John Kelly says undocumented immigrants can't fit in. That's not Be Best

Panelist: Kelly, Trump differ on immigration
Panelist: Kelly, Trump differ on immigration

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Panelist: Kelly, Trump differ on immigration 02:23

Washington (CNN)Forgive first lady Melania Trump the questionable grammar in the slogan "Be Best" for her initiative aimed at civility and general betterment.

She's asking everyone to just be better and nicer and that's worth doing.
"It is our responsibility as adults to educate and remind (children) that when they are using their voices -- whether verbally or online -- they must choose their words wisely and speak with respect and compassion," said the first lady at the White House.
That was before her husband bullied Chuck Schumer on Twitter, a staffer dismissed John McCain because he'll be dead soon and chief of staff John Kelly tried to wrap his boss's derogatory nativism in some nicer-sounding words.
    If there's something about being thoughtful with words in Be Best, then this was a bad week to be it.
    The most glaring example might be Kelly, who -- although he didn't call undocumented immigrants' native countries s--tholes and didn't say they were rapists and criminals -- deployed the more directly offensive language used by his boss, President Donald Trump, in saying that undocumented immigrants aren't good enough for the US.
    "Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS13," Kelly told NPR. "But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society."
    Setting aside the role many undocumented immigrants often play in US society -- doing back-breaking work native-born workers often do not -- what Kelly does is foment the perception that undocumented immigrants -- one type of people -- aren't as good as people born in the US.
    Saying one class of people is different than another class of people is the definition of racism.
    They're not bad, see, they're just uneducated. Which makes them incapable of assimilating.
    That's just not true. It is estimated that by the Center for Migration Studies that more unauthorized immigrants have overstayed a legal visa rather than illegally crossed the border. Many of these people are educated and have skills.
    But the larger problem is that Kelly, who as a former DHS secretary should know the data, echoes the language and the anti-immigrant arguments used throughout US history against people because of their race, religion, or country of origin.
    "They don't integrate well; they don't have skills," said Kelly. "They're not bad people. They're coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws."
    Kelly argued, essentially, his hands are tied by the laws despite his sympathies for these uneducated people. And that's the bedrock, apparently, for the administration's new zero tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings, announced this week by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that will unashamedly separate children from their parents.
    "This is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long," Kelly said of separating families.
    The nut of Kelly's comments is in complete alignment with what Trump has said about immigrants, both at the outset of his campaign and recently, complaining about the US immigration lottery system.
    "You can imagine what those countries put into the system. They're not putting their good ones," Trump said in April.
    During a closed-door meeting with lawmakers he complained that people from "s**thole" countries in Africa were coming to the US instead of from Nordic countries.
    Or, further back, when Trump announced his candidacy railing against immigrants.
    "The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems," he said at the infamous Trump Tower campaign announcement. "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
    More recently, Trump has argued the immigrants themselves might not be rapists, but they're being raped on their trek to the US. The difficulty of the journey from Central America has been well documented and it is one of the reasons for the creation of a caravan of asylum-seekers traveling north that Trump feared.
    In each case -- what Trump has said and what Kelly now says -- the fear that is driving them is that the immigrants are making the US worse because the immigrants, somehow, aren't as good, which is contrary to the country's immigrant history and dangerous, divisive politics.
    CNN followed the caravan, by the way, and put faces to those people hoping for new opportunity, many of them traveling with small children and fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, and trying to be their best.