Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson described slaves as “immigrants” in a speech on Monday, sparking backlash from critics.

“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” Carson said Monday during a broader soliloquy on immigration in America. The comments were made about halfway through his first remarks to HUD’s staff.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan dismissed the criticism, saying the interpretation of Carson’s remarks was incorrect, describing the backlash as “insanity that ensued from one person’s cynical interpretation of what happened in a room full of many hundreds of people who didn’t hear that.”


During his remarks, Carson urged those in attendance to see the museum at Ellis Island in New York and then described our nation as one of immigrants who came here with nothing but a few belongings and a determined work ethic.

“Look at the determination in their eyes, people who worked not five days a week but six or seven days a week; not eight hours a day but 10, 12, 16 hours a day, no such thing as a minimum wage,” Carson said.

“They worked not for themselves, but for their sons and their daughters and their grandsons and their granddaughters and grandsons, that they might have an opportunity in this land,” he said. “That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity.”

However, it was the next phrase Carson uttered that landed him in hot water.

“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” Carson said. “But they too had a dream that one day, their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters. . . might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land. And do you know of all the nations in the world, this one, the United States of America, is the only one big enough and great enough to allow all those people to realize their dream.”


The remarks caused many to criticize Carson and his understanding of the definitions of “slave” and “immigrant.”

Many critical comments were posted to social media sites like Twitter:

During his remarks, Carson also said that he would place a ‘‘big emphasis on fairness for everybody,’’ warning that there will be ‘‘no favorites for anybody, no extra’’ in his approach to housing policy — rousing lingering uncertainties about how public assistance programs will be managed under his watch.

His comments were broadcast live to all of HUD’s regional field offices as well as to the public.

Material from the Washington Post wire service was used in this report.