Carson's statement came as he described immigrants’ hopes for a better life and their willingness to take on long hours to give their children better opportunities. “That’s what America is about,” said Carson.
“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughter, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land,” he added.
“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,” said Carson. “This is our opportunity to enhance that dream.”
The statement sparked an outcry.
Whoopi Goldberg said that most immigrants can be described as entering the country "voluntarily," but slaves were stolen.
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect blasted Carson’s statement, calling his words “tragic, shocking, and unacceptable.”
The NAACP tweeted “Immigrants???”
But a spokesperson for HUD said Carson’s speech was well received by employees. “Nobody in that room believed for a moment that the secretary was confusing voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude. Please,” said a HUD spokesperson.
Carson, during an interview on SiriusXM's the Armstrong Williams Show, defended his statement. "You can be an involuntary immigrant," said Carson.
"I think people need to actually look up the word ‘immigrant.’ Whether you’re voluntary or involuntary, if you come from outside to the inside, you’re an immigrant. Whether your legal or you’re illegal, you come from outside to the inside, you’re an immigrant. Slaves came here as involuntary immigrants, but they still had the strength to hold on,” said Carson.
But later, in a statement posted to Facebook, Carson went on to clarify his comments. "I’m proud of the courage and perseverance of Black Americans and their incomprehensible struggle from slavery to freedom. I’m proud that our ancestors overcame the evil and repression that we know as slavery," he wrote.
"The slave narrative and immigrant narrative are two entirely different experiences. Slaves were ripped from their families and their homes and forced against their will after being sold into slavery by slave traders. The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy."
"The two experiences should never be intertwined, nor forgotten, as we demand the necessary progress towards an America that's inclusive and provides access to equal opportunity for all."
In his speech, Carson, who was sworn in to HUD last Thursday, described his experience as a neurosurgeon and emphasized helping “the downtrodden and the people in our society to climb that ladder.”
“To me, that’s really what it’s all about. It’s about the American dream. The ability to move up that ladder. The ability to make a difference in the lives of our fellow Americans. Recognizing how much innate potential there is in them.”
Carson said his first priority as new HUD secretary is to go on a nationwide listening tour to hear concerns from the American people.