Immigration has defined the presidential campaign more than any other issue. But lost in the rancor over deportations, border walls, and anchor babies is that more than a third of the 2016 candidates—including some of those who spout the most virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric—are themselves children or spouses of immigrants.
That’s eight candidates in all: six Republicans, one Democrat, and one former Democrat strongly hinting at an independent run.
The number of candidates with immigrant family members is “remarkable and without precedent,” Robert Watson, a professor at Lynn University who’s written dozens of books on the presidency, told me. “The only thing you could look at is if you go back to the beginning of the country,” when more of the population had recently arrived from abroad, he said.
One reason is that the number of immigrants living in the U.S. has risen dramatically over the last few decades. Previous generations of immigrants, like those from Ireland and Italy, were less likely to register to vote, and racist exclusion laws prevented some groups like Chinese immigrants from gaining citizenship and voting rights.
“This should be a loud sign, a neon sign, a major symbolic statement about how the country has matured,” Watson said. “This is not your grandparents’ presidential campaign.”
The family histories of the 2016 candidates give us a fascinating glimpse at the diversity of American immigrants, from refugees to revolutionaries to nuclear physicists. But having an immigrant or two in the family tree doesn’t mean that you support pro-immigration policies, as our first candidate proves:
Melania Trump, wife (Slovenia) & Mary MacLeod Trump, mother (Scotland)
Sealing off the country from outsiders has been the lodestone of Trump’s bombastic campaign since its opening moments, when he lambasted Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. Trump doesn’t mention as often that he’s the son of an immigrant and is married to one.
Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, emigrated from Scotland. She met New York real estate developer Fred C. Trump during a visit to the Big Apple when she was 18, and married him a few years later. MacLeod became a philanthropist, supporting many local charities, and died in 2000.
Trump’s wife, the former Melania Knauss, who has been mostly absent from the campaign trail, moved to New York about 20 years ago. A model and jewelry designer, she came to the U.S. after signing with a Milan modeling agency.
Trump’s first wife, Ivana, was also an Eastern European immigrant, having moved from Czechoslovakia. She and Trump married in 1977; she became a citizen 11 years later.
Melania got her citizenship in 2006, a year after she married Trump. “She went through a long process to become a citizen. It was very tough,” Trump told CNN. “When she got it, she was very proud of it. She came from Europe, and she was very, very proud of it. And she thinks it’s a beautiful process when it works.”
And Melania agrees with his immigration position, he said.
Columba Bush, wife (Mexico)
Jeb Bush met his future wife, Columba Garnica de Gallo, on a high school trip to León, Mexico. As a student at the elite Phillips Academy, he fell in love with Columba at first sight at age 17. “I was struck by lightning,” he later told The Boston Globe.
Columba was raised by a divorced single mother, and a Spanish-language biography of her claimed her father was abusive to her and her mother. Bush proposed to her in Spanish on a trip to Mexico City after he graduated college. When they married in 1974, she didn’t speak any English. She only met George H. W. Bush, Jeb’s father, the weekend of their wedding.
The couple lived in Venezuela, where Bush worked for a bank, and then in Miami, where Bush launched his political career. Columba was naturalized as an American citizen in 1979, in part to vote for her father-in-law, who ran for president in 1980.
As Florida’s first lady, she advocated for causes like supporting artists and fighting domestic violence. She has a low-key presence on the campaign trail, appearing at a few events but seeming to shy away from publicity.
Bush has some of the most pro-immigrant policies of the Republican field, supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. While he says he wants to secure the border, he called illegal border crossing an “act of love” in a speech last year.
At the second Republican debate, Bush said he took personally Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, and demanded that Trump apologize to Columba. (Trump did not.) “We’re at a crossroads right now,” Bush said. “Are we going to take the Reagan approach, the hopeful optimistic approach, the approach that says that, you come to our country legally, you pursue your dreams with a vengeance, you create opportunities for all of us? Or the Donald Trump approach? The approach that says that everything is bad, that everything is coming to an end.”
