Why Are Children and Grandchildren of Immigrants So Eager to Keep Immigrants Out?

Megan Smolenyak
Mar 21, 2018 · 10 min read
Carl Wilhelm Mentzendorff, grandfather of Bob Goodlatte (Ancestry)

I should have known. Of course his grandfather was an immigrant. After all, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) is the sponsor of Securing America’s Future Act, a bill which would drastically cut legal immigration, do little to protect DREAMers, cost a fortune, harm the American economy, and more.

Having researched the roots of other anti-immigrant politicians, operatives, and pundits, I’ve noticed a peculiar pattern. It’s those whose families have arrived in America within the last generation or two who are often the keenest to slam the door shut on those coming today.

The most conspicuous example is the President. Trump’s mother was an immigrant, as were his paternal grandparents. His mother only became an American citizen four years before he was born, and yet, he’s opposed to others having the same opportunities. Nor is he an unusual case. Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar, Steve King, Marco Rubio — the list goes on. All children and/or grandchildren of immigrants.

Naturalization records of Trump’s Scottish mother and German grandfather (FamilySearch)

Meet Carl, Goodlatte’s Immigrant Grandfather

So it didn’t surprise me when I began climbing the lowest branches of Goodlatte’s family tree and learned that his maternal grandfather, Carl Wilhelm Mentzendorff, was an immigrant. At this point, I almost expect it. But I hadn’t anticipated the tale that was waiting to be uncovered — a classic example of the unintended consequences of Congressional overreach in the realm of immigration.

Born in Riga, Russia (now Latvia where the Mentzendorff House can still be toured), Carl came from a merchant family that had been involved in navigation, spirits, and other businesses for generations. Sometime during his youth, his immediate family moved to Switzerland and Germany, and he became a Swiss citizen (as fate would have it, a fortunate choice). A world traveler, he first came to North America in 1911 destined for Winnipeg, Canada as a student, and perhaps that would have become his home base if he hadn’t met a well-to-do young woman from Kentucky the following year. It may have been during her European jaunt or in New York City upon her return, but somehow, Carl met Marguerite Burford in 1912.

On January 14, 1914, he officially arrived in America, and was asked the usual questions. Had he ever been to the United States before, and if so, when and where? Yes, he had, but couldn’t recall the specifics — a little odd, given that he had been here twice the previous year. What relative or friend was he going to join? He replied that he was going to his friend, Mrs. Burford in Louisville, Kentucky.

Arrival record of C. Wilhelm Mentzendorff as seen on Ancestry.com

For those who might be surprised by this, it bears mentioning that “chain migration” used to be broader and more flexible than family reunification. Immigrants could join not only family members, but friends and acquaintances, which makes it somewhat disingenuous that Goodlatte’s proposed act aims to restrict family reunification to spouses and minor children. By this standard, his own grandfather would have been turned away (as would Trump’s Scottish mother and German grandfather, both of whom were going to siblings who were already here, and the immigrant ancestors of so many other high profile, anti-immigrant individuals).

Six weeks later, his “friend,” Mrs. Burford, would become his mother-in-law when he married her daughter, but one wonders whether they had thought through the ramifications.

Grandma Loses Her Citizenship

As soon as I realized that Carl married Kentucky-born Marguerite in 1914, my memory bank sent out a flare. Wasn’t this that time period when …? Yes, it was. By marrying a foreigner, Marguerite had lost her American citizenship.

Carl and Marguerite, daughter of father Stonewall Jackson Burford (name misspelled above) married in 1914 (26 Feb 1914, Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, Newspapers.com)

Thanks to bad timing, Goodlatte’s grandparents had fallen into one of the pitfalls of the Expatriation Act of 1907. A mostly forgotten piece of legislation intended to clarify citizenship situations for Americans with foreign connections, it included a provision that stripped American women of their citizenship should they marry a foreigner. As explained by Kristen Anderson:

“Marriage to foreign men was perceived as a great threat to American society during the early 20th century, as anti-immigrant sentiment swelled in response to increases in both the number and diversity of immigrants. Thus it seems likely that this act was partially intended to deter American women from marrying foreign men and to punish those who did so. As Congressman N. E. Kendall would put it in a 1912 hearing on the Expatriation Act: “We do not want our girls to marry foreigners.””¹

This poorly thought out law was in effect for 15 years — from 1907 to 1922 — and created a world of hurt for those it ensnared, including Goodlatte’s grandmother. But wait, there’s more.

