who voted for Trump, he argued that the president has free speech rights and that Democrats have used divisive rhetoric too.
“He’s rough and tough, and I can totally see people’s perspective on why they didn’t like that, but we all express ourselves differently,” Hanslik said. His argument with Ortiz ended with a perfunctory handshake.
Trump is “a different president, and we need to stop holding him to the standard of the office,” Hanslik said. “We’re in the 21st century. Times are a little bit different than JFK. We got to let him speak his piece.”