Mario Rubio Reina and Oriales Garcia Rubio, parents (Cuba)
At the third Republican debate last week, Rubio said the immigration system should be based on merit, not whether immigrants have family here: “It has to be based on what skills you have, what you can contribute economically, and most important of all, on whether or not you’re coming here to become an American, not just live in America, but be an American.”
If such a policy had been in effect in 1956, Rubio’s parents might not have been allowed into the country. Mario Rubio Reina and Oriales Garcia Rubio came from Cuba to the U.S. seeking better economic conditions without speaking much English and without much education. They weren’t citizens when Rubio was born in 1971, and didn’t naturalize until 1975.
In stump speeches and his Senate biography, Rubio, who’s never visited Cuba, has suggested that his family emigrated after Castro took over. But The Washington Post uncovered their immigration documents in 2011, and Rubio corrected his narrative.
While Rubio doesn’t support ending birthright citizenship, he says he’s open to reforms to prevent what he called abuses. He pushed for immigration reform in 2013 but abandoned that effort under pressure from his party. He says he still supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He also told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos that he wouldn’t immediately end Obama’s executive action deferring deportation for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children.
“This is the nation that literally changed the history of my family,” Rubio said at the debate. While his immigration policies aren’t as drastic as some of his rivals, they’d change the history of thousands of other families who might be barred from the U.S.
Rafael Cruz, father (Cuba)
Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, took a circuitous, 50-year path from his native Cuba to U.S. citizenship. But the younger Cruz’s immigration policies might make it harder for nontraditional immigrants like his father to earn citizenship.
As a teen, Rafael Cruz joined Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries fighting to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. According to Cruz, he was jailed and beaten by Batista’s army. Rafael Cruz escaped the island in 1957 with a scholarship and a four-year student visa from the University of Texas. Like Rubio’s parents, he left before Castro took power, unlike the large majority of Cuban exiles in the U.S.
“I came to this country legally,” Rafael told NPR in 2013. “I came here with a legal visa, and … every step of the way, I have been here legally.”
When he arrived in Texas, Rafael had just $100. He learned English on his own and washed dishes seven days a week. He won political asylum once his student visa ran out, got a green card, and married Eleanor Darragh Wilson, an American citizen from Delaware. The family moved to Canada when Rafael went to work in the oil industry, and Ted was born there, in Calgary. Rafael worked eight years before returning to the U.S.
While he was in Canada, Rafael became a Canadian citizen. He renounced that citizenship in 2005 when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Some have wondered whether Cruz, born in Canada, is a “natural-born citizen” of the U.S., the constitutional requirement to be president. But his mother was always an American citizen, and constitutional scholars agree that that’s enough to satisfy the requirement.
Under Cruz’s immigration policy, undocumented immigrants living here would be given legal status after the border was secured, but not a path to citizenship. He also supports ending birthright citizenship.
Aldo Santorum, father (Italy)
When Aldo Santorum immigrated to the U.S. in 1930 from northern Italy, Benito Mussolini was at the height of his power. Leaving helped him escape being drafted into the dictator’s army.
But the Santorum family also experienced the downside of the American immigration system. Aldo and his mother had to wait in Italy for seven years after Rick Santorum’s grandfather Pietro was allowed to come to Pennsylvania in 1923. The family was reunited in 1930 after Pietro became a naturalized citizen. “America was worth the wait,” Santorum quotes his father as saying.
Pietro, who fought for Austria-Hungary during World War I, knew Hitler and thought he was a “loudmouth, idiot,” Santorum told the Daily Caller. The immigrant was a coal miner who worked until he was 72, the senator recalled during his 2012 campaign. Pietro was also, according to current Santorum family members living in Italy, a “red communist to the core”—not the best family connection to have in a Republican primary.
Santorum opposes granting undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and he would end birthright citizenship, arguing that increased immigration leads to more unemployment.
