John Kelly on undocumented immigrants: "They don't integrate well, they don't have skills"

Chief of Staff John Kelly faces backlash for bigoted comments he made in an NPR interview

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 11, 2018 5:35PM (EDT)

John Kelly (Getty/Win McNamee)
John Kelly (Getty/Win McNamee)

Chief of Staff John Kelly revealed a lot during his interview with NPR's John Burnett airing on Morning Edition. Indeed, a transcript of the interview on NPR comes with a warning that the content “contains language some may find offensive.” Kelly, who revealed that he spends a “huge amount of time” with President Donald Trump, didn’t hold back offensive and insensitive remarks when it came to subjects like immigration and undocumented immigrants.

“I believe you said that they needed to get off their lazy asses and register,” Burnett said to Kelly, referring to a comment Kelly made regarding to undocumented immigrants who didn’t register for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program.

“I believe that's a quote,” Kelly confirmed. “But for whatever reason they didn't get off their butts. The fact is that this president said, ‘throw them in there so,’ we get 1.8 million. That was earthshaking enough. And then a path to citizenship. I thought based on all of the rhetoric I was getting from the particularly the Democrats on the Hill both sides of the aisle both sides of the hill that they, I mean that was Nevada and they you know they tap that around and tossed it around."

On the topic of immigration, Burnett asked Kelly if he thinks Temporary Protected Status (TPS) should be cancelled for immigrants of all countries.

“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 [on] a path to citizenship,” he said. “Use the Haitians as an example.”

“A path to citizenship rather than sent home?” Burnett inquired.

“Yeah. Well, they were there in a legal status under TPS, that's a big deal,” Kelly said. “They're under legal status.”

Kelly continued to tell Burnett to look at “Central Americans,” who have been in the U.S. for over 20 years, as an example.

“I mean if you really start looking at them and saying, ‘OK you know you've been here 20 years. What have you done with your life?’ Well, I've met an American guy and I have three children and I've worked and gotten a degree or I'm a brick mason or something like that,” Kelly said. “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.”

On the defensive, Kelly clarified that he does not think that those who move to the United States illegally are “bad people.”

“They're not criminals,” he said. “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.”

He added not speaking English is a “big thing.”

“They don't integrate well, they don't have skills,” he added. “They're not bad people.”

Kelly said the “law is the law,” and that “a big name of the game is deterrence.”

Burnett commented that families being separated from each other at the border—likely when a mother gets arrested—is a probably a big deterrent, to which Kelly agreed.

“Even though people say that's cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children?” Burnett asked.

“I wouldn't put it quite that way,” Kelly said. “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But 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.”

Appropriately, Kelly’s insensitivity resulted in backlash from some lawmakers.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., issued a statement calling Kelly’s “bigoted comments” a slap in the face to “the generations of people who have come from foreign lands to contribute to the richness of our nation."

“It is sad that we have to continue to remind the administration that immigrants founded this country,” Lujan Grisham stated. “Some arrived penniless and without an education but worked to find ways to prosper, revitalize communities and give back to the nation they love.”

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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