The United States is — and has always been — a nation of immigrants. You wouldn’t know it from some of the current rhetoric.
Donald Trump rode into presidential office on a promise to build a wall along the U.S. southern border and kick undocumented immigrants out of the country. Since becoming president, Trump has even taken aim at legal immigration, supporting plans to reduce the number of application approvals, ending the diversity lottery, and setting various “merit” benchmarks.
One genealogist decided to put things in perspective.
Jennifer Mendelsohn is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more. About five years ago, Mendelsohn took an interest in genealogy, using her skills as a reporter to hone a new craft: helping people track down long-lost relatives.
Since March 2017, Mendelsohn has been working on a new project she calls #ResistanceGenealogy, where she compares the statements and positions of prominent commentators and politicians with their own family tree to see how their ancestors would have fared under similar laws. Spoiler alert: not very well in most cases. Let’s take a look at some of what she’s found.
1. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who said “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
In a tweet showing support for anti-immigration Netherlands politician Geert Wilders, King wrote that “culture and demographics are about destiny,” adding that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Yikes!
Asked to clarify what he meant on CNN’s “New Day,” King doubled down. “I’ve said the same thing as far as 10 years ago to the German people and to any population of people that is a declining population that isn’t willing to have enough babies to reproduce themselves. I’ve said to them, ‘You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birth rate up and that you need to teach your children your values.'”
Mendelsohn was able to pull up records appearing to be from King’s grandmother, Freda, marking her arrival in the U.S. in 1894. According to King’s suggestion, the country would have been better off if she’d been kept out to allow for more U.S.-born children.
2. White House adviser Stephen Miller helped craft a policy using “English proficiency” in ranking immigration candidates.
Miller helped shape the RAISE Act, which would eliminate the “diversity lottery,” implement a “merit-based” system, and prioritize applicants who speak English. In a January 2018 interview with Fox News, Miller said that his goal was an immigration system that “produces more assimilation.”
By those standards, according to Mendelsohn’s research, Miller’s great-grandmother, who didn’t speak English, probably wouldn’t have been welcomed here (and neither would he).
3. Fox News host Tucker Carlson said, “Why does America benefit from having tons of people from failing countries come here?”
A conservative commentator and Fox News host, Carlson has a history of inflammatory comments about immigrants. In June 2017, he asked, “Why does America benefit from having tons of people from failing countries come here?” America has always billed itself as a land of opportunity where someone from what Carlson would call a “failing country” can work hard and live out their dreams. Carlson’s own ancestors seem to have believed in that as well.
Mendelsohn dug up a letter that appears to be from a relative of Carlson’s explaining why he came to America in the first place: “Partly because of the narrowness of opportunities … I was seized at about this time of a violent desire to leave the country and seek my fortune in foreign parts.”
4. Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio targeted suspected undocumented immigrants and mistreated inmates who couldn’t speak English.
Arpaio took a lot of anti-immigrant actions during his time as Maricopa County Sheriff (the ACLU has a non-comprehensive list of some of his more egregious acts). In fact, it’s how he built his reputation.
Of those, one move, discovered by the U.S. Justice Department, stands out: Arpaio singled out Latina inmates who couldn’t speak English, denied them access to basic sanitary items, forced them to “remain with sheets or pants soiled from menstruation,” and threw them in “solitary confinement for extended periods of time because of their inability to understand and thus follow a command given in English.” His excuse? “They are in the United States, and they should start speaking English,” he said in a 2006 interview.
As it turns out, according to Mendelsohn’s research, Arpaio’s immigrant ancestors didn’t speak English for a long time after coming to the U.S. Additionally, Arpaio’s well-documented disdain for “chain migration” (a derogatory term used to describe family-based immigration) seems especially hypocritical given that Mendelsohn found more than a dozen members of Arpaio’s family who came to the country using that very method.
Here’s Arpaio in 2006, saying that immigrants are “in the US. They should start speaking English.”
But his father’s paperwork for a death benefit from the Sons of Italy lodge is entirely in Italian. (The error in his birth year aside.)
— Jennifer Mendelsohn (@CleverTitleTK) March 28, 2018
5. White House chief of staff John Kelly derided undocumented immigrants as people who “don’t integrate well.”
Kelly made news for comments about immigrants saying they are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society” and adding that “they don’t speak English … they don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”
According to Mendelsohn’s research, Kelly’s own great-grandfather had lived in the U.S. for 18 years, during which he didn’t make an effort to become a citizen or speak English. It seems his own relatives are precisely the kind of people he says he doesn’t want in the country.
