How We Treat Immigrants

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof talks in a Tufts podcast about how we’ve long been wrong on immigration

Nicholas Kristof is a journalist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and longtime columnist for the New York Times. He has written extensively about immigration around the world, critiquing policies but also telling the stories of the families living with their consequences. As the son of an immigrant, Kristof is sympathetic to those looking for a better life in the United States, but also concerned for Americans who have not benefited from immigration.

Kristof spoke on campus as part of the Merrin Moral Voices series at Tufts Hillel. Here, in a conversation with Julie Flaherty, Kristof talks about the moral quandaries of immigration, what the world can learn from Canada, and what goes on behind the scenes of some of his most gut-wrenching reporting. 

JULIE FLAHERTY: In your reporting, you’ve met many people who want to come to the United States, either to escape violence or escape poverty. Are there particular stories that stick with you, when I ask you about that?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: There was a family from Honduras that I met, a single mom and her children, and particularly there was a girl named Elena, who when I met her was fourteen. They had fled because a gang had threatened to kill them. The gang leader had ordered Elena, at age eleven, to be his girlfriend, and she had obliged because he had threatened to kill the whole family if she had not. Her friend, Genesis, who was the same age, had resisted, and had been raped and shot in the stomach, and nobody was sure if she had survived or not. So, Elena, she cooperated with the gang leader, but then that wasn’t enough, then they were threatening to kill them, and so her family fled. If I were the mom, I would have fled. If you love your children, you flee. And the idea that we would send people like that back to Honduras, back to that gang, I just find unconscionable.

I don’t think we can completely open our borders to absolutely everybody, but that doesn’t mean that because we can’t help everybody, that doesn’t mean that we help nobody. We have to make some kind of judgment about who we allow in, and refugees seem to me to be—being a people fleeing for their lives—to be pretty high on that list.

FLAHERTY: Can you critique the role that the media has played in how Americans view immigration? I know you took the media to task at one point for its coverage of the caravan last fall.

KRISTOF: One reason I write about this issue is that I think, historically, we in the media haven’t done great on this issue, that often we have demonized some of the most voiceless, desperate immigrants as they come in, and painted them in very threatening terms, not humanized them. That was true of a lot of the early coverage of Catholics, in the 1800s, and it was certainly true of our coverage—“our” meaning news organizations’ coverage—of the Japanese and Japanese Americans at the time of the internment. You look back at that coverage, and it’s just appalling.

Then the coverage of Jewish refugees, in the 1930s in particular, is horrifying. The New York Times had a front-page story worrying about whether Jewish refugees, fleeing Hitler, might be actually saboteurs for Hitler, or might be Communists. I mean, it seems to me that the coverage today about Muslim immigrants is an echo of that, that yes, you can never be sure that—you can never be 100 percent sure that every immigrant coming is not going to be a saboteur or a spy. And that was true in the 1930s, and it’s true today. But what you can be sure of is that these people are fleeing for their lives, and if one doesn’t help, that many will die.

And you can’t achieve perfect safety. You have to juggle competing values, and that’s what I think we failed to do in the 1930s, and I think it’s what we haven’t done very well this time around. And I think we in the media let ourselves often be used and manipulated by demagogues who were trying to stir up hate for their own political reasons—in ways that proved catastrophic for Japanese Americans, for Jewish refugees, for Chinese immigrants for a long time with the Chinese Exclusion Acts, for Catholics, or just wave after wave after wave.

FLAHERTY: You’ve said that immigration policy is difficult, and complex, and you said earlier you don’t support open borders, but do you see—what do you see as the steps to a solution, then?

KRISTOF: Sure. I think this really is a hard issue. I hugely admired what Angela Merkel did, in allowing Syrian refugees in. But I also do worry about two unintended consequences. One that led to a wave of people from, frankly, kind of all over the world, Eritrea to Nigeria, trying desperately to get to Europe, thinking that that was going to be the answer. And many of them went to Libya, for example, thinking they were going to cross the Mediterranean, and many of them suffered appallingly in that journey and died in that journey. I fear that one unintended consequence of assistance is leading more people to make a really dangerous journey. In Angela Merkel’s case, the other consequence was she ended up hugely empowering far-right racist forces across Europe, and I think was probably one factor in Brexit.

