If all Americans were to trace their family history back just a few generations, the overwhelming majority would discover that they’re the products of immigration.
And that would be a good thing, says the journalist and amateur genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn.
“Every American story, except for the slaves brought here forcibly and Native Americans, goes back to a boat,” Mendelsohn tells NationSwell. “I want people to let go of their immigrant biases by recognizing their own immigrant roots.”
Mendelsohn is trying to drive that point home, especially to those who carry the torch for anti-immigrant policies, such as ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, and instituting a travel ban from Muslim-majority countries. She is the creator of the hashtag #ResistanceGenealogy, which earlier this year exploded in the Twitterverse for its clap-backs against politicians agitating for more restrictive immigration policies.
In a time when shouting down political opponents isn’t helping mend relationships, Mendelsohn’s campaign is reflective of modern social-science research, which suggests that political ideology doesn’t necessarily budge when confronted with facts that are at odds with one’s beliefs.
The only way people change, the thinking goes, is through a truly personal experience — like finding out your family’s background looks a lot different than what you grew up believing.
IN THE SAME BOAT
The Baltimore-based Mendelsohn became interested in genealogy after a personal project led her to research the history of her husband’s grandmother, who came to the U.S. after the Holocaust had claimed her entire family. She thought she had no living relatives left. Turns out, she was wrong.
“It led to this emotional reunion that no one ever in a million years would’ve expected to happen,” says Mendelsohn, who used her reporting chops to dig deep into immigration records and find three living relatives of her in-law.
As the political climate in the U.S. turns ever more toward nationalism, Mendelsohn, armed with a new appreciation for tracing one’s ancestry, has found that the best way to confront it is by pulling back the curtain on those beating the anti-immigration drum the loudest.
To that end, Mendelsohn has traced the genealogy of Republican (and vocally anti-immigrant) TV personality Tomi Lahren, who wrote on Twitter, “Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye.” Mendelsohn discovered that Lahren’s great-great-grandfather was indicted in 1917 for falsifying his naturalization papers when he came to the U.S. from Russia (he was acquitted, thus paving the way for Lahren to be born an American citizen).
We are indeed a nation of immigrants. We are also a nation of laws. Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye. #DACA
— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) September 6, 2017
Most recently, she took on notorious former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, not exactly known for his friendly views on immigration. Despite the current uproar over “chain migration” — a conservative buzz phrase for the family-reunification policy that allows vetted immigrants to sponsor family members — Mendelsohn found that Arpaio’s Italian relatives had brought over more than a dozen people this way.
Family trees, she says, are very much like mythology. In one instance, a man whom Mendelsohn was working with told her that his immigrant grandfather was inspired to adopt the surname “Fruchter” after coming across a fruit seller on his way through Ellis Island. It was a lie; Mendelsohn discovered that Fruchter was the name on his grandfather’s passport, meaning he couldn’t have changed it when he said he did.
“These myths are well and good in a family context. It’s harmless; no one is hurt or injured,” says Mendelsohn. “But people are making policy based on those ‘fruit-seller’ myths and pronouncements based on those myths, like immigrants are dangerous or bottom-feeders.”
That is the crux of resistance genealogy, says Mendelsohn, who hopes that the more people understand their own histories, the more empathetic they’ll become toward immigration issues.
“All these things people throw up to divide people and label people and put people down — all of that falls away when you realize how alike we are. It gives racists and bigots less of a wedge,” she says.
A ‘PATRIOTIC’ PROJECT
There are isolated, but very public, examples of this social theory at work in American politics. Before 2011, for example, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was fiercely against gay marriage. Then his son came out.
“At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman,” Portman wrote in an editorial for the Columbus Dispatch. “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love.”
Then there’s the case of Jeff Jeans, an Arizona business owner and registered Republican, who initially opposed the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislation. That is, until he was diagnosed with cancer at 49 and given six weeks to live. He told House Speaker Paul Ryan in a CNN town hall last year that he changed his mind on the healthcare law, adding that thanks to Obamacare, “I’m standing here alive.”
Despite these examples of an about-face, Mendelsohn is wary that her campaign will succeed on a large scale. Still, the recent attention given to #ResistanceGenealogy is forcing some people to take a closer look at their own roots. And so she soldiers on.
The only person who has publicly responded to Mendelsohn’s research on their behalf is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who told the Washington Post, “The United States is a completely different country now. The idea that [having] a relative who came 150 years ago means I have to have a specific view on immigration? It’s so dumb it’s hard to believe you have to respond to it.”
That’s not a surprise for Mendelsohn, who says she doesn’t lose sleep over Carlson not liking her.
“The highest compliment that someone’s paid this project is that it’s patriotic,” she says. “We love this country and what it represents, and so much is bound up in the opportunities that this country afforded.”