There was a time, about a century ago, when immigrants coming to the United States were demeaned for their “foreign ways,” their supposed inability to assimilate into mainstream American culture and for allegedly contributing to crime and other immoral activities in the United States. Such beliefs led to the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 that severely reduced the number of immigrants from supposedly undesirable regions — mostly Eastern and Southern Europe.
It took more than 40 years for such discriminatory immigration practices to end in the United States. The quota system based on geography was replaced by different policies, including family reunification, enabling immigrant families to bring their relatives from overseas. This so-called “chain migration” was seen as a humane response to the discriminatory policies of the past and fortified millions of immigrant families who contributed greatly to American society.
All of this seems to have been forgotten by President Donald Trump and his team of loyal advisers and surrogates. But the funny thing is, when one scratches beneath the surface, one finds that the ancestors of many of the members of the Trump bandwagon were immigrants from the very regions that were once deemed undesirable and had some of the same liabilities that many of today’s immigrants face.
Take the current White House chief of staff, John Kelly. It turns out that Mr. Kelly’s ancestors, who settled in Massachusetts, were from Ireland (on his father’s side) and Italy (on his mother’s side). In an interview in May 2018, Mr. Kelly stated while the new illegal immigrants to the United States are “not bad people,” they are “overwhelmingly rural,” have only an elementary education, “don’t speak English,” don’t integrate well, and “don’t have skills.”
Extensive genealogical research by Monica Pattangall and Jennifer Mendelson, as reported in an article by Washington Post reporter Philip Bump, has revealed that Mr. Kelly’s great grandparents from both Ireland and Italy came from poor, rural areas. In addition, one of Mr. Kelly’s great grandmothers from the Italian side of his family did not learn English for 30 years after arriving in Boston, not a surprising fact when one considers that many immigrants at the time lived in insular ethnic ghettos where learning English was not necessarily a priority.
Then take Stephen Miller, the White House aide and guru of Mr. Trump’s restrictive immigration policies who not only favors a harsh crackdown on illegal immigration but wants to reduce legal immigration. It turns out that Mr. Miller's great grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Tsarist Russia who, faced with pogroms and poverty, fled that country for the United States with little in his pockets.
Or take Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager who appears often on television to defend the president. When confronted by CNN’s Chris Cuomo about Mr. Trump’s disparaging comments about the U.S. receiving immigrants from “sh--hole countries” like Haiti and instead wanting immigrants from Norway, Mr. Lewandowski tried to finesse the issue by saying that there is a big difference in income of those from a country like Sudan and those from Norway. Mr. Cuomo refused to let that comment pass, and reminded Mr. Lewandowski (whose ancestors came to the United States from Poland) that if wealth were used as criteria, neither the Cuomos nor the Lewandowskis would have been allowed to enter the United States when they did.
Perhaps the person with the biggest historical memory loss is Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff and now a U.S. Senate candidate who was notorious for racially profiling Hispanics and conducting so-called immigration “round ups.” In 2017 he was convicted of criminal contempt of court, only to be pardoned by Mr. Trump. It turns out that both of Mr. Arpaio’s parents were poor immigrants from Italy who settled in Springfield, Mass., in the early part of the 20th century. Although Mr. Arpaio has emphasized that his parents, who arrived through the Ellis Island immigration center in New York, were “legal immigrants,” he seems to forget they likely didn’t know English when they arrived and came to America for the very same reasons that today’s illegal immigrants have come — seeking a better life for themselves and their hard-pressed families.
Instead of reining in these advisers and surrogates for their remarks and deeds, Mr. Trump has encouraged them — not surprising given his own denigration of immigrants during the 2016 campaign and now as president.
This is 1924 all over again, and I bet that the ancestors of his aides and surrogates are cringing from up above.
Gregory Aftandilian (email@example.com) is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.