So what does one do? I mean you can’t—you have to show compassion, you have to show support. On the other hand, there is a risk of empowering crazies and racists, and leading people to make a dangerous journey. I think that we have to admit refugees, but I think that we can do more in two areas. One is that the neighboring countries are always the ones that host the great, great majority of people. In the case of Syrian refugees, most were hosted in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. We could have provided much, much more assistance to those families in those neighboring countries, where it’s an awful lot cheaper to educate a refugee than it is to take one refugee in the U.S.

I think that in the case of Central America, we can also do an awful lot more to help stabilize those countries. There have been some really quite effective programs in both Honduras and El Salvador, in improving governance and undermining the gangs there that force people out. Look, there will still be a huge gap, a huge wage differential that will tend to drive people north. There will still be differences in opportunities, but we can do something about people fleeing murderous gangs. It’s not perfect, it’s difficult, but some of the programs actually were both very cheap and really quite surprisingly effective. I wish that we would invest more in those, and in supporting refugees in neighboring countries.

Likewise in Central America. Historically, when Guatemalans got in trouble, for example, then they would cross the border into Mexico, into southern Mexico, and stay there. In the 1980s, there were vast numbers of Central Americans who took refuge in southern Mexico, and then really the United States became concerned that if there were all these Guatemalans in Mexico then they might eventually go north and enter the U.S. We put pressure on Mexico to no longer be a haven, and as a result, Mexico began to push people out, and that made, I think, Central Americans more inclined not to stop in Mexico, but to head north. I think some of what we did was really a moral mistake, but also a practical mistake.

FLAHERTY: I remember that you sort of took Obama to task for the work we were doing with Mexico to prevent refugees from coming there.

KRISTOF: That’s right. This is an area where these days I’m very critical of President Trump, but President Obama was not great on refugees and immigrants, and in particular I found it just appalling that he was pushing Mexico to send back Hondurans to be killed back in Honduras.

FLAHERTY: Should we talk about Canada?


FLAHERTY: Let’s see, what did you call them? A moral leader of the free world, when it comes to some of these questions. Do you want to tell us a little bit about why that is?

KRISTOF: Sure. What I find interesting about Canada is that, historically, Canada was about as xenophobic as any other random country. Through the 1950s, Canada had a White Canada Policy. It did not want to let in people of color who were immigrants. Then beginning in the late 50s, and early 1960s, under a number of prime ministers—but Pierre Elliott Trudeau was certainly one of the important ones—they really saw that Canada needed to diversify, and get more immigrants, for economic reasons. They began to open the doors, and they changed the ethos of Canada so that Canada began to define itself in terms of a land that was open to immigrants.

What really struck me during the Syrian crisis was that, all around the world, political leaders were getting bashed for admitting tiny amounts, tiny numbers of Syrian refugees, and President Obama was getting savaged for admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Trudeau—Justin Trudeau—in Canada, admitted 30,000, went to the airport and handed out winter jackets to the Syrian refugees as they arrived, and he gained politically by doing this. This was a case where a political leader used his political capital to do the right thing, but also benefited from it by arguing that we are not like these other countries, that we do help. Canada was kind of the only place that managed to—where a political leader managed both to put himself out there like that, and to benefit politically by doing so.

FLAHERTY: It almost seems like here in the U.S., if you’re a politician, you have either be for the wall or for open borders, where we’re getting pushed further apart. Is that true?

KRISTOF: I think that it’s sort of unfortunate that everything is so politicized that it’s harder to kind of look ad hoc at policies. For example, I think President Trump has been a complete demagogue on immigration issues in general, but there are a couple things that he has to say on immigration that I think probably makes sense. One is that guaranteeing citizenship to everyone born in the U.S. seems to me not a policy that necessarily makes a lot of sense in the twenty-first century. Many other countries around the world do not offer that. We had children born, one in Tokyo, one in Hong Kong; neither got citizenship. I’m not sure it particularly makes sense to create incentives to have pregnant women come to your country to give birth in that country. I’m sympathetic to President Trump’s argument on that front.

