Immigration hardliner Ron DeSantis’ great-great-grandmother was nearly barred from America
"A Florida-based genealogist traced DeSantis' family tree from Italy to America. His great-great-grandmother just made it in.
Few Republicans in Congress are more closely aligned with President Donald Trump on immigration policy than U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.
As a lawmaker and now a candidate for governor, he has advocated for building Trump's border wall and closing the door on programs that allow family of recent immigrants into the country.
A century ago, the door was almost closed on his great-great-grandmother from his mother's side of the family.
Luigia Colucci left Italy in early 1917 and arrived at Ellis Island on Feb. 21. While Colucci crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917. Among other restrictions on "undesirable" immigrants, it barred illiterate people from entering the United States.
Colucci couldn't read or write, according to immigration documents. But she was spared; the law didn't go into effect until May. She was allowed in.
The details of Luigia Colucci's journey were unearthed by Megan Smolenyak, a professional genealogist, and recently published on Medium. A former chief historian for Ancestry.com, Smolenyak has consulted for the U.S. Army to locate family members of more than 1,200 unaccounted for soldiers of foreign conflicts and has also worked on television shows, like the NBC series, Who Do You Think You Are?, where celebrities trace their heritage.
Lately, though, she and other genealogists are researching the origin stories of immigration hardliners. They have found that many of the staunchest critics of illegal immigration have ancestors who couldn't meet today's standards to enter the country. Some couldn't meet the standards of the time period when they arrived, but found a way in anyway.
For example, Smolenyak discovered that the grandfather of Rep. Bob Goodlatte lied during his naturalization process. He was still given citizenship. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and the chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, has said he doesn't support a pathway to citizenship for "those who have broken our immigration laws."
"I've researched thousands of family trees and it's rare to find documented instances of immigration hiccups or problems," Smolenyak said. "And yet it keeps on coming up in the families of people who are trying to slam the doors of people trying to come here now."
Smolenyak, a Florida resident, took particular interest in DeSantis, who ran a tongue-in-cheek ad in which he builds Trump's border wall out of blocks with his young daughter. DeSantis is running against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the Aug. 28 Republican primary.
Her research into DeSantis is timely. Another family tree recently gained national attention: that of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump's immigration policies. Miller's uncle, David Glosser, published a widely circulated op-ed in Politicocriticizing his nephew and noting that his own ancestors arrived with $8 and couldn't speak English.
Miller's family also likely benefited from what conservatives often decry as chain migration, when one family member enters the country, allowing other family members to follow.
One of Smolenyak's peers first discovered Miller's lineage.
"These facts are important not only for their grim historical irony but because vulnerable people are being hurt," Glosser wrote. "They are real people, not the ghoulish caricatures portrayed by Trump."
DeSantis has called for the end of chain migration, and has sided with Trump's efforts to crack down on immigration through deportations and more border security. He has criticized legislation allowing a path to citizenship for those undocumented aliens already here.
"It's a slap in the face to people who come legally," DeSantis said at a June debate. His campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his family lineage.
Legal immigration by today's standards is not a fair comparison to those who came during the early 20th century, Smolenyak said. Yes, most came legally, she said, but they could enter through a port and the rules to enter were much more lax. Only 2 percent were turned away.
Smolenyak contends that DeSantis's great great grandmother's immigration story is not all that different from those showing up at the southern border today. Many are leaving parts of Central and South America ravaged by conflict and violence.
Luigia Colucci left Europe at the height of World War I. Emigration from Italy plummeted during the war, from more than 150,000 in 1914 to less than 18,000 in 1917, due to the threat of German submarines and other dangers.
Yet, Colucci, pregnant and joined by two teenage daughters, risked the journey. In the middle of winter, she boarded a steamliner named Patria and arrived in New York in late February. Because of her pregnancy, she was detained for a week before she and her daughters were allowed to join her husband in Pennsylvania.
Salvatore Storti, her husband, had been in the United States since 1904. There is no record of him returning to Italy.
Smolenyak wonders: Would Luigia's journey more than a decade after her husband arrived be considered chain migration by today's Republican Party? Would conservative hardliners call the child she gave birth to in the United States an "anchor baby"?
The goal of her research isn't to shame a politician or to declare "gotcha!" Smolenyak said. Rather, she hopes the subject can better see the human cost of the immigration debate.
"Many of people I research are beneficiaries of an immigration system that was kind of flexible and forgave little mistakes. If anything you would think they would be a little more compassionate," Smolenyak said. "That's what I'm trying to do, say, 'Look, this happened in your own family. Put yourself in their shoes and think about the people coming here today.'"