Amar Jindal and Raj Gupta, parents, and Supriya Jolly Jindal, wife (India)
Bobby Jindal might be described as an “anchor baby” by some of his rivals for the Republican nomination. His parents, Amar Jindal and Raj Gupta, emigrated from Punjab, India, to the U.S. in 1971, after his mother got a scholarship at Louisiana State University. They left while his mother was pregnant with him, and he was born four months after his parents arrived in Baton Rouge. Born Piyush, he chose the name Bobby as a child.
His parents were lecturers at an Indian engineering college when they left. His mother, Raj, studied nuclear physics and later worked for the Louisiana state government, and his father, Amar—the only one of nine siblings to get past the fifth grade—got his physics doctorate and worked as a civil engineer.
His wife, Supriya Jolly Jindal, is also an Indian immigrant, born in New Delhi, who grew up in Louisiana. She’s a chemical engineer and the only first spouse in the country with an engineering degree, according to Jindal’s website.
The couple went to high school together but didn’t speak again until he asked her to a Mardi Gras dance in 1996. They married a few months later.
Some Indians and Indian-Americans are unhappy with what they say are his attempts to avoid his immigrant past. Residents of his father’s village celebrated Jindal’s victory as the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history, The Washington Post reported, but he and his family haven’t visited the country since.
Jindal has called for an end to birthright citizenship, even though that’s the reason he’s a citizen. His response to a question about immigration at the second Republican debate perhaps best illustrates his conception of his immigrant history: “We need to insist on assimilation in immigration,” he said. “My parents came here legally almost 45 years ago. They came here, they followed the rule of law. They knew English, they adopted the values. They didn’t come here to be hyphenated Americans. They’re not Indian-Americans. They’re not Asian-Americans.”
Jindal’s dismissal of “hyphenated Americans” rejects the experience of many immigrants to the U.S. who have thrived without giving up their own culture and background.
Eli Sanders, father (Poland)
A paint salesman from Poland, Eli Sanders came to New York as a teenager. “My father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket and without much of an education,” Bernie Sanders said in a speech last month. “Like immigrants before and since, he worked hard to give his family a better life here in the United States.”
Eli married New Yorker Dorothy Glassberg, and the future senator and his brother grew up in a small, rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn.
“When Bernie went to visit his ancestral home in Poland years ago, it turned out a lot of his relatives were victims of the Holocaust,” Sanders campaign adviser Tad Devine told the Observer. “One of the reasons his father left Poland was the threat of dire economic circumstances.”
Sanders’ stances on immigration have left some activists disappointed. He helped kill a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007, arguing that increased competition from abroad would hurt American workers. For 2016, he’s charted a more pro-immigrant tone, vowing to expand Obama’s executive actions deferring deportations for some undocumented immigrants.
Hong Le Webb, wife (Vietnam)
Jim Webb—the former Virginia senator who dropped out of the Democratic primary last month and is mulling a run as an independent—has made almost no mark in the presidential race. His only memorable moment was his suggestion at the first Democratic debate that he had killed someone during the Vietnam War.
What many don’t know is that Webb also has a Vietnamese wife, whom he met decades after the war. Hong Le and her family left their small village of Vung Tau in a fishing boat in the middle of the night just after the fall of Saigon in 1975. They lived in two refugee camps and eventually settled in New Orleans. Meanwhile, her future husband was fighting in the war.
“He says that if [U.S. troops] hadn’t rescued me, I’d be snaggletoothed and selling pencils on the streets of Saigon,” Hong Le told The Washington Post in 2006. “It wouldn’t be too far from the truth. If I’d stayed behind in Vietnam, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
A corporate lawyer, she’s now a consultant for a think tank. She’s fluent in Mandarin and Vietnamese. (Webb also speaks some Vietnamese.)
They met while doing business together, and married in 2005. Hong Le campaigned for Webb during his Senate race, and some see her as one of his closest advisers. She raised eyebrows when financial disclosure statements showed a PAC chaired by Webb has paid approximately $90,000 to Hong Le and her daughters.