Likewise, he has talked about bringing in less unskilled labor, and more highly skilled labor, as Canada does. I think that likewise is a tweak that probably makes sense. The present immigration system, based on quotas and countries, and not taking into account skill, was really a sop to Irish immigration, back in the early 1960s, and hasn’t really been rethought since. I think Canada actually does it more intelligently, when they look at what skills they need, and help build the economy as a result.

FLAHERTY: You’re here to speak at Tufts as part of the Merrin Moral Voices Program. Your voice has often been a call to humanitarian action. I’ll just mention you won your second Pulitzer for your coverage of genocide in Darfur. Let’s talk about morality and immigration. Can someone be a moral person and still be concerned that the U.S. is letting in too many people?

KRISTOF: Yeah, I think so. Frankly, one of the things that I worry about is that progressives, while justifiably concerned about anti—about Islamophobia, or about anti-immigrant xenophobia—that then they turn and become kind of anti-working class, and denounce working-class Americans who are concerned about immigrants. There’s been a lot of academic research on the impact of immigration on the U.S., and I’d say there’s some disagreement, but in general I think the consensus is that immigration as a whole has benefited the U.S. and has certainly benefited more affluent Americans.

If you were a high-school dropout, though, you may well have been hurt by immigration, and you were now competing against a lot of folks who depress wages for the bottom tier. Since 1980, the incomes for people who only have a high-school degree or who don’t have a high-school degree have stayed steady, and their assets have actually gone down, and their life expectancy is going down.

This is a pretty desperate group—the white working-class Americans, especially men—and I think immigration may well be a factor in this. I don’t think the solution is to bar immigration, bar refugees, and I don’t think it’s to demonize immigrants, but I think it is fair to wonder how the gains to immigration can be more thoroughly shared, and affluent Americans benefit enormously by having cheaper people to look after their kids, and to help with various labor tasks around their home. Working-class Americans have not benefited, and I’m troubled sometimes that the progressive impulse, especially after President Trump’s election, has been to pivot and denounce some people who have been pretty marginalized within this country.

FLAHERTY: You grew up in an area where these sort of issues affected people. You grew up on a farm. A cherry farm, timber farm, sheep farm?

KRISTOF: Yeah, cherry, and sheep, and timber, yeah.

FLAHERTY: To go back to your father, how did a boy who grew up on a farm like that come to be a foreign correspondent, and was he an influence on why you wanted to go out and see the world and report on the world?

KRISTOF: Yeah. My parents were extremely educated, and—but they settled in Yamhill, Oregon, which was really beyond the commuting distance. They worked in Portland, but that was really beyond the normal commuting distance. Almost everybody else in Yamhill was not commuting, and it was basically a farming community, dependent on timber, light manufacturing, and agriculture. My hometown has been pretty brutally hit by lost working-class jobs, and I have an awful lot of friends who have died from drugs, obesity, reckless accidents. When I look at the declining life expectancy for white working-class Americans, that’s my hometown. Those are the kids on my school bus, and they are indeed strong Trump supporters, I think, as kind of a primal scream for help.

People periodically ask how is it that everybody else in your town, or so many other people are struggling with meth and joblessness and early death, and you’re doing well. And it was completely my parents and their education, that I grew up confident knowing that I was going to go to college. There were a lot of people who I grew up with who knew that they would never go to college. The best predictor of outcomes has essentially been your education.

I had a friend named Clayton, who was very talented and very smart, and he was kicked out of school in the ninth grade, and he just died a month ago. He died of heart failure, but in many ways he died of educational failure. If you were a high-school dropout in the 1970s, you were essentially cooked. Even right now, one in seven Americans doesn’t graduate from high school. One in seven.

