Like his boss, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was turning heads as the week came to a close, following a spate of controversial remarks. But while President Donald Trump has been under fire for deciding to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, his right-hand man is getting pushback for some choice words about immigrants entering the country. On Friday, May 11, an interview with Trump's COS wasn't going over too well. The responses to John Kelly's immigrant comments showed how strongly people felt about the issue.
In an interview published Friday by NPR, John Kelly was asked about immigration policy in the Trump administration. He said:
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 MS-13. Some of them are not. 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 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.
For context, Kelly was asked specifically about a move this week by the Trump administration to ratchet up its border restrictions, threatening to separate families that cross the border illegally.
Responding to Kelly's comments, users on Twitter jumped up to defend immigrants, from powerful personal stories to logical shoot-downs.
"Here's the wife of a multiple-deployment Green Beret, with two American sons, facing deportation," tweeted Adam Weinstein, senior editor for veteran news site Task & Purpose. "Again, John Kelly's rationale ... erases the draconian DHS experience of this all-American family."
"WH COS John Kelly says that immigrants from rural areas without English skills don't integrate into the U.S.," tweeted former White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu. "My dad came from rural China and spoke little English. He raised a son who held the same rank in the Obama WH (Asst. to the Pres.) that Kelly holds. I'd say we did okay."
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono shared her own personal story as an immigrant, countering Kelly. "I grew up on a rice farm in rural Japan," she tweeted Friday. "When I arrived in Hawaii, I didn't speak a word of English. John Kelly, you don't understand how immigrants have built our country."
Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie didn't skirt around calling the COS's statement racist. "John Kelly would have saved himself a lot of words if he just said 'they aren't white.'"
Numerous users also pointed out the irony in that Kelly's comments about immigrants. He himself is from an Irish immigrant family — a lineage that presumably would've faced the same type of remarks just a couple of generations ago.
"When John Kelly's ancestors came to America, they were likely poor, 'unskilled' Irish Catholic immigrants looking to give their family a better life," wrote comedian Nick Pappas. "Now Kelly has achieved the highest level of success in America, reaching the point he can insult a new generation of immigrants."
Among the criticisms of Kelly's comments was the observation that Kelly cast all immigrants as being not anglophone. This is hardly true: In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2012, nearly half of immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in 2000 or later reported a high-level ability for speaking the language. Only about 13 percent reported not speaking English at all. (This number was even smaller — 6 percent — for previous immigrant generations who arrived before 1980.)
Kelly in fact never says what the "reason" is that immigrants come to the U.S., leaving us to read between the lines and conclude, as he appears to, that people with middle-school-level educations are incapable of integrating into modern American society.
Actor and comedian John Fugelsang appears to intepret Kelly's words as a retooling of the lazy immigrant trope. In rebuttal, he references an Axios report from January that, according to White House officials, Trump's unorthodox presidential schedule includes plentiful blocks of undefined "Executive time."