In a wide-ranging interview with NPR, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly shared some rather racist views to justify the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings.
Defending an approach that will split up families, Kelly explained that he thinks these immigrants don’t really fit in with United States culture anyway:
Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS13. … But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.
Concerns about immigrants’ ability to assimilate with American society have been used repeatedly throughout the country’s history to justify barring different groups from immigrating. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 until 1943, was passed because Chinese immigrants were blamed for the depressed wages that followed the Gold Rush and Civil War. In 1890, the New York Times printed an article that explained that while “the red and black assimilate… not so the Chinaman.”
Similar arguments have been used since to justify xenophobia against Italian, Irish, Jewish, and — most recently — Muslim immigrants over the past century. As Splinter News points out, the Library of Congress still characterizes Kelly’s Irish ancestors as having “left a rural lifestyle”; these “destitute” immigrants were “unprepared for the industrialized, urban centers in the United States.”
But Kelly seems to have no problem applying these same stigmatizing assumptions to immigrants from Mexico and Central America who seek a better life in the U.S.:
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.
The damning reality is that Kelly’s comments are not even accurate — just as the same assumptions have been wrong about every other immigrant group. Studies have shown, for example, that Latino immigrants actually learn English more quickly than past immigrant populations have. In fact, English-speaking has very much been on the rise among U.S. Latino people. This is reflected in actually very high assimilation rates, such that third-generation Hispanic immigrants are actually just as likely to support English as the official language as other non-Hispanic people.
This also isn’t the first time Kelly has expressed blatantly racist sentiments. Last year, he said in an interview that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was “an honorable man.” Expressing sympathy for members of the Confederacy who felt it was more important to defend their states, he blamed the Civil War on a “lack of an ability to compromise.” He never explained what a compromise would have looked like on the question of whether to enslave an entire race of people.
Kelly did say in the new interview that he believes there should be a path to citizenship for immigrants who have been in the United States with “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS). But that’s little consolation for the families that are going to be separated at the border because of the unwarranted xenophobia of this administration.