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Lazy? John Kelly ‘simply misses the mark,’ say DACA advocates

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly says hundreds of thousands of “dreamers” didn’t sign up for DACA because they were “too afraid” or “too lazy.” (Video: Erica Werner/The Washington Post, Photo: JOSHUA ROBERTS/The Washington Post)

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on Tuesday suggested that some young immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program failed to apply for the legal protections because they were too afraid — or “too lazy to get off their asses.”

Kelly’s portrayal of young immigrants as “lazy” infuriated advocates, Democratic lawmakers and “dreamers” themselves. Critics called the statement “ignorant,” “discriminatory” and “cruel.” There are many barriers to applying to DACA, advocates say, including fear, cost and misinformation. But laziness?

Kelly’s comment “suggests that he doesn’t fully appreciate the complexities of navigating life as an undocumented young person,” Tom K. Wong, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, told The Washington Post. Lazy, Wong said, “simply misses the mark.”

Kelly made the remarks while discussing President Trump’s endorsement of legalizing the status of 1.8 million dreamers, a pool of young immigrants deemed eligible for the Obama-era initiative known as DACA. The number actually covered by the program when Trump terminated it in the fall is much lower: 690,000.

Kelly said he found it “stunning” and unexpected that Trump last month offered to provide a pathway to citizenship for the larger pool of undocumented immigrants, in exchange for border wall funding and other immigration enforcement measures.

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants, and the president sent over what amounts to be 2½ times that number, to 1.8 million,” he said in an impromptu conversation with The Post and other journalists on Capitol Hill. “The difference between [690,000] and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) confronted Kelly about the comments in a closed-door meeting among lawmakers in House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)’s office, CNN reported. Following the meeting, Kelly reiterated his comments to reporters, saying some of those eligible immigrants “just should’ve probably gotten off the couch and signed up.”

By painting some dreamers as “lazy” for not applying to DACA, immigrant advocates said, Kelly failed to take into account a number of barriers to the program. Immigration experts particularly took issue with the figures Kelly chose to highlight.

The 1.8 million estimate includes all immigrants who are already eligible for the protections or might become eligible once they meet certain age or educational requirements. The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that as many as 1.3 million dreamers were eligible for DACA last year, with another 600,000 who could become eligible after meeting certain requirements.

In other words, the gap Kelly pointed out — the number of eligible dreamers who failed to apply — could be far smaller.

“Kelly says Dreamers were too lazy to apply. That’s not true,” tweeted Mana Yegani, an immigration lawyer in Houston. “DACA restricted a lot of Dreamers by age and date. Many Dreamers didn’t meet the requirements to apply. Ignorant comment from Kelly. Period.”

However, a number of immigrant advocates have agreed with the first part of Kelly’s comments — that many young immigrants decline to apply out of fear.

This was particularly true at the onset of the program. The government began accepting applications in August 2012, in the midst of a presidential election. Some people held back from applying, saying they feared a Republican president would rescind the policy and use the information on their applications to locate and deport them, immigrant advocates told The Post at the time.

Some of those fears carried over long after President Barack Obama was elected. Applying for the program meant providing the federal government with real names and addresses and admitting an illegal status. Some feared this could open up their parents and families to the threat of deportation, advocates said.

Still, the greatest barrier for many eligible immigrants is the cost. It costs $495 to apply for DACA, and another $495 to renew the protections every two years.

A Migration Policy Institute report from 2013 estimated more than one-third of people eligible for DACA lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. For these lower-income families — particularly families with multiple children — the program’s application fees may present a major obstacle.

In August, the Migration Policy Institute reported that three-quarters of the unauthorized immigrants over age 16 and eligible for DACA were in the labor force. One in 4 juggled both a job and college studies. Twenty-four percent of employed DACA-eligible workers in 2014 were also college students, a rate slightly higher than for all U.S. workers in that age range. “This finding suggests that DACA recipients need to work in order to afford college,” the report stated.

Wong, the assistant professor at the University of California at San Diego, has been studying the profiles of DACA recipients for years. In a 2014 nationwide survey of undocumented millennials, 51 percent of respondents said the application fee would impose a financial hardship on themselves or their families.

Other people simply may not know that they are eligible for DACA. The majority of DACA recipients who responded to Wong’s survey attended a DACA workshop or clinic, or had access to a legal service. Only 30 percent of those who submitted their DACA application did so on their own. Wong’s research has indicated the more organizations there are in a state to assist immigrants, the more people have applied for DACA.

Asked whether Kelly’s remarks reflect the position of the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “The position of the White House is that we want to fix a problem that was created by the previous administration.”

“We’re focused on actually getting a solution,” she added, “and frankly, I think if anybody is lazy it’s probably Democrats who aren’t showing up to work and aren’t actually getting to the table to make a deal on this.”

Her response did not quell the criticism from Democratic and Hispanic members of Congress.

“Dreamers are some of the hardest workers I know,” tweeted Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).”Donald ‘Executive Time’ Trump could actually stand to learn something from them.”

“From ‘sh*thouses’ to ‘lazy asses,’ the White House seems to be only concerned with degrading the very people they claim to want to save,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) tweeted. “Shame on those who insist on demonizing hardworking immigrants for political purposes.”

“The man that everybody said was going to steer … a steady course and bring some balance to the White House, Mr. Kelly, is not that person, and he is clearly part of the xenophobic right that is entrenched in this White House,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), head of the immigration task force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Hill reported.  “What is the stereotype that is always used? If we’re not criminals, we’re lazy.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) said the remarks were “not surprising,” the Hill reported. “This is the Kelly I know,” she said.

Some people voiced support for Kelly’s use of strong language. Joe Walsh, conservative talk radio host and former congressman, said, “He’s right.”

“If you’re not going to care enough about your status and get deported because you were too lazy to sign up, that’s not anybody’s problem but your own,” Walsh tweeted.

But across Twitter, dreamers and advocates alike sounded off in protest of Kelly’s portrayal of young immigrants.

“As a Dreamer, let me say: this is racist. And it’s untrue,” wrote Ricardo Aca, an immigrant rights activist in New York City. “Kelly, like Jeff Sessions, Steve King, Steven Miller, and more, wants to feed into the bigoted narrative that immigrants are ‘lazy.’”

Aca works two jobs, and his stepfather has three jobs, he said.

“Most people in my community work nonstop to provide for their families and send their kids to college,” he said. “It’s outrageous that Kelly, like Trump, refuses to acknowledge our contributions to this country, and now, as he fails to solve the crisis he’s created, to label us as ‘lazy.’”

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