We were number-one in the world in high-school graduation in the 1960s; now we rank number sixty-one. This is a huge failure that means that these kids failing to graduate today—they’re sunk for decades and decades to come.

FLAHERTY: One of your columns was a look back at your least-read columns of the year, which was a strangely fun column. Most of the duds, I guess, were about international issues. You said human rights and humanitarian topics often get fewer online reads, at least. Does it frustrate you when you go through, you risk your neck sometimes going to places to cover these stories, and Americans don’t care?

KRISTOF: It is so frustrating. It is so frustrating. You know, South Sudan has been an issue that I’ve been to, that I’ve covered a lot, that I’ve been to many times. It has suffered a brutal, brutal war, that I have taken some risk to cover, and I go there, I am terrified the whole time that I’m off walking through marshes trying to interview survivors of massacres, and then I write my piece, and nobody reads it. Then my next piece is some piece denouncing Trump, which I can pretty much write by hitting my F6 key, and then the readership is through the roof, and everybody is telling me “Oh, amazing column on Trump.” Yeah, that’s frustrating.

Last fall, I had two columns, back to back, and one on the war in Yemen, which I think desperately needs more attention, and the other on the Supreme Court fight, and again... You know, it wasn’t just that 30 percent more people read the political column, it wasn’t that even twice as many. As I recall, it was four times as many read the political column, which, again, I kind of whipped out.

Whereas Yemen, I traveled to Yemen, it was enormously difficult to get there, you could get bombed at any time, I was worried about kidnapping, it was expensive for the Times. And I’m at a stage in my career where, look, if nobody reads a column except my mother, then it doesn’t bother me so much. But if I were a young reporter trying to make my name, and trying to build a career, then it would not make sense to cover those human rights or humanitarian issues. They just don’t have the same readership. I find that really troubling.

FLAHERTY: To wrap up, could you tell us something that most people might not know about you?

KRISTOF: One of the challenges in reporting is that, especially if I’m traveling abroad in some kind of a conflict area, then you know that by writing about it, you’re helping people in some kind of broad, general way. But then you come across a kid who needs urgent medical care, and that kid is going to be dead by the time your column appears. It’s not really very helpful to say “Oh, my column will help people like you.”

One of the questions that I always run into is to what extent do I use my vehicle, my resources, to help people who are right in front of me. There’s no perfect answer to that, because there are a million people who need help, and I’ve got to focus on my reporting, but I do, but periodically. . . I’ve sort of acquired a certain numbness, and a protective shield, but people break through that periodically, especially kids, and so I do then use my vehicle to go take them off to a clinic, or pay for medical care, or in one case I gave blood because somebody needed blood to survive.

It’s trying to navigate that issue of not only one’s professional responsibilities, but also one’s personal responsibilities to people that I come across, is, I think, a side of reporting that people often don’t realize is going on out there, as well.

FLAHERTY: What do you do when you come home, and you’ve reported on ...

KRISTOF: Oh, I hug my kids. Truly, I hug my kids. You know, I remember one time I’d just come back from Darfur, this is years ago, and my editor said she had meetings with the columnists, and she was basically saying we’d had a really tough year, and there are going to be no pay increases for next year, and I was, like, “Who cares? As long as you don’t take my kids and throw them in bonfires in front of me, I’m happy.” It just truly...

You know, it gives you some measure of perspective to see what things people go through and survive, and it puts our own difficulties and complaints in some perspective. I just feel so lucky that I won the lottery of birth, and that I have this family, and that I live in a place that is safe. That is what I bring back, and the idea that when you win the lottery of birth, you also have some obligation to give back.

FLAHERTY: Nicholas Kristof, thank you so much for talking with us today.

KRISTOF: My pleasure.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Steffan Hacker, Anna Miller, Dave Nuscher, and Katie McLeod Strollo. This episode was edited by 5 To 9 Media and Anna Miller. Julie Flaherty wrote the introduction to this episode. Web production and editing support was provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Lauren Bloom and Tufts Hillel. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

Back to Top