White House Chief of Staff John Kelly spoke with John Burnett of NPR yesterday on a wide variety of topics. A large part of the interview addressed immigration, in the course of which Kelly said:
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.
Obvious facts, you might think. But then, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not a leftist – because to leftists, it was like swearing in church. ThinkProgress called it a “racist rant,” Splinter called it a “racist rant,” a New York Daily News columnist called it a “racist rant” and, for variety, Rolling Stone called the remarks “racist comments,” Karen Tumulty called it “know-nothingism,” and the Plum Line decried Kelly’s “terrible immigration lies.” There are plenty more, but you get the idea.
What planet are these people living on? 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).
In a modern economy, those with little education and a poor grasp of English, however hard-working, will struggle to earn enough to support themselves and their families. That’s why at 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).
As Kelly stressed, none of this reflects on an immigrant’s moral worth as a child of God. It’s not even necessarily a function of their countries of origin; immigrants from Asia and Africa do better than those from Latin America not due to any innate superiority but because those who move here tend to be better prepared to succeed in a modern, post-industrial, knowledge-based economy.
That’s why immigration policy — both the selection of legal immigrants and the enforcement of our laws — has to be based on the conditions of today, not the horse-and-buggy world of your grandpa from Palermo or your great-grandma from County Mayo. Nineteenth-century sentimentalism is no basis for a 21st-century federal immigration program.