Their Own Two Feet

Jennifer Mendelsohn
12 min readAug 30, 2019
via @usciscuccinelli on Twitter.

As the new public face of the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies, acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli has wasted no time stirring up collective ire. Most notably, he set off a firestorm of criticism by rewriting the iconic Emma Lazarus poem that has long functioned as a kind of unofficial American immigration mantra. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he proudly told NPR’s Rachel Martin, who somehow resisted the urge to burst out laughing and/or slap him upside the head. (You can read several historians’ takes on the public charge rule here, but suffice it to say that the concept, which was meant to weed out only the very, very least desirable of immigrants, has never been enforced as rigorously as Cuccinelli is suggesting.)

Cuccinelli later elaborated that Lazarus’ poem was “referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.” Wink wink, nudge, nudge, we hear you! And if you had the word “Europe” in Bigotry Bingo, drink!

For the past two years, I’ve run a project called #resistancegenealogy, which looks at the family histories of public figures in order to show just how similar so many of our stories really are. Cuccinelli’s very public numbskullery definitely set a new record: never before I have I received so many texts, tweets, emails and Facebook messages from people so eager to learn about someone’s family tree. (Side note: Never before have I seen so many people who’ve never done genealogy try to do it themselves and get it so very very wrong. You realize more than one person in a town can have the same name, right? And that not all records are online? And that other people’s public family trees are very often…wrong? Here, read this.)

And never before has a family history — or at least the Italian half of that history that I’ll address here — been so utterly unsurprising. I mean, where did you all think the story of the Cuccinelli family of Hoboken, New Jersey was going to go, really? C’mon now.

And so, here I am, just a girl with some documents, standing in front of her country, asking it not to betray its immigrant past. Asking it to remember that welcoming the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” even…

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Jennifer Mendelsohn

Old school journo. #resistancegenealogy creator. Recovering Long Islander. No, your name wasn’t changed at Ellis Island.