In a recent interview with NPR, Chief of Staff John Kelly came out defending the President’s position on immigration:
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.
Since then, author Delia Cabe with support from Celeste Ng began the hashtag #DearJohnKelly on Twitter as a platform for people to share their stories of either being poor, uneducated immigrants in America or being descendants of ones. The torrent of stories being brought to the forefront have become a dissenting voice against the fatalism that suggests immigrants are unable to adapt.
There are two major implications in John Kelly’s statements that are floating under the radar in the majority of the commentary. First, that by choosing to migrate outside the legal channels the U.S. provides, these illegal immigrants face greater challenges to assimilation that will ultimately prevent them from being productive members of society. Second, that because of the rapid technological progress brought about through modernity which demands a highly skilled and well-educated workforce, illegal immigrants who possess, “fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations” are incapable of closing the gap by metrics of class.
General Kelly is right in that undocumented people in the United States have significantly greater hurdles in both assimilation and economic mobility than say legal immigrants and refugees. In large part, their legal status makes it impossible to access social services in this country that could offer them protections from exploitative labor practices. As a result, they are often forced to seek work from companies that, while willing to employ workers without documentation, also have no problem threatening workers with deportation if they demand the same equal protections they are afforded as documented workers under state law.
In the same interview, General Kelly doubles down emphasizing that it is the legality that is the issue for these immigrants. Commenting on the withdrawing of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which provides protections for immigrants that are escaping natural disaster or war, Kelly said,
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 — a path to citizenship…they were in a legal status under TPS. You take the Central Americans, they’ve all been here 20-plus years. I mean, if you really start looking at, you know, you’ve been here 20 years, what have you done with your life? Well, I’ve married an American guy, and I have three children. And I’ve worked. And I’ve gotten a degree. Or I’m a brick mason or something like that. That’s what I think we should do — for the ones that have been here for shorter periods of time, the whatever it was that gave them TPS status in the first place. If that is solved back in their home countries they should go home.
General Kelly’s statements are less a defense of Trump’s against-all-immigration-legal-or-not attitude and more a hearkening back to the classical approach of Republican ideology that hates the illegal immigrant and loves the legal one. Unfortunately for him, General Kelly’s position is becoming a dissenting voice within the Right, which has come to seen law and policy as a major hurdle in it’s struggle to assert it’s newly-founded majority in office over legislation. This has been demonstrated in the straining relationship between the Trump Administration and Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but also the Republican-led Congress’ failed attempt to roll back The Affordable Care Act.
The problem for the Left responding to these sentiments then is that we are push so far from where the debate on immigration was a few years ago, we aren’t able to see the older but still relevant debate that distinguishes legal immigration vs. illegal immigration. It’s important to contradict the idea that America’s advancements and achievements make it impossible for outsiders to meaningfully contribute. This idea is not only destructive to the prospect of immigrants, but America’s growth and development as well. But by chasing the argument to such a reductive level, aren’t we in some way acquiescing to the sensational, Alt-right control of the narrative?
It is undeniable that throughout NPR interview that General Kelly is attempting to put a front of strength and unification within the White House — a narrative that places his own perspective in harmony with the rest of the Trump administration. Yet when asked if he ever had any second thoughts about taking the job, he denies it and merely dismisses it as, “times of great frustration… but then I grow up and suck it up.” Yet in James Comey’s most recent book, A Higher Loyality, Comey recounts right after his firing from his position as director of the FBI,
I took an emotional call from General John Kelly, then the secretary of Homeland Security. He said he was sick about my firing and that he intended to quit in protest. He said he didn’t want to work for dishonorable people who would treat someone like me in such a manner. I urged Kelly not to do that, arguing that the country needed principled people around this president. Especially this president.
It is as if this injection of hard right xenophobia that occupies The White House and held closely by it’s supporters has hit established politics so far out of orbit, politicians and commentators are forced to preform the intellectual gymnastics of incorporating it into their arguments. It verges on insanity to suggest that immigrants are a destructive force to a nation that was entirely built on the story of human migration, and that’s why Republicans for so long have focused on illegal immigration as the bane of American exceptionalism. It is only now that we find ourselves at the far swing of the pendulum defending the idea that the U.S. is still indeed a land of opportunity ripe for those whom gaze upon it from a distant shore.
And yet, the emotional response communicated through #DearJohnKelly is necessitated by the most recent swing in the political spectrum for Republicans. The Travel Ban from February, the rolling back of TPS, and the new cap on the number of Syrian refugees to 45,000 per year — nearly half what Obama and Bush accepted — all of these decisions represent the rhetoric from the 2016 campaign travel manifesting itself into policy, painting a bleak forecast for the future of immigrants and refugees irrespective of legal standing. Policy needs to be informed by current events and international relations, but it also needs to be firmly grounded in history. Without this historical context, we lend ourselves a window where building walls and increased border security seemingly is the only logical response to the growing destabilization and nascent populism that proliferates in both the East and the West as of late.
John Kelly’s statement on immigration reflects the cognitive dissonance the Republican party is experiencing as it comes to terms with its new power. As they experience this, what remains of the Left must not lose focus on the conversation that distinguishes the illegal immigrant from the legal one. Because once the dust settles and pendulum shifts, it will be the undocumented workers who will be in the cross-hairs of The Right, and the strength of our ability to advocate for them depends on our attention and research into their situation. Without this context, will we accept the condition that it is, in fact, possible for a human being to be illegal?
For further reading, see David Bacon’s Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and And Criminalizes Immigrants, and Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics