'People in genealogical glass houses shouldn’t throw stones'

Using #resistancegenealogy, journalist exposes immigration hardliners’ hypocrisy

As Jennifer Mendelsohn delves into the backgrounds of those strongly opposed to new arrivals today, she almost inevitably discovers ancestors with questionable entries to the US

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Jennifer Mendelsohn (Matt Mendelsohn Photography)
Jennifer Mendelsohn (Matt Mendelsohn Photography)

Jennifer Mendelsohn has an arsenal of online genealogy accounts, and she’s not afraid to use them.

The freelance journalist and genealogist has put Trump administration immigration hard-liners on notice that while they push for tighter controls on immigration today, she’s scrutinizing their own families’ past immigration records.

Armed with ship manifests, census records and naturalization documents, Mendelsohn confronts officials online with what she views as blatant hypocrisy.

While President Donald Trump and his team have spoken of late about ending “chain migration” and placing merit- and language-based restrictions on immigration, Mendelsohn has found evidence showing how such measures would have kept their own relatives out of the US.

It’s not just White House officials Mendelsohn targets. She also researches the ancestral backgrounds of right-wing lawmakers and political pundits, reminding them that they too are descended from people who came to the US for a better or safer life.

Protesters rally during a demonstration against the Muslim immigration ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)

“If you are not Native American or [your ancestors] did not arrive here in chains, then you or your ancestors immigrated to the US,” Mendelsohn said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“People in genealogical glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” she added.

Mendelsohn’s campaign, which she has dubbed #resistancegenealogy, gained notice and traction after she began sharing her findings on Twitter, where she has 19,000 followers.

Mendelsohn told The Times of Israel that she sees her project as a unifying one. She aims to highlight immigration as a fundamental thread that runs through American history and discredit those who ignore or dissemble the historical record.

Mendelsohn, 49, was particularly incensed by Trump’s remarks about “chain migration,”or family reunification, a legal process that allows members of a family to immigrate after one has already done so. Trump referred to it as a “total disaster” that would lead to increased terrorism.

In a piece she wrote for Politico, Mendelsohn condemned an unfounded fear that new immigrants threaten the American fabric. She referred to a 2016 Chicago Sun-Times op-ed by George Washington University history professor Tyler Anbinder, whose research shows that today’s immigrants are basically the same as those of the past.

This file photo taken on October 05, 2017 shows protesters during a demonstration against US President Donald Trump during a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), also known as Dream Act, near the Trump Tower in New York. (AFP PHOTO / Jewel SAMAD)

“Many wary Americans are convinced that today’s immigrants are fundamentally different than those who came to our country in the past. A look at the history, however, shows that today’s newcomers are not fundamentally different than Americans’ foreign-born grandparents, great-grandparents or even great-great-great grandparents,” Anbinder wrote.

“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,” he wrote.

So when White House social media director Dan Scavino, Jr. tweeted an article that chain migration was “choking” the US, Mendelsohn got to work researching his ancestry.

“With a young guy like him, with an obviously Italian last name, it was a fair assumption that I’d find immigrants in his background two or three immigrations back,” Mendelsohn said.

Sure enough, Mendelsohn dug up records from Italy and the US confirming that the Scavinos were practically poster children for chain migration.

Historical document providing evidence of ‘chain migration’ in White House social media director Dan Scavino, Jr.’s family. (Courtesy)

First to arrive was Scavino’s great-grandfather Davide “Gildo” Ermenegildo’s older brother Vittorio, who landed at Ellis Island in 1904 with his wife Camilla.

In her Politico article, Mendelsohn provided a detailed documented account of how over the next 12 years, another 10 Scavino family members — including great-grandfather Gildo— immigrated to the US.

“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,” Mendelsohn wrote with cutting irony.

In another coup, Mendelsohn found some potentially embarrassing information about an immigrant ancestor of Fox News political commentator Tomi Lahren. Lahren, who “will not apologize for being white” and defended Trump’s recent “shithole countries” remark, is vocally anti-immigration.

Mendelsohn discovered legal records showing that Lahren’s Russian  great-great-grandfather, Constantin Dietrich, was indicted by a federal grand jury in North Dakota in 1916 for forging his naturalization papers.

Indictment for Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren’s great-grandfather, accused of forging his naturalization papers. (Courtesy)

“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,” Mendelsohn wrote.

The Baltimore-based Mendelsohn told The Times of Israel that she hasn’t heard from any of the public figures she has targeted with her resistance geneology, and she doesn’t expect to.

Among them is Jewish White House senior advisor Stephen Miller, who wants to reduce legal immigration, opposes chain migration, and also said last August that the administration’s immigration policy would prioritize immigrants with strong English language skills.

If this had been US immigration policy a century ago, it’s unlikely the Duke University-educated Miller would be where he is today. Mendelsohn unearthed a 1910 census document indicating that Miller’s great-grandmother still spoke only Yiddish four years after having immigrated.

1910 census indicating that White House senior advisor Stephen Miller’s great-grandmother was not an English speaker four years after her immigration to the US. (Courtesy)

Many years ago, Mendelsohn went on a roots trip to Ukraine with members of her family. The trip eventually resulted in her older brother, writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn‘s award-winning book, ‘The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” a quest to discover what happened to their grandfather’s relatives who remained in Europe as war closed in.

However, it wasn’t until more recently that Mendelsohn became passionate about genealogy after helping her husband’s grandmother, whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, find first cousins she hadn’t even known existed.

“I just started poking around and I fell through the rabbit hole,” she said about her immediate click with genealogy.

Mendelsohn, who spends a significant portion of her time on her genealogical work, loves how the discipline links the past with the present and future. It’s also a great fit for her skills and interests as a journalist — hunting down information, reporting, and storytelling.

She’s on the board of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland and has written about genealogy for sites like MyHeritage and Medium.

Even before Trump was elected, Mendelsohn shared relevant genealogy research about her own family as a counterpoint to Trump’s campaign immigration platform. In one instance, she posted about her great-uncle’s unsuccessful attempts to emigrate from Poland in 1939, which ultimately resulted in his, his wife and his children’s deaths at the hand of the Nazis.

After the election, it became clear to Mendelsohn that the most appropriate way for her to contribute politically was through genealogy.

Stephen Miller, the White House senior adviser for policy, photographed at the White House, Dec. 15, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images via JTA)

“Ever since the election, I have been thinking about how to use my skills in this area, because I have been so outraged — especially after Trump announced the Muslim ban,” she said.

She noted the resentment expressed by many toward Miller, who represents the quintessential American Jewish success story, yet has taken an anti-immigration stance.

“Immigration is so central to the Jewish American story. Miller is seen by some as a traitor,” she said.

Following the publication of her Politico article last week, Mendelsohn has been flooded with offers from genealogists around the country to help her with #resistancegenealogy.

This positive response is a ray of light in what Mendelsohn said has been a bleak and depressing last year.

“I would love this genealogical information to enter the ears of policy makers and give them pause, but unfortunately I’m not optimistic it will,” she said.

Most Popular
read more: