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Fact-Checking What John Kelly Said About Immigration


In an exclusive interview with NPR this past week, President Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, said this about immigrants crossing the border illegally.


JOHN KELLY: 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: General Kelly used to be the head of the Department of Homeland Security. And he is still very involved in shaping the Trump administration's immigration policies. We're joined now by Tomas Jimenez, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford who studies immigration, to talk about these comments. Thank you so much for being on the program.

TOMAS JIMENEZ: Great to be with you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So let's parse this out. Let's start with assimilation. It kind of reminds me of the Borg in "Star Trek." You will be assimilated. So is assimilation or, as chief of staff Kelly calls it, integration important?

JIMENEZ: It's incredibly important. You know, for any society to function, people have to have equal opportunity to fully participate in a society. And General Kelly's right about the fact that language is a big part of that - so is education, and so is income. So it is important, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do we know about the way in which Latinos assimilate?

JIMENEZ: So immigrant assimilation is a bit of a misnomer. Assimilation is actually something that happens over the course of generations. And our history certainly bears that out. The immigrants who came overwhelmingly from Europe to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century didn't assimilate themselves. But their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren ultimately wrote the story of the nation of immigrants. And they did that through getting more education than their parents, getting more income, learning to speak English and ultimately intermarrying in large numbers. And by all accounts, that pattern is repeating itself among today's immigrants. Their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren are assimilating just as fast, if not faster, than past waves of immigrants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are they any more rural than any other group that comes to this country?

JIMENEZ: It's a real mix. There are populations that are very rural. There are populations that are coming more from the urban areas. Much the same can be said of the immigrants who are now coming mostly from Central America. But the fact is also that immigrants who came from Ireland, like General Kelly's ancestors, immigrants who came from Italy, like some of my ancestors - they came from rural areas, too. And they ended up, many of them, in large, urban centers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the biggest impediment, in your view, to immigrants becoming successful in this country?

JIMENEZ: The fact that we have so many people in the United States who are undocumented is a huge impediment to the assimilation of those individuals but also to subsequent generations. The closest thing that we've had in recent years to a mass legalization program is DACA. For those who got DACA, their education went up. On average, they got more income. They became more likely to buy homes. If the White House is really concerned about assimilation, they should not only leave DACA alone but push for a greater legalization program for the DREAMers and even for other immigrants. That's the one thing that would speed up assimilation more than anything that we could do on the policy front.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tomas Jimenez is a professor of sociology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity at Stanford. Thank you so much.

JIMENEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMUV'S "GLOWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.