Bring Me Your Rich, Your Criminals, Your Scheming Entrepreneurs Longing to be Free: Trump’s Hypocritical Immigration History


On August 9th, as hundreds of immigrant families continued to reel from Trump’s policy of child separation, First Lady Melania Trump’s parents were sworn in as citizens of the United States. Born in Slovenia, the Knavs were able to apply for a green card because Melania Trump sponsored them—a process known as chain migration that President Trump has long maligned. No matter that many immigrants have not been reunited with their children, despite a court order requiring the government to do so by July 26th. Instead of embodying the “evil” that Trump predicted chain migration would bring to the country, the Knavs’ lawyer called the practice “the bedrock of our immigration process.”

But the irony and hypocrisy that characterizes Trump’s immigration policy didn’t start on August 9th. In fact, Trump is here, as President of the United States, because of a long family history of flouting immigration law.

It all began with Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich, who fled Germany at age sixteen in order to get out of mandatory military service. When he arrived in the United States, he lied about his age in order to get citizenship. Then, in a series of unscrupulous business maneuvers that look nothing so much like Donald Trump’s own financial trajectory, Friedrich went onto run a Seattle-based “restaurant” better known for its below-board brothel; built another “short-stay” motel on land he didn’t own; then trucked up to the Yukon right in time to leverage the Gold Rush, offering “sporting ladies” at his bar in order to empty miners’ pockets. After amassing a small fortune, Friedrich returned to Germany with his new wife, where he tried to use his money and clout with immigration officials to justify his long-ago dodging military service. Specifically, he argued that he had gone to America at sixteen only to support his mother financially—an argument that the German authorities did not buy, and that Friedrich’s grandson would roundly reject when it came to 21st-century immigrants.

Friedrich’s own son, Fred, had just as hard a time staying on the right side of the law—but just as easy a time not paying the consequences. Tutored by his father, Fred Trump used his cunning to profit off  government subsidies designed to spur housing development for WWII veterans, building nearly 30,000 shoddy housing units and then bilking the government in subsequent tax profiteering scheme. But Fred Trump didn’t stop there. Like his son, Donald, he became involved with criminal elements of the city, using organized crime as a shield for his shady business practice. And, like his son would after, Fred harbored a deep racial animus, joining the Ku Klux Klan in a riot against police in Queens. But instead of being charged—or deported, as President Trump recommends for both law-abiding and law-breaking immigrants today—Fred Trump got off scott free, which gave him more time to gouge his tenants and shore up his illicit fortunes.

Melania, for her part, entered the U.S. on an Einstein visa—reserved for “individuals of extraordinary ability.” Her extraordinary ability? Modeling. As for her parents, there are doubts about whether they actually followed the process for obtaining citizenship, an ordeal that routinely involves a one- to two-year application process and a five-year green card waiting period.

The Trumps’ immigration history could easily be seen as a deplorable exception to the way our immigration system is supposed to work. In fact, they are poster children for how the system was designed to work—in which wealthy people can parlay their affluence into citizenship and their citizenship into a cover for a multitude of legal sins. None of this seems to occur to Trump, who declares Mexican immigrants to be rapists and criminals while he ignores his own family’s history of pimping, organized crime and fraud, and who applauds Melania’s parents for becoming citizens while decrying chain migration and the denying the desperation that prompts much immigration in the first place. Indeed, Trump has long talked about immigration from both sides of his mouth, playing with the concept of “legal” immigration to include or exclude whomever he likes. But under Trump’s own logic, his own ancestors—criminals, scofflaws and ordinary folk—would be barred from immigrating to America. But luckily for Trump and his newly-minted American in-laws, hypocrisy has never barred a rich person from citizenship.

Learn more about the Trump's History in New York City on our Trump Tour.

Ash Sanders