On Thursday, White House chief of staff John Kelly appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, covering a wide range of topics. In the middle of the discussion, Kelly was asked about the White House’s position on illegal immigration. Here’s what Kelly 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. … 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.
Kelly was quickly labeled racist for this statement. Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post wrote a piece titled, “What is wrong with these people?” She claims that Kelly “aptly reflect the prejudices of his boss and the thinking behind the cruel policies (such as ending protection for “dreamers” and separating families) that he and Trump doggedly pursue.” James Martin called his comments “hateful, stereotypical and racist.” Other commentators began tweeting out pictures of “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.
So, Kelly is right that the vast majority of people illegally moving into the United States aren’t bad people. Obviously.
Is he wrong that the “overwhelming majority of people” who come to the United States illegally are unable to assimilate or are “overwhelmingly rural,” that they’re undereducated and unable to assimilate?
Here’s what we know.
Two-thirds of people in the United States illegally as of 2017 had come into the United States with a valid visa and then overstayed. The chief sources of illegal immigration are Mexico (by a long shot), followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, India, and Honduras; that represented 72% of illegal immigration in the United States as of 2014.
It is obviously true that illegal immigrants are undereducated compared with the general American population. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, which is quite pro-immigration, 14.4% of foreign-born individuals in the United States over age 15 have less than a ninth-grade education, as compared with 2.3% of the native-born U.S. population. Slightly more than half of foreign-born immigrants to the United States “have more than a high school education.” Those numbers are worse for illegal immigrants than the total foreign-born population: according to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, three-quarters of illegal immigrants have no education beyond high school, as opposed to 56% of American citizens aged 25 and older with more than a high school education.
As for the contention that foreign countries from which illegal immigrants come have lower average levels of education, that’s true as well. The countries that lead the illegal immigration list are Mexico (14.8 years of education between ages 5 and 39, and the lowest performing OECD nation with an average score of 416), El Salvador (only 82% of children achieve a ninth-grade education), Guatemala (just 68% of students make it through primary school), India (the enrollment rates for secondary education are just 69%), Honduras (63% of the Honduran labor force has only a primary education).
It is true that illegal immigrants have fewer marketable skills than American citizens on average; while a high percentage of illegal immigrants work, a higher percent of illegal immigrants than American citizens depend on welfare benefits as well. As for assimilation, according to the Census Bureau, well under half of illegal immigrants speak English well; immigrants were also far less likely to speak English at home than they were in 1980 (70% versus 85%).
The problem isn’t that the people coming into the United States illegally are bad, or that they’re somehow different and worse than Irish or Italians or Jews who came over in the early 20th century. The problem is that the American system of assimilation is different — there was no welfare system, no bilingual education in the early 20th century. This means more people are apt to take advantage of our welfare system and more apt not to assimilate (this is true across the board, and is not specific to country or culture). That’s a problem. And pointing out the problem doesn’t make you a racist.
Statistically speaking, Kelly’s statement is rough and seriously overstated. But to label it racist is a wild overstatement as well.