President Trump, left, and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly listen to the U.S. national anthem in New London, Conn., on May 17, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
National correspondent

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who came to that job after a stint establishing President Trump’s immigration policies at the Department of Homeland Security, gave an interview to NPR in which he explained why he thought it was important to block people seeking to immigrate illegally from Mexico.

“Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people,” he said. “They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. Some of them are not.”

This, one might remember, is the inverse of Trump’s presentation at the announcement of his campaign. According to Trump, those immigrants were rapists and criminals — though some were good people.

Kelly continued.

“But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society,” he said. “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 speak English. 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.”

That laws are laws is indisputable. Immigrating illegally is by definition illegal, and Kelly and Trump have prioritized enforcement of those laws.

The rest of Kelly’s claim, though, is a bit more subjective. And, as it turns out, ironic.

There are three claims regarding the immigrants arriving from Mexico that Kelly argued put them at a disadvantage in coming to the U.S.: lack of education, lack of familiarity with English and coming from rural areas. Those descriptors probably apply to several of Kelly’s own ancestors.

Genealogical researcher Monica Pattangall researched Kelly’s family tree earlier this year.

According to her research, seven of Kelly’s eight great-grandparents were immigrants. Four immigrated from Italy, three from Ireland.


We know the specific places of origin for three of Kelly’s great-grandparents.

His great-grandfather John Edward Kelly was born in Maine, the son of parents who immigrated from Canada. While the name “Kelly” implies Irish immigration, that probably resulted from the famine of the late 1840s. John Edward Kelly’s parents — Chief of Staff Kelly’s great-great-grandparents — were already in Canada when the famine began.

His great-grandmother Mary Connelly came to the United States after the famine from near Clifden, Ireland, in County Galway. (Most of Kelly’s immigrant ancestors came in the late 1800s.) It’s not clear specifically where she came from, but the town is a small one on the coast surrounded by farmland.

His great-grandfather Joseph (Giuseppe) Pedalino came from near the Italian town of Avellino. Researcher Jennifer Mendelsohn, with whom Pattangall shared her research, dug further into Kelly’s family history. (We’ve featured her research in the past.) She found Pedalino’s naturalization papers that indicate that he came from Quadrelle province, a small region in the Italian foothills.

Most people who immigrated to the United States in the 19th century were not doing so because they’d tired of their London mansions. They were seeking better work or an improvement in their lives. Many came from the countryside, as it’s likely Kelly’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother did. The reasons for immigrating to the United States haven’t changed much since.

As for employment, John Edward Kelly worked as a blacksmith at a cooper, making iron bands for barrels. Based in Maine, he worked in the shipping industry as had his father before him, according to Pattangall. (She’s written a book involving the maritime industry in Maine.) Perhaps because of the decline in the shipping industry, John’s son John Leo Kelly moved to Massachusetts and went to work for the railroad, holding a position as a brakeman. His father-in-law Coleman Curran (another of Chief of Staff Kelly’s great-grandfathers) also worked for the railroad. (It’s in Boston where the two sides of Chief of Staff Kelly’s family met. Kelly’s father worked as a mail carrier in the Brighton neighborhood.)

On his mother’s side, Kelly’s great-grandfathers worked as a wagon driver and fruit peddler, according to Mendelsohn’s research. These were not skilled positions, obviously. It’s not clear that any of Kelly’s immigrant ancestors had significant educational backgrounds.

Then there’s the issue of language. This can be trickier to determine, but census forms used to include questions about languages spoken. From one such record, Mendelsohn learned that John DeMarco, the fruit peddler, still didn’t speak English after more than a decade in the country. His wife Crescenza — Kelly’s great-grandmother — lived in the United States for more than 30 years without learning the language.

There’s an obvious response to all of this, which Kelly gets to in his initial comments: That was then. Kelly pointedly says that these immigrants cannot assimilate “into our modern society.”

But things aren’t so different now from then. At the time that Kelly’s Italian ancestors were living in Boston, there was a large population of both Italian and Irish immigrants. You can see in the census documents that Mendelsohn shared on Twitter that the houses near Kelly’s ancestors were populated with people who’d mostly immigrated from Italy and Ireland. In the 19th century, these were neighborhoods in which one didn’t need to speak English to communicate.

Much as there are communities today where the primary language is Chinese or Spanish.

Education is more important now than it was then, but there is clearly work to be done by people with less than a high school education. That’s the point, really: Many immigrants come from Mexico and work in the agricultural industry here as laborers. They may not end up as White House chiefs of staff, but then neither did Giuseppe Pedalino. It took Pedalino’s family three more generations before it attained that level of  prominence.

Even had the Pedalinos and the Kellys and the DeMarcos and the Currans not wound up as the grandparents and great-grandparents of a Marine Corps general or chief of staff, it’s likely that Kelly wouldn’t have judged their arrival in the United States as unworthy. That’s much of the reason that Kelly’s comments to NPR earned the reaction that they did: Not all immigrants become prominent individuals or important members of society, but then neither do all native-born Americans.

Everyone on the family tree above who isn’t marked with a colored box is a natural-born citizen of the United States. None of them would be likely to exist had their immigrant parents never moved to the United States and met one another, meaning that Kelly wouldn’t exist, either. Most probably came from rural areas, many probably had little education or preparation for skilled employment, and at least some never assimilated into English-speaking society.

Kelly somehow nonetheless wound up as the top aide to the president of the United States.