News & Politics

John Kelly Offers a Bigoted Defense of Breaking Up Immigrant Families

Jeff Sessions announced the new "zero-tolerance" policy this week.

Photo Credit: Department of Homeland Security

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Thursday defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement of a "zero tolerance" policy for unauthorized border crossings in the United States, a program that will involve splitting up families as the Justice Department removes immigrant children from their parents.

The defenses of this policy inevitably neglect the fact that, even if you have no sympathy for parents, splitting up vulnerable immigrant families imposes immense trauma and costs on the children, who have often done nothing wrong.

But when Kelly defended the policy in an interview with NPR, his explanation didn't simply rely on the usual rote rhetoric of "law and order" and "securing the border." Instead, he denigrated the people who cross the border, their skills, and their ability to adapt:

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. 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.

As former Director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub pointed out, "The irony is how much this echoes the bigoted response to Kelly's Irish ancestors when they came here."

Immigrants are consistently looked down upon for supposedly being uneducated, unskilled, unable to learn English, or unwilling to integrate and become a part of the American society. But as the last century and a half has shown, a wide range of foreign cultures and peoples have found a way to make the United States their home, and each new wave of immigrants proves the bigots wrong. Kelly's use of prejudiced stereotypes to justify a horrifying policy of splitting up families is yet another troubling sign of the times we live in.

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Cody Fenwick is a reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter @codytfenwick.