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Cokie and Steve Roberts: The haters are still wrong

Steve and Cokie Roberts • Updated May 22, 2018 at 4:00 PM

White House chief of staff John Kelly recently told NPR that undocumented immigrants are “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 integrate well; they don’t have skills.”

Kelly is repeating the same nativist nonsense that was hurled at his own Irish and Italian ancestors generations ago. They were told they could not integrate into America, that they lacked the skills and intelligence to contribute to their adopted country -- and especially to Kelly’s home city of Boston. Catholicism was actually illegal in Massachusetts until 1780, and a convent was burned to the ground there in 1834.

The haters were wrong about Kelly’s forebears, and Kelly is wrong about the latest wave of newcomers. If anything, immigrants are more productive than native-born Americans, according to virtually every economist who has ever studied the topic.

One example: The Council of Economic Advisors under President Bush 43 concluded, “Our review of economic research finds immigrants not only help fuel the nation’s economic growth, but also have an overall positive effect on the income of native-born workers.”

Kelly’s statement reflects a monumental ignorance of both economics and history, but he is only channeling the woefully warped mindset of President Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland and who has married two women from Eastern Europe. Like his chief of staff, the president embraces anti-immigrant attitudes rooted in fabrication, not fact; emotion, not evidence.

Trump doesn’t care about facts, because his real motivation is pure political opportunism: fanning the fears of supporters who yearn for a more white, less diverse country with fewer neighbors from what Trump famously called “s---hole countries.”

When John Feeley, Trump’s ambassador to Panama, quit in disgust, he wrote in the Washington Post: “I am convinced that the president’s policies regarding migration are not only foolish and delusional but also anti-American.” He is right, but Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade has only gotten more determined and more dangerous. Here are four examples:

– Abandoning Dreamers. A recent Harvard-Harris survey found that 76 percent of voters say that Dreamers, about 700,000 undocumented young people brought here as children, should be granted a path to citizenship. But Trump has torpedoed every attempt at a legislative compromise and no permanent solution is possible without his assent.

– Encouraging family separation. On the day that Melania Trump introduced a program to help children, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy for anyone caught trying to enter the country illegally. That means parents who are arrested at the border and sent to prison would be separated from their children, who are barred by law from incarceration.

The New York Times reports that at least 700 youngsters have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October. Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refugee Commission told the Times: “The idea of punishing parents who are trying to save their children’s lives ... is fundamentally cruel and un-American.”

– Ending protected status. About 300,000 immigrants who fled natural disasters and civil strife in Haiti, Honduras and El Salvador enjoy Temporary Protected Status under a program enacted in 1990 that allows them to stay in the U.S. Trump has canceled the program and ordered the migrants expelled, even though many of them have planted deep roots here and produced an estimated 273,000 American-born children.

The president rejected the advice of senior diplomats who encouraged him to keep the program because, as the Washington Post reports, “Money sent home by Central Americans and Haitians living in the United States is an engine for job creation that reduces the pressure to go abroad.”

– Deporting workers. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has stepped up raids on businesses that hire undocumented workers, making about 1,200 arrests since Oct. 1, which is up from about 300 during the previous fiscal year. This comes at a moment when the agricultural sector is plagued by a severe labor shortage. The Wall Street Journal documented the crisis in the crab industry on Maryland’s eastern shore and quoted a local fisherman, Burl Lewis: “It trickles all the way down the line. The Mexican labor creates jobs for Americans. It’s creating my job.” 

President Trump, with John Kelly’s backing, is following an immigration policy that is not just “foolish and delusional (and) anti-American.” It also directly undermines the country’s economic future.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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