Here’s John Kelly’s maternal grandmother Teresa as a child in the 1900 census.
— Jennifer Mendelsohn (@CleverTitleTK) May 11, 2018
6. Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren said, “Stop rewarding illegal behavior and put law-abiding Americans first.”
“You don’t just come into this country with low skills, low education, not understanding the language and come into our country because someone says it makes them feel nice,” Lahren said on Fox News. “That’s not what this country is based on.”
In a tweet, she shrugged off suggestions that we should protect DACA beneficiaries, saying, “Or we could stop rewarding illegal behavior and put law-abiding Americans first.”
Mendelsohn discovered that Lahren’s own extended family wouldn’t have lived up to the standards she set. Speaking English? Several lived in the country for decades without picking up the language. Not “rewarding illegal behavior”? Lahren’s great-great-grandfather Constantin Dietrich was prosecuted for forging his own citizenship papers.
Except the 1930 census says Tomi’s 3x great-grandmother had been here for 41 years and still spoke German.
Her 2nd great-grandmother had been here for 10 yrs. Spoke no English.
— Jennifer Mendelsohn (@CleverTitleTK) May 13, 2018
The truth is there’s absolutely nothing new about this anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s just that the targets have changed over time.
Mendelsohn’s Twitter feed is full of political cartoons dating back to the 1860s warning that immigrants pose a threat to American ideas, culture, and institutions. The idea that immigrants pose some sort of existential threat to the American way of life is as old as the country itself.
In 2018, the President of the United States is trying to scare people that immigrants are “snakes” who will bite them if allowed into the country.
— Jennifer Mendelsohn (@CleverTitleTK) February 23, 2018
“One thing you learn very quickly when you spend as much time as I do immersed in genealogical records is that with a few notable exceptions — particularly African-Americans and Native Americans — every American family story pretty much goes back to an immigrant arriving on a boat in search of opportunity. It’s just a question of how long ago it was,” Mendelsohn says.
Here’s Benjamin Franklin, all bent out of shape about the Germans in Pennsylvania, and how they’d never be able to assimilate and become Americans. This was in 1751, btw. Friedrich Trump arrives from Germany 134 years later. Seems to have worked out for him. pic.twitter.com/ApGgI0fYdF
— Jennifer Mendelsohn (@CleverTitleTK) January 27, 2018
She hopes that by providing this much-needed historical context — by pointing out that the same stereotypes being used against immigrants now were once used against many of these critics’ own ancestors — she can help bridge the gap between ideologies. Her project isn’t about shaming anybody; it’s about asking them to consider their own history.
“By using the historical record rather than relying on stereotypes and fear mongering … people realize just how alike we all really are,” she adds. “I want it to bring people together. Three of my grandparents were immigrants. My mother-in-law is an immigrant. My best friend’s parents were both immigrants. I’ve always been incredibly proud of that.”
A common rebuttal to Mendelsohn’s work is that things were different back then and that people came here the right way. She has thoughts on that too.
“The ‘legal’ argument is specious because illegal immigration is a wholly contemporary concept,” she says. “I recently saw a 1903 ship’s manifest where a man said only that he was coming to America to meet a friend, ‘address unknown.’ Many of our ancestors pretty much waltzed in, only having to prove they were healthy and not criminals. That needs to be taken into consideration when you laud your ancestors for coming ‘legally.’ There’s also a lot of mythologizing about our ancestors doing everything the ‘right’ way that evaporates when you look at the historical record.”
“Many of our ancestors cut corners as well. Many never learned English. Many never became citizens. There’s no shame in that whatsoever. That what makes America America. People are people, and the immigrants hoping to come here today and realize the American dream are no different than our ancestors were, except that they may come from different parts of the world. Which is, of course, what many of these people are actually responding to.”
In the end, the message is clear, and it is simple: We need to stop using fear to divide one another.
This comes up all the time. When announcing his run for president, Trump warned of immigrants who “have lots of problems,” bringing drugs and crime to our country. Politically, maybe that message resonates with voters (he was elected, after all). Is that really who we want to be as a country, though?
“The bottom line is that there is a great fear and prejudice against immigrants, and it’s the exact same fear and prejudice that has been directed against immigrants for centuries,” Mendelsohn adds. “The people now speaking out against immigrants are, ironically, descended from people who were themselves discriminated against, and I’m here to remind them of that.”