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How ‘chain migration’ brought us the Trump White House

President Trump arrives at a plenary session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

For those looking to emigrate to the United States, connections are everything. If you have a family member who is a citizen or a green-card holder, you can — under certain circumstances — be given priority consideration for entry to the country.

American citizens can petition on behalf of spouses, children (married or not), parents and siblings for green cards. They can also petition for fiances and spouses’ children for certain types of visas. Green-card holders have a narrower set of relationships for which they can petition, limited to spouses and unmarried children.

What this means is that a citizen could sponsor a sibling for a green card and, if granted, that sibling could then sponsor his or her child. That child could then sponsor his or her eventual spouse, and so on. This is the system that President Trump has taken to describing as “chain migration,” a system that he and his administration present as a scourge that necessitates action by the government. (Proponents of the system prefer the term “family reunification.”) A proposal from the administration sent to Capitol Hill last week suggested that the green-card-holder limits on petitions apply to everyone, dramatically scaling back the number of people who could see facilitated entry to the United States.

There’s an irony to this policy shift, though. A number of prominent members of the Trump administration have ancestors who are only in the country because they came to join members of their families who would be excluded from sponsoring them under the new proposal.

Donald Trump

Trump has benefited from what could be called “chain migration” on both sides of his family. (It’s important to note that it was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that established the existing standards regarding family relationships. Most of the migration described in this article preceded that law.)

His mother, Mary Anne Macleod migrated to the United States in 1930 from Scotland at the age of 18. She joined her sister Catherine Macleod (who had married a butler named George Reid) in Astoria, Queens, as reported by the Scottish paper the National.

“The National can reveal that Mary Anne had been issued with immigration visa no. 26698 at Glasgow on February 17, 1930,” reporter Martin Hannan writes. “On the passenger list for all aliens … Mary Anne states she will be living with her sister Mrs Catherine Reid, 3520 6th Avenue, Astoria, Long Island.” That document also indicated that Macleod intended to become an American citizen. (That’s the second yes on the image below. The “Perm” refers to the length of stay.)

In 1936, Mary Anne Macleod married Trump’s father, Fred.

Fred Trump’s father — the president’s grandfather — was named Friedrich and himself immigrated in 1885. He, too, appears to have arrived in New York City to be welcomed by his sister. The book “The Trumps” by Gwenda Blair describes Friedrich’s arrival in Manhattan’s Castle Garden facility:

Friedrich Trump presented his papers, had them stamped, and found himself shoved into the grimy central rotunda. In the eerie half-light of gas lamps, officials shouted the names of those who had mail or, if they were fortunate, friends and relatives there in person. When “Friedrich Trump” rang out, the slim, light-haired youth jumped up and dashed over to the waiting room. His older sister, who had Americanized her name to Katherine, and her husband, Peter Schuster, stood there, smiling and teary eyed.

Friedrich Trump quickly found work as a barber, eventually moving west and making a fortune off the Yukon gold rush.

If Trump’s proposed rules applied, neither Trump’s paternal grandfather nor his mother would be allowed to enter the United States, since each came to meet a sibling already here.

Mike Pence

In a post at Medium, genealogy researcher Megan Smolenyak walked through Pence’s family background.

Pence’s maternal grandfather, Richard Cawley, came to the United States in 1923, according to Smolenyak’s research, joining his brother, James, who had arrived eight years earlier. James’s arrival at the age of 16 was predicated on joining his aunt, a woman identified in immigration documents only as “Mrs. Schnorr” of Illinois.

Neither of those relationships would qualify under the Trump administration’s proposed rules.

Richard Cawley’s eventual wife, Pence’s grandmother, was Mary Elizabeth Maloney, whose parents had themselves immigrated from Ireland. Our attempts to find their immigration records were unsuccessful.

Stephen Miller

The face of Trump’s immigration policy is Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president who’d previously worked in the office of Attorney General Jeff Sessions when Sessions served in the Senate. It was Miller who, last year, presented an initial immigration plan at a White House news briefing and who has repeatedly been described as the hard-liner behind much of Trump’s rhetoric.

Miller is the great-grandson of a man named Sam Glosser, as reported by Jewish Journal. Glosser was one of a family of retailers in Johnstown, Pa., son of a man named Wolf Lieb Glotzer.

The elder Glotzer came to the United States from Belarus in 1903. The documentation of his arrival in the United States includes the person who he joined here: his brother-in-law, Schmuel Levine.

The book “Long Live Glosser’s,” about the retail stores that the family founded, indicates that Wolf Glotzer’s son Nathan soon joined him in the United States. It was Nathan who ended up in Johnstown and started the store.

In 1906, Sam Glosser arrived in the United States on the Ryndam, along with his mother and two siblings. They listed Wolf Glotzer as their point of contact.

Glotzer’s arrival wouldn’t have met Trump’s standard for entry. But once here, he could have petitioned for Sam Glosser — under 21 and unmarried — to join him.

Dan Scavino

Trump relies on social media to promote his policy messages, and, save the tweets that Trump himself composes, that means relying on social media director Dan Scavino.

For Politico, genealogy researcher Jennifer Mendelsohn looked at the Scavino family’s history.

His great-grandfather Gildo Scavino was born in Italy in 1884. Mendelsohn writes:

Gildo Scavino was part of a classic chain of immigrants that began with his older brother Vittorio (or Victor, as he would come to be known) who arrived at Ellis Island in 1904 with his wife Camilla. The records indicate that Vittorio had come on a business trip, but he apparently stayed on, because the following March, when brother Ettore (who would become Hector) arrived from Canelli, he listed brother Vittorio, at an address on E. 59th Street in New York City, as his point of contact.

Gildo Scavino arrived in 1913, accompanied by Vittorio (now going by Victor).

Under the existing rules, Victor Scavino could sponsor Gildo Scavino’s green card. Under the new rules Scavino’s great-grandson is responsible for promoting, he can’t.


We looked at a few other White House staffers as well. Communications Director Hope Hicks is the descendant of families from Tennessee and South Carolina (by way of Connecticut). Legislative director Marc Short is the offspring of a long-standing Virginia family. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s family is from Massachusetts, but it was difficult to learn much beyond that. (Feel free to email us with insights.)

Perhaps the most interesting immigrant story is Jared Kushner’s. His paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1949, after surviving the Holocaust. His grandmother, Rae Kushner, was instrumental in helping orchestrate a mass escape from a Nazi-controlled ghetto. She helped construct a tunnel that allowed hundreds of Jews to escape with their lives.

In an interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington given in 1982, Kushner laments that the policies of the United States during the war made it hard for refugees from Nazi-controlled areas to immigrate.

“For the Jews, the doors were closed,” she said. “We never understood that. Even President Roosevelt kept the doors closed. Why? The boat, St. Louis, was turned back. What was the world afraid of? I don’t understand.”

The issue of how refugees are treated by the administration of which her grandson is a part is a subject for a different article.