With all the news buzzing around immigration laws and the recent suspension of DACA, local journalist and aspiring genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn (and occasional contributor to Baltimore) has been tracing the lineage of prominent ultra-conservative and anti-immigration personalities in a project she’s dubbed #ResistanceGenealogy.
How did you get into genealogy?
It was just sort of by accident. About four years ago, somebody mentioned on Facebook a company on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Rivington Street. I remembered we had cousins that lived on that street, and I Googled their names and a listing for the census popped up. It was so cool; I didn’t know you could search the census. One thing led to another, I got an Ancestry subscription and became hopelessly obsessed.
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What about it drew you in?
It turned out to be a very natural fit for my skills as a reporter. I already knew how to follow an information trail, and look for clues, and solve puzzles. As a kid, I used to love those logic grid puzzles—and that’s exactly what genealogy is. You’re trying to make pieces fit and solve a mystery—I love it, it’s so satisfying.
Tell me about #ResistanceGenealogy.
I spent a lot of free time doing genealogy research—a huge part of what I do is because of my own background—Eastern European Jewish immigrant. My identity is very strongly connected to ‘hyphenated Americans.’ My understanding of what it means to be American is very closely tied to being an immigrant. So when I hear all these politicians slamming immigrants, I just know that unless you came on the Mayflower, you’re Native American, or your ancestors came in slave ships—you are an immigrant.
I think a lot of people who think of themselves as quintessential Americans are really just assimilated immigrants looking down on the next wave and not liking what they see. When I see these people spouting off how terrible these immigrants are and how we need to close our borders, I just thought it might be fun to start looking at their trees and point out the hypocrisy.
So, this is what led you to research conservative commentator Tomi Lahren?
After I saw her post about immigrants coming here legally, I found that Tomi Lahren’s great-great-grandfather was indicted by a federal grand jury for naturalization fraud. I put that on Twitter and Wonkette asked me to write it up as a piece. It went sort of quasi-viral and got picked up a million other places, and was tweeted by people with large followings—it became this big funny thing.
He was actually acquitted by the trial jury, but it’s pretty ridiculous that she’s talking about everybody who doesn’t come here legally should be thrown out, but by the grace of God, her own family is still here.
Have you looked into anybody else?
I think the first person I ever searched outside of my family might have been Congressman Steve King from Iowa because he made that statement, ‘We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.’ And sure enough, I found out that his own grandmother came as a child from Germany. And I thought, ‘It wasn’t that long ago, Congressman King, that your family would have been looked at as someone else’s babies.’
I’ve also looked into [Fox News’] Tucker Carlson, and Stephen Miller—President [Donald] Trump’s senior advisor who made the comment about how American policies shouldn’t favor immigrants who don’t speak English, when his own great-grandmother didn’t speak English [laughs].
What is your hope in uncovering this information?
It’s not to shame people, or make them feel guilty about what their ancestors did. It’s just to prove that the desire to be American has been so overwhelming and universal for centuries. Americans come from all places. We shouldn’t be pulling up the ladder behind us—we should be sending a hand continually because that’s what America is all about.