My friend Brian used to tell a charming story about the derivation of his last name. His paternal grandfather had been born “Dam.” But upon arriving at Ellis Island, the first thing Grandpa Harry saw was a fruit seller, so he changed his name on a whim to Fruchter, later changed again to the more easily spelled Frazer.
At least that was the story until I offered to help Brian with his family tree a few years ago. I found his grandfather’s birth record from Navariya, a town in the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Harry’s name at birth had in fact been Dam. But “Fruchter” was clearly listed on that 1904 document as well: it was his mother’s maiden name. And “Fruchter” was actually the surname printed on Harry’s Polish passport and the name he had given when he boarded the S.S. Paris in Le Havre to come to the United States in 1930, before ever setting foot on Ellis Island. It was all right there in black and white. “Fruit seller” indeed.
Myths and secrets — some benign in the “fruit seller” vein, some far more explosive — can burrow themselves into family narratives with surprising ferocity. But genealogists come along and unpack them. We turn up the hidden arrest records and the never-discussed babies who died in infancy. We know that Great-Aunt Sadie was really five years older than she let on and that Cousin Harold had a shotgun wedding. We know that Uncle Morris, who passed himself off as British even to his children, was born Jewish in Riga, Latvia. In genealogy, we always have receipts.
And it’s receipts that are sorely missing from the current debate over immigration policy. I’ve watched in dismay as the rhetoric has become both increasingly fraught and increasingly divorced from reality, with policy positions justified by little more than variations of urban legend-ish “fruit seller” stories.
Contemporary immigrants are demonized as bottom feeders living off “handouts,” uninterested in assimilation. They skulk their way into the country through what the right now calls “chain migration,” dragging hordes of unsavory associates across the border with them. As Mara Liasson of National Public Radio put it, “The message is immigrants are coming here to kill us.” (For the record, those “migrants” are simply people, and the “chain” they are part of is more often called a family.)
Immigrants of old, on the other hand, are beatified with nostalgic but grossly simplified generalizations: they worked 12 jobs and never took a penny of assistance from anyone. They effortlessly adapted to American life, casting off all traces of their native countries and burning the midnight oil to learn English as soon as possible. Oh, and they walked to school uphill both ways while carrying a hot potato.
“Legal Italian immigrants didn’t wave Italian flags coming into America,” reads one social media meme. “They didn’t riot and try to stop the election process. They didn’t try to make Americans speak Italian. They learned English.”
The objective truth that emerges from census documents, naturalization papers, ships’ manifests and the like is nuanced and messy. Besides, crowing about “legal” immigration from Europe prior to 1924 is essentially meaningless, as there were almost no laws in place for immigrants to break.
Were our immigrant forebears all model Americans? Spend any time perusing census records and you’ll see that many early 20th century immigrants never learned to speak English, some of them even after living here for decades. In 1911, a congressional commission published the results of a comprehensive three-year study of immigration. Of more than 246,000 immigrants working in mines and manufacturing, for instance, only slightly more than half, 53.2%, were able to speak English. Didn’t take handouts? The same commission found that, nationwide, roughly 38% of charity was given to immigrants. In 15 of the 43 cities studied, more than half of the charity recipients were immigrants.
Surely none of their descendants could possibly be among those now bashing immigrants for not learning English and draining the social services system, right?
The current nativist furor is shrouded by a puzzling selective amnesia. The founding narrative of our country is an immigrant narrative. “American culture” is an evolving amalgam — one built by eradicating native cultures and exploiting slave labor, to boot — so that the definition of “American” is always going to be a subjective moving target, at best.
Of course, nativism is nothing new. Without fail, every generation of newly assimilated Americans has looked down upon the next and considered pulling up the ladder behind them; it’s practically a rite of passage.
Benjamin Franklin, for instance, worried that the Germans in Pennsylvania would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” “Shortly?” That was in 1751. (The reference to complexion is hardly coincidental, either, as racism plays an undeniably troubling role in our immigration history.)
“Fifty, even thirty years ago, there was a rightful presumption regarding the average immigrant that he was among the most enterprising, thrifty, alert, adventurous, and courageous of the community from which he came,” bemoaned the Atlantic 145 years later. “Today the presumption is completely reversed.” Those words were published, incidentally, before President Trump’s Scottish mother and Vice President Pence’s Irish grandfather had even been born in their respective countries.
I’ve seen this particular trope play out in my own family: my “greenhorn” grandfather, who arrived in 1920, was belittled by his American wife’s sisters, who thought he was beneath them. One of those sisters was born in New York City in 1895, a mere four years after her mother had stepped off the boat from Ukraine. If that kind of entitlement can breed in just four years, imagine what can happen in 50 years. Or 100. Or 250.
When Rep. Steve King of Iowa asks how we can restore “our” civilization with “somebody else’s babies,” I say: “How do we define ‘our,’ exactly?” King’s grandmother was once one of those very babies, arriving steerage at Ellis Island from Germany in 1894 with her family. It’s all there on the ship’s manifest for the SS New York, which indicates they were headed to the United States for a “protracted sojourn.” I feel confident there wasn’t a fruit seller in sight.
Jennifer Mendelsohn is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and the creator of #resistancegenealogy, a project that highlights the unifying nature of our immigrant past.