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U.S. President Donald Trump holds a joint news conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Thursday questioned why the United States would want to have immigrants from Haiti and African nations, referring to some as "shithole countries," according to two sources familiar with the comments.

Trump's remarks, made in the White House, came as Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham briefed the president on a newly drafted immigration bill being touted by a bipartisan group of senators, according to the sources, who asked not to be identified.

Other government officials were present during the conversation, the sources said.

The lawmakers were describing how certain immigration programs operate, including one to give safe haven in the United States to people from countries suffering from natural disasters or civil strife.

One of the sources who was briefed on the conversation said that Trump said, "Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They're shithole countries ... We should have more people from Norway."

The second source familiar with the conversation, said Trump, who has vowed to clamp down on illegal immigration, also questioned the need for Haitians in the United States.

Many Democrats and some Republican lawmakers slammed the president for his remarks.

Republican U.S. Representative Mia Love, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, said the comments were "unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation's values" and called on Trump to apologise to the American people and to the countries he denigrated.

Another Republican Representative, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba and whose south Florida district includes many Haitian immigrants, said: "Language like that shouldn't be heard in locker rooms and it shouldn't be heard in the White House."

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a frequent Trump critic, said the president's comment "smacks of blatant racism, the most odious and insidious racism masquerading poorly as immigration policy."

In an apparent response to his critics, Trump took to Twitter late on Thursday night.

"The Democrats seem intent on having people and drugs pour into our country from the Southern Border, risking thousands of lives in the process," he tweeted.

"It is my duty to protect the lives and safety of all Americans. We must build a Great Wall, think Merit and end Lottery & Chain. USA!"

TPS PROGRAMME

The programme that was being discussed at the White House is called Temporary Protected Status.

In November, the Trump administration decided to end the status for immigrants from Haiti and Nicaragua. It gave the approximately 59,000 Haitian immigrants who had been granted the status until July 2019 to return home or legalize their presence in the United States. Nicaraguans were given until January 2019.

This week, Trump moved to end the status for immigrants from El Salvador, which could result in 200,000 Salvadorans legally in the United States being deported, beginning in September of next year.

The bipartisan Senate plan would attempt to maintain TPS in return for ending or changing a "diversity" lottery programme that has been aimed at allowing up to 50,000 people a year from countries with few emigres to the United States.

Asked about Trump's comments, White House spokesman Raj Shah said: "Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people."

"Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation," Shah said.

Another source familiar with the meeting said Trump was questioning why the United States should take in unskilled labourers from the countries under discussion and should instead welcome immigrants from nations that can offer skilled workers.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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