The United States is — and has always been — a nation of immigrants. You wouldn't know it from some of the current rhetoric.

Donald Trump rode into presidential office on a promise to build a wall along the U.S. southern border and kick undocumented immigrants out of the country. Since becoming president, Trump has even taken aim at legal immigration, supporting plans to reduce the number of application approvals, ending the diversity lottery, and setting various "merit" benchmarks.

It's not just a Trump thing. This photo of an anti-immigration rally in California comes from 2006. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.


One genealogist decided to put things in perspective.

Jennifer Mendelsohn is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more. About five years ago, Mendelsohn took an interest in genealogy, using her skills as a reporter to hone a new craft: helping people track down long-lost relatives.

Since March 2017, Mendelsohn has been working on a new project she calls #ResistanceGenealogy, where she compares the statements and positions of prominent commentators and politicians with their own family tree to see how their ancestors would have fared under similar laws. Spoiler alert: not very well in most cases. Let's take a look at some of what she's found.

Hungarian immigrants arriving in America. Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images.

1. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who said "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."

In a tweet showing support for anti-immigration Netherlands politician Geert Wilders, King wrote that "culture and demographics are about destiny," adding that "we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies." Yikes!

Asked to clarify what he meant on CNN's "New Day," King doubled down. "I've said the same thing as far as 10 years ago to the German people and to any population of people that is a declining population that isn't willing to have enough babies to reproduce themselves. I’ve said to them, 'You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else's babies. You've got to keep your birth rate up and that you need to teach your children your values.'"

Mendelsohn was able to pull up records appearing to be from King's grandmother, Freda, marking her arrival in the U.S. in 1894. According to King's suggestion, the country would have been better off if she'd been kept out to allow for more U.S.-born children.

2. White House adviser Stephen Miller helped craft a policy using "English proficiency" in ranking immigration candidates.

Miller helped shape the RAISE Act, which would eliminate the "diversity lottery," implement a "merit-based" system, and prioritize applicants who speak English. In a January 2018 interview with Fox News, Miller said that his goal was an immigration system that "produces more assimilation."

By those standards, according to Mendelsohn's research, Miller's great-grandmother, who didn't speak English, probably wouldn't have been welcomed here (and neither would he).

3. Fox News host Tucker Carlson said, "Why does America benefit from having tons of people from failing countries come here?"

A conservative commentator and Fox News host, Carlson has a history of inflammatory comments about immigrants. In June 2017, he asked, "Why does America benefit from having tons of people from failing countries come here?" America has always billed itself as a land of opportunity where someone from what Carlson would call a "failing country" can work hard and live out their dreams. Carlson's own ancestors seem to have believed in that as well.

Mendelsohn dug up a letter that appears to be from a relative of Carlson's explaining why he came to America in the first place: "Partly because of the narrowness of opportunities ... I was seized at about this time of a violent desire to leave the country and seek my fortune in foreign parts."

4. Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio targeted suspected undocumented immigrants and mistreated inmates who couldn't speak English.

Arpaio took a lot of anti-immigrant actions during his time as Maricopa County Sheriff (the ACLU has a non-comprehensive list of some of his more egregious acts). In fact, it's how he built his reputation.

Of those, one move, discovered by the U.S. Justice Department, stands out: Arpaio singled out Latina inmates who couldn't speak English, denied them access to basic sanitary items, forced them to "remain with sheets or pants soiled from menstruation," and threw them in "solitary confinement for extended periods of time because of their inability to understand and thus follow a command given in English." His excuse? "They are in the United States, and they should start speaking English," he said in a 2006 interview.

As it turns out, according to Mendelsohn's research, Arpaio's immigrant ancestors didn't speak English for a long time after coming to the U.S. Additionally, Arpaio's well-documented disdain for "chain migration" (a derogatory term used to describe family-based immigration) seems especially hypocritical given that Mendelsohn found more than a dozen members of Arpaio's family who came to the country using that very method.

5. White House chief of staff John Kelly derided undocumented immigrants as people who "don't integrate well."

Kelly made news for comments about immigrants saying they are "not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society" and adding that "they don’t speak English ... they don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills."

According to Mendelsohn's research, Kelly's own great-grandfather had lived in the U.S. for 18 years, during which he didn't make an effort to become a citizen or speak English. It seems his own relatives are precisely the kind of people he says he doesn't want in the country.

6. Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren said, "Stop rewarding illegal behavior and put law-abiding Americans first."

"You don't just come into this country with low skills, low education, not understanding the language and come into our country because someone says it makes them feel nice," Lahren said on Fox News. "That's not what this country is based on."

In a tweet, she shrugged off suggestions that we should protect DACA beneficiaries, saying, "Or we could stop rewarding illegal behavior and put law-abiding Americans first."

Mendelsohn discovered that Lahren's own extended family wouldn't have lived up to the standards she set. Speaking English? Several lived in the country for decades without picking up the language. Not "rewarding illegal behavior"? Lahren's great-great-grandfather Constantin Dietrich was prosecuted for forging his own citizenship papers.

The truth is there's absolutely nothing new about this anti-immigrant rhetoric. It's just that the targets have changed over time.

Mendelsohn's Twitter feed is full of political cartoons dating back to the 1860s warning that immigrants pose a threat to American ideas, culture, and institutions. The idea that immigrants pose some sort of existential threat to the American way of life is as old as the country itself.

"One thing you learn very quickly when you spend as much time as I do immersed in genealogical records is that with a few notable exceptions — particularly African-Americans and Native Americans — every American family story pretty much goes back to an immigrant arriving on a boat in search of opportunity. It's just a question of how long ago it was," Mendelsohn says.

She hopes that by providing this much-needed historical context — by pointing out that the same stereotypes being used against immigrants now were once used against many of these critics' own ancestors — she can help bridge the gap between ideologies. Her project isn't about shaming anybody; it's about asking them to consider their own history.

"By using the historical record rather than relying on stereotypes and fear mongering ... people realize just how alike we all really are," she adds. "I want it to bring people together. Three of my grandparents were immigrants. My mother-in-law is an immigrant. My best friend's parents were both immigrants. I've always been incredibly proud of that."

A common rebuttal to Mendelsohn's work is that things were different back then and that people came here the right way. She has thoughts on that too.

"The 'legal' argument is specious because illegal immigration is a wholly contemporary concept," she says. "I recently saw a 1903 ship's manifest where a man said only that he was coming to America to meet a friend, 'address unknown.' Many of our ancestors pretty much waltzed in, only having to prove they were healthy and not criminals. That needs to be taken into consideration when you laud your ancestors for coming 'legally.' There's also a lot of mythologizing about our ancestors doing everything the 'right' way that evaporates when you look at the historical record."

Jennifer Mendelsohn. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Mendelsohn.

"Many of our ancestors cut corners as well. Many never learned English. Many never became citizens. There's no shame in that whatsoever. That what makes America America. People are people, and the immigrants hoping to come here today and realize the American dream are no different than our ancestors were, except that they may come from different parts of the world. Which is, of course, what many of these people are actually responding to."

In the end, the message is clear, and it is simple: We need to stop using fear to divide one another.

This comes up all the time. When announcing his run for president, Trump warned of immigrants who "have lots of problems," bringing drugs and crime to our country. Politically, maybe that message resonates with voters (he was elected, after all). Is that really who we want to be as a country, though?

"The bottom line is that there is a great fear and prejudice against immigrants, and it's the exact same fear and prejudice that has been directed against immigrants for centuries," Mendelsohn adds. "The people now speaking out against immigrants are, ironically, descended from people who were themselves discriminated against, and I'm here to remind them of that."

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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