Katy Burns: Chain (migration) reaction?

  • Donald Trump and his wife, Ivana, pose outside the federal courthouse after she was sworn in as a United States citizen in May 1988. AP

Monitor columnist
Sunday, February 04, 2018

The hot new epithet for followers of President Donald Trump is “chain migration,” spat out as if it were just under the Black Death on humanity’s all-time plague list, responsible according to Trump for visiting all manner of ills upon innocent Americans.

Maybe someone ought to let Trump know that he wouldn’t be here himself were it not for chain immigration, as he scornfully calls it. It’s how his grandfather came to this country.

In 1885, when young Friedrich Trump decided maybe he wanted to get out of his little town in Bavaria, in Germany – he was on the verge of being drafted – he decided to immigrate to New York to join his sister, who with her husband had immigrated a few years earlier. He soon learned English and began to build a life. Classic chain migration.

And Donald would not have been born had his mother not migrated from Scotland to join her sister in New York, where she subsequently met Trump’s father, Fred. More chain migration!

Once the GOP was the pro-immigration party. No longer. The Trump Republican Party for a variety of reasons – not necessarily honorable or even sensible – hates, hates, hates immigration.

And they love to brandish the phrase “chain migration” as a weapon. It’s a terrible name, conjuring images of undesirables (probably swarthy men) somehow linked together and intent on tearing down our tranquil society. The term “family reunification” more accurately describes the process.

But, really, by either name it’s just migration, as it has always been, not only in this country but around the world. Families are the basic building blocks of all human society, including our own. They can – and do – pool their resources, work as teams and support one another in myriad ways. One brave migrant may lead the way, but others will follow, just as Friedrich Trump followed his sister. And – like Friedrich – they adapt. They learn new languages, new customs.

America is often described as a land of immigrants, and it’s true. And that’s mostly because for much of our history immigration was easy, at least for white people of European origin. There were no real restrictions on their immigration to the United States. If you could get steerage fare, you could sail to America. And in just a few years you could go into a court and be naturalized. That was it!

This country’s first significant law restricting immigration wasn’t enacted until 1882. And I suspect people won’t be shocked to learn that the law’s name was the Chinese Exclusion Act. Seems there really wasn’t room in our wonderful national tapestry for everyone.

But even after that we thought immigration – at least from the right places – was great! We were expanding, a country with a lot of land to fill and a lot of jobs available. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we collectively took a good look at the immigrants we were getting and, at least through our lawmakers, had second thoughts.

We were getting people from Italy. From eastern Europe. We were getting Jews. Turks. People who dressed oddly and ate strange food. And we didn’t even want to think about the unusual (to many of us) religions.

It was all a little upsetting to those whose ancestors had come earlier, and so for much of the 20th century our federal lawmakers fiddled around with various immigration laws, most of which tried to balance welcoming new populaces to fill the need for labor – good! – with trying to limit the newcomers pretty much to folks who look and sound like them, like us.

We’re in one of those “we’ve gotta do something now about immigration!” moments again, and our president has staked out where he and his supporters stand. Even if their positions are a little, well, hypocritical.

Look at some of Trump’s cohorts. Stephen Miller is one of the loudest proponents of draconian immigration laws, insisting that – among other things – potential Americans should speak English before even arriving here and that numbers of family members allowed in should be sharply restricted.

But Stephen Miller’s family is “a classic eastern European Jewish success story,” says Jennifer Mendelsohn, a journalist and passionate genealogist who decided to look into the stories of some of today’s biggest immigration haters. And Miller’s great grandmother was listed in the 1904 census – when she had been here for four years – as speaking only Yiddish.

Steve King, an Iowa congressman notorious for his outlandish claims (migrants from Mexico have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert”) more recently told all who would listen that we “can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” Yet in 1894 his then 4-year-old grandmother and her little sister arrived in steerage in New York – surely the very definition of “someone else’s babies.”

Mendelsohn particularly liked the family history of Dan Scavino, White House director of social media and former Trump golf caddy. Last month Scavino railed that “chain migration” was “choking” America.

Several days later, Mendelsohn had a Twitter message for him. “So Dan. 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?”

And what about John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff and a strong proponent of tough immigration standards? “Here’s a reminder for him (and others) that his great-grandfather immigrated from Italy. Followed by his wife 7 yrs later. And they didn’t speak English,” writes Mendelsohn.

Not that ancestor-shaming opponents of immigration will particularly help the Dreamers and other would-be Americans. Logic, justice and reasonable arguments have nothing to do with it, either.

One final footnote, by the way, on the Friedrich Trump immigration saga.

Some years later, after he’d amassed a considerable amount of money, he moved back to Germany, and he wrote an amazingly obsequious letter to Bavarian authorities pleading for a restoration of his citizenship. It seemed he’d married a German woman who hated the U.S. But Germany wouldn’t take Friedrich because he was a draft dodger and no longer good enough for his native land. They deported him back to the U.S.

Thus, we have Donald.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)