What about Goodlatte’s mother, I wondered. Was she American? Iffy. Born in Kentucky in 1916 to a mother who had been born there in 1891 to parents who were also native-born, Doris’s paper trail nevertheless indicates that she was considered a Swiss national. It’s unclear whether this was for strictly legal reasons, differing perspectives of the American and Swiss governments, her father’s preference, or a combination of these factors, but the root of the confusion stems from politicians’ overzealous efforts to hold immigration at bay.

World War I draft registration for Carl Wm Mentzendorff (Ancestry)

Presumably then, Carl would have wanted to get naturalized as soon as possible, not only for his own sake, but for that of his family. The first chance came, oddly enough, with World War I. As described by USCIS:

“During World War I, nearly one-fifth of the American armed forces were foreign-born. To encourage immigrant enlistments and to naturalize servicemen before they shipped out, Congress passed laws to expedite military naturalizations.

These naturalization laws exempted soldiers from having five years of U.S. residency, filing a declaration (or “first papers”), speaking English, and taking history and civics exams. Soldiers could go to any court in the nation to naturalize and, under the expedited system, could become a citizen in just one day. Eventually, more than 300,000 soldiers and veterans of WWI became U.S. citizens under these laws.”

Carl could have availed himself of this expedited citizenship, but instead claimed an exemption due to his family. While World War I raged across the continent where his parents and other family members lived, he ran the Mentzendorff Baby Shop in Louisville.

The family also dodged a metaphorical bullet. Before coming to America, Carl had swapped his Russian nationality for Swiss, but could have just as easily selected German since his family was living in Dresden, Germany at the time of his departure. Had he done so, the Mentzendorff family could have been declared enemy aliens during World War I, a designation which would have jeopardized Carl and Marguerite’s business and even resulted in internment.

Lying Under Oath (and Otherwise)

Shortly after the war ended in November 1918, Carl, along with his wife and children, went to Europe. We know this from documents recording their return to the U.S. in August of 1919.

1919 Swiss emigration card giving Zuoz, Switzerland as the last residence of Goodlatte’s mother (Ancestry)
August 1919 arrival of Goodlatte’s mother (and family) in New York noting her Swiss nationality (Ancestry)

On October 30th of that year, he petitioned for naturalization, but in so doing, lied in his paperwork. One of the requirements for citizenship — dating back to 1795 — is five years of continuous residence in the United States, but as we’ve just seen, the Mentzendorff family spent a chunk of 1919 in Europe. In fact, they had just arrived back in New York ten weeks earlier, but Carl made no mention of that trip and professed to have resided non-stop in the U.S. since January of 1914. Rather than admit this or start the clock again, he swore an affidavit under oath saying he hadn’t left America since 1914 or Kentucky since 1915.

Once again, luck was on Carl’s side. Just a few years earlier, an immigrant ancestor of Tomi Lahren’s (a conservative pundit) was prosecuted for making a false statement about a timing issue of this nature in his naturalization application. He was caught because he had doctored a date, but Carl seems to have paid no price for flat out lying. It could be that no one noticed or maybe his affluence allowed him a wink-wink-nudge-nudge scenario where those in the know looked the other way. Either way, this might help explain why he kept lying.

Carl falsely certified that he had continuously resided in the U.S. since January 1914 (Ancestry)

Several months later in January 1920, Carl — or possibly his wife — deliberately misled the census taker and identified themselves as U.S. citizens. Specifically, Carl was said to have arrived in 1914 and become American in 1916, even though he was still in the midst of the naturalization process. At least the Mentzendorffs hadn’t done it under oath this time, but there was still more prevaricating to come.

