A Jewish journalist is confronting Trump’s immigration advisers with their own immigrant histories

February 2, 2018

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NEW YORK (JTA)—During a combative news conference in early August, White House adviser Stephen Miller told reporters that the United States should prioritize immigrants who speak English.

“Does the applicant speak English?” Miller asked, describing a bill to reduce the overall number of immigrants and reform immigration requirements. “Can they support themselves and their families financially? Do they have a skill that will add to the U.S. economy?”

But if English proficiency had been an immigration requirement a century ago, Miller’s own great-grandmother may not have been allowed into the country.

That’s what journalist Jennifer Mendelsohn discovered that same day while working on a new project she calls Resistance Genealogy. Using public records and genealogical websites like Ancestry.com, Mendelsohn wants to show immigration hard-liners their own immigrant family trees.

“When you do genealogy, you’re constantly confronted with the reality of our immigrant past,” Mendelssohn says. “It appears from some of the attitudes and stances that people are taking publicly that they’re forgetting that.”

In Miller’s case, Mendelsohn tracked down his great-grandmother’s line item in the 1910 census. The entry noted that four years after arriving in the United States, she spoke only Yiddish, not English.

Mendelsohn has performed similar searches for the immigrant forbears of a handful of President Donald Trump’s advisers and supporters, seeking hard data to support the idea that America is a nation of immigrants. She’s found out about Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s great-great-grandfather, conservative pundit Tomi Lahren’s great-great-grandfather (who forged his immigration papers, no less) and U.S. Rep. Steve King’s grandmother, who arrived in the United States from Germany at age four. (“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” the Iowa Republican tweeted in March.)

On Jan. 9, Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, called for an end to “chain migration,” which refers to immigrants bringing their relatives to live in the United States. But Mendelsohn discovered that the practice had brought Scavino’s great-grandfather, Gildo, to the country.

- Ben Sales

Letter to the Editor