Asian-Americans Blast John Kelly’s Remark About Immigrants Who ‘Don’t Integrate Well’

"You don’t need to get a PhD and work for NASA, or go to an Ivy, or write a bestseller, or f**k, even 'assimilate' ... to have value as an immigrant."
White House chief of staff John Kelly told NPR that most undocumented immigrants aren't "bad people," but added that they were "not people that would easily assimilate" into our "modern society."
White House chief of staff John Kelly told NPR that most undocumented immigrants aren't "bad people," but added that they were "not people that would easily assimilate" into our "modern society."
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

White House chief of staff John Kelly’s recent comment about undocumented immigrants isn’t sitting well with those in the Asian-American community.

Many on Twitter spoke out after Kelly’s recent NPR interview, when he said most people who immigrate to the U.S. without authorization “are not bad people,” but that 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,” Kelly told NPR. “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.”

Members of the Asian-American community, which has a significant immigrant population, condemned Kelly’s suggestion that a rural background or lack of English skills precludes someone from being a valuable addition to the United States. Prominent Asian-Americans, including former Cabinet secretary and Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), tweeted their opposition to Kelly’s statement.

Author Celeste Ng also shared her own family’s story via Twitter in response to Kelly’s remarks. She noted that her father, who would go on to work for NASA, grew up in rural China, and that his own father had no more than a sixth-grade education.

Ng explained that her parents put down roots in America’s Rust Belt, bought houses, paid taxes and Social Security, and had daughters who attended Ivy League schools and went on to have successful careers.

But the author also noted that ultimately, having a typical success story “doesn’t even matter.”

The idea that immigrants need to “assimilate” is really another way of saying that they need to erase their heritages, Ng wrote ― “that only those who shed their identities ‘belong.’” The belief also perpetuates the “good immigrant vs. bad immigrant” narrative. And ultimately, Kelly’s comments do not acknowledge the true value of diversity, Ng added.

Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., and almost 60 percent of them were born in another country, according to the Pew Research Center. That rises to 73 percent among Asian adults.

AAPI Data estimates that about 1.7 million Asian-Americans are undocumented, accounting for about 13 percent of the total 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the country, Pew reports.

Asian-Americans are also the racial group with the highest rate of limited English proficiency ― defined as having a “limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English” ― with 35 percent falling into this category, according to the Center For American Progress.

Immigration experts and advocates alike criticized Kelly’s remark. What’s more, genealogical researcher Monica Pattangall found that the chief of staff’s own grandparents hailed from rural areas in Italy and Ireland, according to The Washington Post.

The Post’s Christopher Ingraham also pointed out that Kelly’s remark about “rural” people is particularly odd since a significant chunk of the U.S. population comes from rural areas.

Kelly made his remarks when asked whether he supports Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that the U.S. will prosecute people trying to enter the country illegally, leading authorities to separate parents from their children.

When pressed on the issue of family separation, Kelly replied, “the children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

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