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.
Kelly's belief is a popular one from hard-line conservative groups, and that line of thinking often extends to claims that undocumented and legal immigrants are more of a drain on the American economy than an asset.
In a 2016 piece on welfare use in immigrant households published by the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group advocating for lower immigration, Jason Richwine claims that both legal and illegal immigrant households cost taxpayers more than native citizens in welfare dollars than the average household of native-born citizens, and that “The greater consumption of welfare dollars by immigrants can be explained in large part by their lower level of education and larger number of children compared to natives.”
However, other right-leaning think tanks disputed the findings in the CIS report. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, picked apart the methodology used by CIS to support their claims, calling their findings “exaggerated.”
CIS — and many hard-liners on immigration — don't want to see less illegal immigration. They want to see less immigration period, wrote Alex Nowrasteh, a senior immigration policy analyst at Cato. If they can argue that immigrants struggle to “Americanize” well and instead end up draining this country's resources, they hope lawmakers will back policy ideas that keep immigration numbers as close to zero as possible.
It's true that immigrants from rural communities, with little education, no command of English and a lack of skills to gain meaningful employment do not find assimilating into “modern society” easy. But it's not impossible. Beginning more than a century ago, nearly 2 million immigrants from Ireland — the country from which Kelly's ancestors descend — came to the United States, where they faced harsh backlash from native citizens. People of Irish heritage now make up 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau.
As with previous cases, not all of Kelly's statements Friday totally meshed with the president's.
In the same NPR interview, Kelly spoke in favor of granting a path to citizenship for immigrants who have been in the United States under temporary protected status from countries like El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras, if they had been here long enough to assimilate.
You take the Central Americans that have been here 20-plus years. I mean if you really start looking at them and saying, “Okay, you know you've been here 20 years. What have you done with your life?” Well, I've met an American guy and I have three children and I've worked and gotten a degree or I'm a brick mason or something like that. That's what I think we should do — for the ones that have been here for shorter periods of time, the whatever it was that gave them TPS status in the first place. If that is solved back in their home countries they should go home.
Still, Kelly's strong stance against illegal immigration will probably land well with Trump's base, and could help him remain in good favor with his boss despite frequent reports that Trump is often frustrated with Kelly's performance in other areas. Kelly spoke to NPR the same day Trump reportedly unleashed a tirade on Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, a close Kelly ally, over what Trump views as unsatisfactory border security.
But it's worth highlighting that significant percentages of Americans don't share the Trump White House's hardest positions on immigration. And separating children from their parents has previously been a line that even conservatives did not want to cross.
Like Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kelly has made it clear that “law and order” — perhaps based on stereotypical ideas of outsiders — will be the dominant philosophy he employs when responding to immigrants seeking the American Dream that Kelly's ancestors pursued.