- John Kelly, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, told NPR that unauthorized immigrants would not “easily assimilate into the United States.”
- He also addressed the Trump administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy that would likely separate thousands of immigrant parents from their children.
- Kelly also said he supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the US under temporary protected status.
White House chief of staff John Kelly addressed the Trump administration’s recently announced practice of separating immigrant families who cross the border illegally, telling NPR in an interview that such immigrants would not “easily assimilate into the United States.”
Kelly acknowledged that the vast majority of people illegally crossing the border are neither criminals nor members of the MS-13 street gang that has proliferated in certain parts of the country. But he added that they would nevertheless have trouble integrating into modern American life.
“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 the big thing,” Kelly said. “They don’t integrate well – they don’t have skills.”
Recent research, however, has shown that Latin American immigrants assimilate no less quickly than other groups – and they even learn English at a faster rate. Critics have also pointed out that many Americans today are the descendants of immigrants who were also considered “rural” or low-skilled when they first came to the US, such as Italian and Irish immigrants.
Kelly’s comments came after the Trump administration announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy regarding immigrants caught crossing the border illegally. Rather than placing them into civil deportation proceedings, as has been the custom, the Trump administration intends to criminally prosecute 100% of the cases.
The new policy has drawn significant backlash from immigrant rights groups, because criminal proceedings would require parents to be separated from their children while they are detained, as is the case for American citizens.
“If you cross the Southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech Tuesday. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Kelly said in his NPR interview that he knew the immigrants were not “bad people” and that he sympathized with the reasons they opted to cross the border illegally.
“But the laws are the laws,” he said. “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.”
‘I can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce’
- Mike Theiler/Getty
Kelly also said he would support a pathway to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the US under temporary protected status, many of them from Central American countries or Haiti, where conflict or natural disasters prompted many residents to flee.
“I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be on a path to citizenship,” Kelly said.
Over the last year and a half, the Trump administration has begun eliminating TPS status for immigrants whose home countries it deems are sufficiently recovered from their original conditions.
But Kelly acknowledged that expelling those immigrants from the US was a challenge, particularly for those who have been living in the US for decades and who are deeply rooted to the country through career and family ties. He added that it’s up to Congress to find a way to protect those immigrants.
“I mean, I can’t tell you the number of times in my hearings when they would ask me about why we’re doing this, so what is your philosophy on immigration or whatever,” Kelly said. “I just said, ‘Look, you make the laws. I execute the laws.’ I can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce. I would be, I should be thrown out of the job if I do that.”