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Jennifer Mendelsohn uses census records and ship manifests to put anti-immigrant hypocrisy on blast with #resistancegenealogy

Earlier this month, White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino Jr. tweeted out an enthusiastic call to end “chain migration.”

Also known as family-based migration—or, in the parlance of our immigration system, family reunification—chain migration is the common-sense process by which immigrants to the U.S. gradually bring their families over to join them. It’s as old as the Mayflower and a favorite buzzword of the Trump administration, typically followed by exclamation points and fear mongering over the very bad hombres moving to our fair land.

Scavino had no idea that Jennifer Mendelsohn was watching.

“So Dan,” Mendelsohn wrote on Twitter. “Let’s say Victor Scavino arrives from Canelli, Italy in 1904, then brother Hector in 1905, brother Gildo in 1912, sister Esther in 1913, & sister Clotilde and their father Giuseppe in 1916, and they live together in NY. Do you think that would count as chain migration?”

A Baltimore-based freelance journalist, Mendelsohn is a passionate genealogist and the creator of #resistancegenealogy, viral Twitter burns in which she confronts anti-immigration public figures with their own family histories. The ancestors she finds often have plenty in common with the immigrants they’re now condemning.

She has turned her sights on Fox News firecracker Tomi Lahren, traced the tree of Trump Senior Advisor Stephen Miller and dug through enough newspaper archives, ancestry.com listings, marriage licenses and census records to know that if your ancestors came to the U.S. by choice, Scavino’s immigration story is your immigration story, too.

“For me, it’s very personal,” Mendelsohn says. “My great-grandmother was illiterate and my great-grandfather was a shoemaker, and they were given entry to the U.S. with their three children in 1892. Two of my brothers have Ivy League degrees. That’s what it’s all about in America. … [W]e take in people with limited opportunities and we give them opportunities.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What is #resistancegenealogy?

I spend a good portion of every day immersed in the stories of immigrant Americans. It’s very close to the surface for me. I see every single day that the people who now call themselves Americans and nobody questions their Americanness are descended from people who did not call themselves Americans originally.

I thought, This is easy. I know how to do people’s trees, and there’s no reason I can’t start doing the trees of these public figures. I don’t need their permission. So, I just started doing it. It was hilarious how easy it was to find hypocrisy. You barely have to scratch the surface and it’s right there.  

Whose trees have you done?

The first thing I did that got traction on social media was when President Trump made fun of and derided Senator Chuck Schumer for crying when the Muslim ban was enacted. I just looked at interviews he had done, and he had given an interview to the New York Times where he talked about how seven of his great-grandmother’s nine children were killed in the Holocaust. I tweeted that, and it got picked up and went viral.

The next one I did was when Stephen Miller gave that White House press briefing and talked about immigration policy and how they were going to favor immigrants who spoke English. So I looked up his great-grandmother in the 1910 census. Sure enough, there she was and there was a column in which the enumerator had to mark if they spoke English or not and if not which language they spoke. His great-grandmother had been here for four years, and she still couldn’t speak English. So, I pointed that out on social media and people got a kick out of that.

What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve uncovered so far?

I guess the one that got really big was Tomi Lahren from Fox News. That one was almost too good to be true. … What was sort of puzzling was the records connected to her great-great-grandfather. One popped up in a database on Ancestry that usually indicates there’s some sort of irregularity with the naturalization. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything sinister. When I looked at it, it said prosecuted for forging his [naturalization] papers. So I ordered the grand jury indictment from the national archives, and it’s quite a document. He was indicted by the grand jury; he was acquitted by the trial jury. So he was allowed to stay and become a citizen.

People in genealogical glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and we’re all in genealogical glass houses metaphorically speaking.

What has your genealogy research taught you about your own family?

My first outing in genealogy was sort of this unbelievable home run. It was the spring of 2013, and, at the time, my husband’s 95-year-old grandmother was still alive. She’s a Holocaust survivor from Poland who had lost her entire family. … I was in the car with her one day, and I just asked her, “When you were growing up, did people talk about wanting to go to America?”

She said, “No, not really very much.” Then she paused, and she’s like, “Well, you know, my mother had two older sisters who went to America before WWI.” This is a woman who had no family. When she finally got to America in the ’50s she tried to track them down, but didn’t really know how and sort of let it go. And I was not about to let it go, because I knew that somewhere in America this poor woman whose entire family had been decimated had living relatives. I took it upon myself to find them, and we found them.

It was extraordinary beyond belief. One of these sisters, she was widowed young and then got married a second time late and had her children later. So my husband’s grandmother had three living first cousins. I wrote a story about it for Tablet.

It was hilarious how easy it was to find hypocrisy. You barely have to scratch the surface and it’s right there.

What’s the message of #resistancegenealogy?

If you know anything about American immigration history, every single generation looks down on the last generation of immigrants and insists that these new immigrants are inferior and can’t possibly become American. It’s just exhausting to have to point this out over and over again.  That these same people who see themselves as such quintessential Americans, their ancestors were at one point exactly the kind of newcomers who they’re now saying have no right to be American, aren’t going to fit in in America, aren’t up to snuff. It’s just ridiculous.

How have people reacted to this project?

Maybe that’s been the biggest wow. I had no idea that this would resonate as much as it does, and that’s incredibly satisfying. The [Dan] Scavino tweet took hold in a way that none of the previous ones really had. I was bowled over by how appreciative people were of the time I took to just show: “Oh really, you want to talk about chain migration? I’ll show you how chain migration works, and it looks just like what your family did.”

Has this research changed the way you think about immigration or the United States?

I think it’s made me fiercely proud of my immigrant roots. There’s no way to say it without sounding sappy, but it’s so true. For me, it’s very personal. I grew up in a family where my grandfather had a thick accent because he was born in Austria/Hungary. My personal sense of being an American is inexorably tied to my understanding of being a hyphenated American. My husband as well. My mother-in-law was born in Russia when her family was in exile during WWII in a labor camp. It’s very close to the surface for me, and I feel that for some people it’s not so close to the surface, but they need to be reminded that it’s there for all of us.

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