During an interview with John Burnett of NPR, White House chief of staff John Kelly said the following about illegal immigrants:
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. 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. But a big name of the game is deterrence.
Leftist outlets immediately labeled these comments racist. But factually supported statements about the educational attainment, language skill, and success assimilating of illegal immigrants do not indicate racism.
Are Kelly’s statements supported by facts? Mark Krikorian shows they are:
The Census Bureau’s 2014 Current Population Survey shows that at least half of immigrants (legal and illegal) from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have less than a high-school education (Table 27); illegal immigrants specifically have even lower levels of educational attainment. The OECD’s PIAAC test finds that 63 percent of all Hispanic immigrants score “below basic” in English, which is often defined as “functionally illiterate” (compared to 23 percent of non-Hispanic immigrants, most of them from Asia and Africa). . . .
[A]t least half of immigrants from Mexico and Central America are in or nearly in poverty, defined as 200 percent of the poverty level, which is where welfare eligibility kicks in (Table 10). Consequently, the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation shows that 72 percent of households headed by immigrants (legal and illegal) from Mexico and Central America use one or more means-tested welfare program (Figure 2). Even among households headed by illegal immigrants specifically (from all countries), whose access to welfare is more limited, more than 60 percent receive welfare (Table 1).
There is, then, ample basis for Kellly’s claims that illegal immigrants are very poorly educated, not proficient in English, and have difficulty making it here. How is it racist to state these facts?
At the Washington Post, Paul Waldman disputed Kelly on the facts. Indeed, he called Kelly’s statements “terrible lies.” But Waldman fell far short of showing that Kelly’s statements are false, much less lies.
The only issue as to which Waldman presented data that cuts against what Kelly actually said pertains to educational attainment. Waldman relied on statistics about “education levels in Mexico.” But, as Krikorian shows, Kelly’s claim is supported by more relevant data — educational levels among actual immigrants from Mexico, as well as Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Waldman surely knows he’s taking liberties with the facts. Kelly’s statement highlights the fact that immigrants from Mexico tend to come from rural areas. It stands to reason that Mexicans in rural areas will obtain less education than Mexicans in cities. Yet Waldman relies on data for all Mexicans, whether or not they immigrate to the U.S. and whether or not they come from rural areas.
If anyone is distorting the facts, it’s Waldman, not Kelly.
Karen Tumulty, also of the Post, accused Kelly of “know-nothingism,” an anti-immigrant movement from the mid-19th century. She took Kelly to task for making the same arguments used back then against immigrants from Ireland. She noted that Kelly’s ancestors came from the Emerald Isle (as did Tumulty’s).
Tumulty overlooked two key points. First, Irish immigrants spoke English. The inability of modern-day illegal immigrants to do so is a central point in Kelly’s statement.
Second, the ancestors of Kelly and Tumulty presumably came here legally. Kelly’s statement is expressly limited to a discussion of illegal immigration.
Thus, Kelly wasn’t arguing in favor of banning all immigrants who lack education, don’t speak English, and/or are likely to have trouble assimilating. We would continue to welcome an enormous number of such immigrants even if we eliminated illegal immigration altogether. Indeed, even if we limited chain migration by excluding extended family members, as the Trump administration would like to do, the number of immigrants who fit Kelly’s description would still be substantial.
Thus, Tumulty’s claim that Kelly has “forgotten his own history” is well wide of the mark. It is typical, though, of the shallow way the left responds to true statements about illegal immigration. So too, sadly, are the knee-jerk accusations of racism.