Originally published by Politico
After President Donald Trump called it a “total disaster, which threatens our security and our economy and provides a gateway for terrorism” at a White House meeting in early January, “chain migration” quickly became the buzzword du jour for anti-immigration voices. But chain migration, a process also known as “family reunification” that allows a legal immigrant to bring his family members to the United States—spouses and minor children when he has a green card, and parents and siblings after he becomes a citizen—is nothing new. In fact, it’s how the families of some of the most prominent anti-immigration voices in Trump’s circle—and the president himself—came to the United States.
These ahistorical warnings about the evils of chain migration are part of a longstanding American tradition described by immigration historian Tyler Anbinder in a 2016 Chicago Tribune editorial: “From the days of the Puritans to the present, every generation of Americans has believed that the latest wave of immigrants is completely different from—and inferior to—their own immigrant ancestors and could never become true Americans.” From White House adviser Stephen Miller to Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren, many prominent anti-immigration voices advocate for immigration policies like merit-based systems and language-based preferences that would have barred their own families from coming to the United States.
But while our favorite immigration opponents may have forgotten their immigrant roots, lucky for them, I have an Ancestry.com account, and I know how to use it. In a project I call #resistancegenealogy, I’ve traced their family trees and found, not surprisingly, their own family’s stories are markedly similar to those of the immigrants they now would like to prevent from becoming Americans. (Except, of course, that today’s immigrants are less commonly white Europeans.) Here are some of the highlights.
Dan Scavino, Jr.
Let’s start with Dan Scavino, Jr., White House social media director, who tweeted an article about chain migration “choking” the United States. That’s the kind of charge that may have once been leveled against Italian immigrants like Scavino’s great-grandfather.
Scavino’s roots trace back to the Italian Piedmont town of Canelli, where his great-grandfather Davide “Gildo” Ermenegildo was born in August of 1884 to Giuseppe Scavino and his wife Carolina Giovine. The birth certificate is below, with Gildo on the right side.
Gildo Scavino was part of a classic chain of immigrants that began with his older brother Vittorio (or Victor, as he would come to be known) who arrived at Ellis Island in 1904 with his wife Camilla. The records indicate that Vittorio had come on a business trip, but he apparently stayed on, because the following March, when brother Ettore (who would become Hector) arrived from Canelli, he listed brother Vittorio, at an address on E. 59th Street in New York City, as his point of contact. He also indicates that his brother paid for his passage.
Are these the sorts of immigrants who would meet the proposed “skills and merit” criteria that Trump would like to replace the family-based system with? Victor and Hector went on work in a candy factory, although Victor’s 1918 declaration of intention for citizenship, which immigrants were able to file after having resided in the United States for at least two years, identifies him as a “laundry washer.”
In September of 1913, Dan Scavino’s great-grandfather Gildo arrives, accompanied by brother Victor, who is re-entering the U.S. after some years spent in Paris. Two months later, their younger sister Esther, a dressmaker, arrives from Canelli and is “discharged” to her older brothers, as written below.
By 1915, the census shows that Esther and her brother Gildo were sharing an apartment on 127th Street.
Finally, in 1916, the youngest Scavino sister Clotilde, her baby son Mario and the Scavinos’ widowed father, 68-year-old Giuseppe, arrive, leaving behind at least one sister in Italy. These newcomers list last-arrived sister Esther as their point of contact. (You see how this works now? It’s like a … chain.)
This group was detained at Ellis Island as “likely public charges,” meaning there was concern they would not be able to support themselves, which probably had something to do with the fact that Giuseppe was issued a medical certificate at Ellis Island for “senile debility,” which you can see noted below. After two days of waiting and a hearing, the Scavinos were cleared for entry to the United States on December 18. Giuseppe died just three months later. (They fared better, incidentally, than shipmate Domenica Fazio, a suspected prostitute who was detained alongside them and deported back to Italy.)
Gildo Scavino, Dan, Jr.’s great-grandfather, went on to marry Carmella Daglia, also an Italian immigrant, in 1918, and their son Aldo was born in New York in 1920, paving the way for his grandson to one day work in the White House and use his platform to call for an end to so-called chain migration.
Rep. Steve King
Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa has become notorious for making thinly veiled racist pronouncements about the threats of immigration. “We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies,” he lamented on Twitter in March last year.
But King’s own grandmother Freda Harm was one of those very babies, arriving in steerage at Ellis Island in 1894 from Germany at the age of four, according to passenger documents, with her parents and two little siblings in tow. The difference, of course, is that white European babies are likely not the kinds of “somebody else” King was referring to.
White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller
Miller, an immigration hardliner who has helped craft Trump’s wish list on more restrictive policies, once warned in a college op-ed that “worshipping at the altar of multiculturalism” might lead to the “sacrifice of the one culture which binds us all.” But Miller’s own Jewish family arrived from Eastern Europe with very little and spun their hard work into success, opening up businesses in Pennsylvania—the classic immigration success story.
In a White House briefing in August, Miller made clear that White House immigration policy would prioritize those immigrants who could already speak English. But by those rules, Miller’s own great-grandmother would not have passed muster. In the 1910 census, she is clearly identified as speaking only Yiddish, four years after arriving.
Fox News’ Tomi Lahren has been especially unforgiving in her immigration stance, even going so far as to defend President Trump’s “shithole countries” comment.
But her tree yielded perhaps the most hilarious vignette yet: Lahren’s Russian immigrant great-great-grandfather, Constantin Dietrich, was indicted by a federal grand jury in North Dakota in 1917 for forging his naturalization papers. Such prosecutions were exceedingly rare; there were typically less than 100 annually out of about 105,000 naturalizations. But luckily for Lahren, the trial jury was apparently unmoved by the findings of the grand jury and acquitted him, making it possible for her to be here sharing her anti-immigration screeds on Twitter in 2018.
“Why does America benefit from having tons of people from failing countries come here?” Fox News personality Tucker Carlson asked on Twitter last year.
Well, though Carlson was apparently estranged from his biological mother, sketching out her tree led to the memoirs of Carlson’s great-great grandfather Cesar Lombardi, who wrote about how the “narrowness of opportunities” in Switzerland created a “violent desire” for him to “seek my fortune in foreign parts.” He landed in New York on November 1, 1860.
The good news is that while we’ve been hearing about the evils of immigration for centuries, the country appears to have continually weathered the storm. I suspect we’re going to be just fine moving forward.
After all, some of those immigrants’ descendants have even ended up in the White House.