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Opinion John Kelly’s terrible immigration lies

John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, with President Trump on May 4. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly gave an interview to NPR that aired Friday morning, during which he made some remarks on immigration that are seriously problematic, both factually and philosophically.

One key takeaway: Unlike his boss, Kelly speaks calmly and carefully, but his ideas are rooted in the same kind of misconceptions and even bigotry that drive both President Trump’s thinking and the policies of his administration.

Here’s what Kelly said:

Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. . . . But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. . . . They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. . . . The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

First, we have to understand whom we’re talking about. About half of the undocumented-immigrant population in the United States comes from Mexico, with other countries making up much smaller proportions. According to Department of Homeland Security data from 2014, the next highest populations were from El Salvador (6 percent), Guatemala (5 percent), India (4 percent), Honduras (3 percent), the Philippines (3 percent), and China (2 percent). Other estimates vary slightly (see here or here) and the number of immigrants from Mexico has been declining since the Great Recession, but that’s the general picture: Mexico, then a bunch of other countries.

Now let’s break down Kelly’s assertions:

“They’re not criminals.” That’s at least a step up from what Trump says about undocumented immigrants, which is precisely that they are criminals — criminals who are coming to kill you and rape your wives and daughters. So we can give Kelly some credit for that.

“They’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States.” This is the canard that has been used against every wave of immigrants from every country throughout our history. Those Italians, they’ll never assimilate. Those Chinese will never assimilate. Those Jews will never assimilate. It was always false, because we’ve seen the same pattern every time: each wave of immigrants manages to integrate into American society while retaining enough of their culture to enrich American culture.

One should ask: What kind of “assimilation” is Kelly expecting? We’ll get to language in a moment, but does he think immigrants should stop eating the food of the places where they came from, or stop listening to that culture’s music? If so, one has to wonder whether he goes to an Irish pub or an Italian restaurant, his face reddening with anger, and demands, “Why won’t these people assimilate?” Is Kelly advocating that we shut down the many Oktoberfest celebrations happening this fall? Did any of his kids ever take karate or taekwondo classes?

“In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm . . . they don’t have skills.” It’s true that education levels in Mexico are lower than they are for most advanced countries, but they’re not nearly as low as Kelly asserts. When he says “fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm,” that would mean that most children stop their education by around age 10 to 12. That is false. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in Mexico, “some 62% of 16-year-olds are enrolled in upper secondary education,” and a majority are still in school at age 17.

Columnist Eugene Robinson says President Trump's frenzied tweets about a "caravan" of migrants are really about his fear of losing his base. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

But Kelly’s real point is that undocumented immigrants have too little education and skills to contribute anything to American society. You might have realized this is 180 degrees at odds with the “They’re taking our jobs!” argument often made by immigration opponents. In fact, most undocumented immigrants are working, and they pay tens of billions of dollars in taxes every year. It is true they are more likely to be farm or construction workers than app developers, but we need people in those jobs, too, assuming that as a society we are interested in having food to eat and houses to live in.

“They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing.” This is also an argument that has been used against every wave of immigrants. The truth is that every immigrant family follows the same pattern: those who came to the country as adults rarely become fully proficient in English; their kids are bilingual; and their kids’ kids barely speak the language of their grandparents’ birth. That’s how it was in my family, and it’s probably how it was in yours, too.

As a 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine put it: “Despite popular concerns that immigrants are not learning English as quickly as earlier immigrants, the data on English proficiency indicate that today’s immigrants are actually learning English faster than their predecessors.”

What all this adds up to is the insistence that immigrants are not us, and that they will never become truly American. Kelly might or might not be aware that it is precisely how his Irish ancestors were portrayed a century and a half ago, as uneducated brutes who brought nothing but crime and violence to America. Kelly is also of Italian descent; his maternal grandfather “never spoke a word of English and made his living peddling a fruit cart in East Boston,” according to an article last month in Politico. Yet he seems to have turned out okay.

Finally, we should understand that while Kelly’s rhetoric might not be as inflammatory as that of the president, he has essentially the same perspective, and that perspective is now being put into action through the administration’s policies. Trump won his party’s presidential nomination in 2016 in large part because, unlike his opponents, he saw immigration not as a tricky issue that had to be carefully navigated, but as a vehicle he could ride to victory if he packed it with enough fear, resentment, and hatred. And he was right.

So we shouldn’t expect anything better from the people who work for him. What we should expect, however, is that they not be allowed to spew misinformation without being called on it.