Immigrants after their arrival at Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay in 1902. (ullstein bild/Getty Images)
It wasn’t until the media started asking questions that the White House’s introduction of a law curtailing legal immigration got contentious. During the daily press briefing, CNN’s Jim Acosta, himself a son of Cuban immigrants, challenged senior adviser Stephen Miller on a component of the proposed bill which would grant English-speakers more favor in gaining admission to the United States.
“Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you’re telling them you have to speak English?” Acosta asked. “Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?”
The answer is, of course, that they can. As President Trump’s grandfather did. As Stephen Miller’s great-grandparents did. And as a member of Trump’s own Cabinet did.
The policy, the Raise Act, would introduce a point-based system for new applicants to enter the United States. In addition to speaking English, points would be awarded based on answers to these other questions that Miller mentioned: “Can they support themselves and their families financially? Do they have a skill that will add to the U.S. economy? Are they being paid a high wage?
Were that policy in place in 1885, Friedrich Trumpf would likely not have gained entry to the United States. The immigration record for his arrival that year indicates that he arrived without an identifiable “calling”: The word “none” sits next to his name in that column.
A biographer of Trumpf — father of Fred Trump, who was the father of the president — told Deutsche Welle that Donald Trump’s grandfather didn’t speak English when he got here.
“He came to New York,” Gwenda Blair said, “and, after he learnt English, he went to the West Coast, ran restaurants, amassed a nest egg, then went back to Kallstadt, married the girl next door and brought her to New York.” It was on the West Coast that Trumpf (now just Trump) became a citizen and registered to vote in the 1892 election.
But: no skills, no English. Would he have gotten in?
Donald Trump’s mother, Mary MacLeod, would have had more luck. An immigrant from Scotland, she is listed on Census documents as speaking English, although a Politico profile of her from last year notes that “she spoke almost exclusively in Scots Gaelic before leaving for a new life in the United States at age 18.”
Were Friedrich Trumpf barred entry, there might not be a President Trump. But if this law had been in effect a century ago, there also may not have been a senior adviser Stephen Miller.
Reporter Jennifer Mendelsohn tracked down Miller’s genealogy. She discovered that Miller’s father’s father’s mother — his great-grandmother, Sarah Miller — was identified in the 1910 Census as speaking only Yiddish.
What’s more, the Los Angeles Times obituary for Miller’s grandmother Freya makes special mention of how her parents, Nathan and Frannie Baker, “epitomized the American Dream.”
“Teaching each other English, working together to build a nest egg, the two immigrants eventually bought a small grocery store,” it reads. “The Baker Family lived upstairs and all the family worked in the store. Freya, and her two brothers, were educated in the superb public school system.”
Other senior Trump officials have family trees that suggest ancestors who may have been barred entry at Ellis Island.
Kellyanne Conway’s great-grandfather was named Pasquale Lombardo and was born in Naples, Italy. A man of that name and the proper age is identified in the 1910 Census as living in Pennsylvania and working as a blast furnace laborer who spoke only Italian.
Stephen K. Bannon’s great-great-grandfather was a man named Mattias Herr, who was born in Bavaria in 1836 before moving to Maryland. It’s not clear whether he spoke English or knew a skilled trade.
Mike Pence — like many Americans — is also the grandchild of an immigrant. His mother’s father, Richard Michael Cawley, immigrated to the United States from Ireland to work as a bus driver. He did speak English, though, and likely would have cleared admission under the Raise Act.
As mentioned above, though, at least one member of Trump’s Cabinet didn’t. Elaine Chao, Trump’s secretary of transportation (and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), was born in Taiwan and came to the United States in 1961, when she was 8.
She described that transition in a CNN interview last month.
“I remember how tough it was to try to learn a new culture, a new language and just to adapt to, like, ordinary daily stuff like the food. Like, most Chinese don’t eat meat between breads,” she said. As she tried to learn the language, “the kids were mean to me,” she said.
Her father, who spoke English, was already in the United States when Chao and her mother and sisters arrived, working in the maritime industry. Would that have been enough to warrant admission? To bring over his family?
This, it seems, was Acosta’s point: Doesn’t two centuries of experience show that people who arrive in America without the ability to speak English or a highly skilled trade can have a significant impact on the future of the country?
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