Incidentally, this citizenship question which prompted Goodlatte’s grandparents to provide false information about their status hasn’t been included in the census since 1950, but the current administration wants to add it back in 2020.

1920 census showing Mentzendorff’s naturalization as having occurred in 1916 (Ancestry)

Later in 1920, Carl, Marguerite and their children finally became American citizens, and almost immediately began to make plans to return to Europe. In January of 1921, they announced that they would be closing their baby shop in Louisville, and later that year, obtained passports with the intention of going to Holland, Switzerland and Latvia for up to a year. That’s when Carl lied yet again about his supposed continuous residence in the United States, this time asserting that he had done so “uninterruptedly” for the past seven years, but as in the past, there were no apparent repercussions.

27 January 1921, Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY (Newspapers.com)
Carl claimed uninterrupted residency in his 15 September 1921 passport application (Ancestry)

In March 1921, Carl and Marguerite had another daughter. She was the fourth to be born on American soil, but the first to be born an indisputably American citizen. Take a moment to absorb that. As a result of an earlier round of anti-immigrant fervor and resulting legislation, an American woman was stripped of her citizenship and three of her children, all born in America, were recorded and regarded as citizens of a country they had never been to.

Passports in hand, the entire family ventured on a prolonged trip to Europe, only returning in February 1923. At this point, the family seems to have finally settled in the United States, though they moved from Kentucky to New Jersey. Carl kept globe-trotting, leaving a trail of passenger lists in his wake, but retained his ill-gotten American citizenship.

Mentzendorff family passport photo, 1921. Goodlatte’s mother is the girl on the left. (Ancestry)

Another Emerging Pattern?

To sum up, Carl lived in at least five countries (Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, and the United States) and had been a citizen of three of these by his early thirties — averaging a nationality every 11 years. His wife lost her American citizenship by marrying him, but he opted to avoid service in WWI, even though it provided a short-cut to naturalization for his family. Instead, he went back to Europe in 1919 disrupting the path to American citizenship. Rather than accept the consequences, he lied on at least three occasions, twice under oath.

You’d think that Goodlatte, the son and grandson of women who were adversely affected by previous, unreasonably harsh immigration law, and whose grandfather lied his way into American citizenship, might be more sympathetic to today’s immigrants, but instead, he’s leading the charge to pull up the drawbridge.

On the surface, it makes no sense, but I’ve seen this before. Trump’s immigrant grandfather ping-ponged around three countries (Germany → US→ Canada → US → Germany → US→ Germany→ US), ultimately returning to America because his homeland of Germany booted him for having skipped out on his mandatory military service. Similarly, Ted Cruz’s immigrant father bounced around three countries (Cuba → US→ Canada → US → Canada → US). Though his move to Canada and Canadian citizenship are attributed to opportunities in the oil industry, it also coincided with the Vietnam War and came shortly after Cruz Sr. completed his Vietnam-era, military draft card. The family returned to America in the mid-1970s, but he didn’t become an American citizen until 2005, which seems tardy given that he had been granted political asylum by the United States back in 1961.

Almost as soon as I began delving into the family histories of immigrant-averse politicians, I noticed that a surprising number of them were children or grandchildren of immigrants. And though it never would have occurred to me to go looking for this, as I continue to dig, I seem to be accidentally unearthing a contingent of immigrant ancestors whose national loyalties were fluid and given to whichever country could offer them the greatest advantage at a particular time. Perhaps because their allegiance was to opportunities, rather than a result of patriotism, an avoidance of military service seems to come along for the ride.

I’ve tripped across this three times so far — maybe not enough to declare a pattern, but certainly enough to make one ponder. Decades of research have convinced me that non-physical traits such as wanderlust and musicality are passed down through families. Could it be that this liquid loyalty-of-personal-convenience can be too, and that denying others the possibilities the American dream gave their own families is simply one manifestation?

¹ One can’t help but notice the echoes of this kind of thinking in people today like Tucker Carlson.

Related articles: Pence, Coulter, Chain Migration

Megan Smolenyak

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Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! 6 books, 20+ TV shows, former Ancestry.com Chief Family Historian, cold case sleuth for many.