Donald Trump lashed out at immigrants from 's***hole' countries in a foul mouthed rant on Thursday, according to sources at a White House meeting.
The comments have produced a fierce backlash both from Democrats and his own Republican party as well as a number of Christian leaders.
In a briefing on a newly drafted immigration bill backed by both Republicans and Democrats, Trump questioned why people from Africa were in the US – branding them 's***hole countries'.
Lawmakers including Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham were describing how certain immigration programmes 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 Trump asked: 'Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They're s***hole 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 to allow Haitians into the United States.
Republican US 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'.
However the outrage was not limited to his political counterparts.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted: 'The church of Jesus Christ is led by, among others, our brothers and sisters from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. They are us.'
He later added, quoting from the New Testament book John 1:42-46: '"Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" "Come and see."'
James Martin, a Catholic priest and editor of the Jesuit America Magazine also tweeted: '"Why are we having all these people from sh#*hole countries come here?" 1) They are our brothers and sisters in need. 2) They are often fleeing war, violence or famine. 3) There are children among them. 4) It's the right thing to do. 5) That's who we are.'
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!'
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 legalise 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.
Additional reporting from Reuters.