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Questions for John Kelly, from one Marine to another

General Kelly's statements and actions concerning migration since he swapped his Dress Blues for a blue business suit and the Presidential Chief of Staff job are beyond reprehensible precisely because he, as a product of migration, knows better.
13 May 2018 – 03:48 PM EDT
Rt U.S. Marine General John Kelly is president Trump's White House chief of staff. Crédito: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly and I share much in common.

We are both Marines. He was a 4-star General and I was a Captain. Yet once a Marine, always a Marine. Our brotherhood in the world’s greatest fighting force is a reality, independent of the fact that General Kelly sacrificed and was tested far more than me or most Marines.

We both served the American people apolitically for over three decades. Kelly rose meritocratically to Marine Corps’ highest levels. Following my 7-year service in the Corps, I ascended through the ranks of the career diplomatic corps to become a U.S. Ambassador.

Finally, we both come from Irish-Italian heritage, European immigrants who came to the Northeast at the turn of the 20 th century. Kelly’s people went to Boston; mine to New York.

But that’s where the similarities end.

In his recent interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Chief of Staff Kelly evinced an admittedly softer, gentler face of President Trump’s exclusionary immigration policy, but there was still a very real and condescending racism that informed it: Latins can’t assimilate to become real Americans.

And it was due to just that perversion of American values that I recently chose to leave my career in the Foreign Service.

Neither I nor anyone should question John Kelly’s legacy of patriotic service to our nation while in uniform. He and his family paid the ultimate cost when his son, also a Marine, was killed in combat operations in Afghanistan in 2010. General Kelly’s stoic acceptance of that tragedy concealed what is unknowable pain for all but the Gold Star families of our nation. We thank them, and we pray for them all.

But his statements and actions concerning migration since he swapped his Dress Blues for a blue business suit and the Presidential Chief of Staff job are beyond reprehensible precisely because he, as a product of migration, knows better.

In his May 11 NPR interview, Kelly spoke of his own family’s migrant journey. Somewhat surprisingly, he also acknowledged that today’s mostly Latin migrants are not criminals.

In saying this – a factual truth, according to DoJ and FBI statistics – he directly refuted his boss, who routinely paints a picture of "American carnage" characterized by an out of control Southwest border, overwhelmed by Central American gangbangers, Mexican drug dealers and rapists.

Well, General, who is right? You or the President?

You have a moral obligation to correct your boss forthrightly when he rails so incorrectly against Latin migrants. And as Homeland Security Secretary and Chief of Staff, the universally acclaimed adult in the room, you have not.

Until now. Why and will you keep it up?

Perhaps more disappointing was Kelly’s recitation of untruths about today’s migrants not learning English, and therefore not being capable of assimilation. According to multiple academic studies, this simply is not true.

General Kelly should recall his grandparents’ stories of INNA, which in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s meant “Irish Need Not Apply.” Employers simply didn’t want the “unruly Irish.” Every second and most third generation Americans of Irish heritage knows these stories.

America’s first sarcastic humor magazine, Puck, captured this prevailing negative stereotype of Irish immigrants as drunken, cantankerous troublemakers. In the cartoon, a beleaguered Uncle Sam confronts such a simian cast Irish immigrant, while other immigrants clearly assimilate to the rules of his “boarding house.”

A century later, President Trump, Steven Miller and others have revived the heinous language of past American injustice and deny our nation’s long history as a refuge for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses, who seek to start anew in and work hard in an America that offers opportunity for all. In place of the Statue of Liberty, this Administration wants a big, beautiful wall.

Perhaps Chief of Staff Kelly believes that Caucasian, English-speaking migrants – like the Norwegians his boss favors – make for “more equal” candidates for assimilation into the United States, in direct contravention of our Declaration of Independence’s exhortation that “all men are created equal.”

Or perhaps General Kelly is concerned, as were the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, that Jews might replace the white supremacists and their specious claims to a deeper and more valid right to be American.

Kelly’s Jewish White House colleague, Mr. Miller should be concerned about that particular talking point. According to Politico, his ancestors came to the U.S. speaking Yiddish and fleeing Russian pograms in Belarus.

What is most distressing to me is that the John Kelly I knew as a young Marine and as an Ambassador did not evince these meanspirited, anti-immigrant beliefs. He, like me and all Marines, understood how those who voluntarily chose to test themselves at the gauntlet of Marine boot camp emerged true brothers, regardless of skin tone, ethnic origin, or even accented English.

So what happened to that John Kelly?

Does he really believe that migrants who have been living and working legally in the United States – like the Haitian, Honduran and Salvadoran Temporary Protected Status beneficiaries – have NOT assimilated after 20 years here, at least to the extent his non-English speaking Italian great-grandfather did ? Does he not believe that the great-grandson of one of those non-criminal migrants could one day grow up to be a 4-star Marine like he did? Does he think that by separating migrant children from parents at the border in scenes reminiscent from “Sophie’s Choice,” we make America great again?

John Kelly, an American product of migrant stock, has more explaining to do.

John D. Feeley, is a retired U.S., ambassador and veteran U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot.