(UPI) — Newly-confirmed Housing Secretary Ben Carson made his first address to his employees Monday, which drew substantial criticism for remarks he made about slavery.

Carson, a former Republican presidential candidate, said in his comments to staff that African-American slaves transported to the United States centuries ago were “immigrants” who had visions of prosperity in their new land.

“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, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.

“That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity.”

A retired neurosurgeon, Carson was sworn in last week as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a post in which he will handle a $50 billion budget and preside over about 8,000 employees.

Carson’s classification Monday drew a firestorm of criticism.

“Immigrants?” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People responded in a tweet.

“Tragic, shocking and unacceptable,” the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect stated.

“This is as offensive a remark as it gets,” the group’s executive director, Steven Goldstein, added. “Slaves didn’t immigrate to America. They were brought here violently, against their own will, and lived here without freedom.

“You do not get a pass because you are African-American, any more than President Trump gets a pass for his delayed and sometimes nonexistent responses to anti-Semitism.”

“This can’t be real. Slaves were not & are not immigrants,” Chelsea Clinton said in a tweet.

A HUD spokesman told ABC News that no one listening to Carson’s speech Monday confused “voluntary immigration with involuntary servitude.”

During his campaign, Carson, 65, also drew criticism for remarks on certain subjects, including once comparing slavery to abortion.

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