5% of Congress Was Born Abroad. Those Members Show What It Means to Be American.
WASHINGTON — When President Trump suggested foreign-born Americans should “go back” to the countries they were born in if they do not like it here, he may not have realized that his entreaty could have been addressed to 5 percent of Congress.
In all, 29 members of the House and Senate were born abroad, about half of them to parents serving in the military or working overseas. They include a doctor born in Mexico (Representative Raul Ruiz, Democrat of California); a lawyer born in Japan (Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii); a women’s rights advocate born in India (Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington); and a real estate developer born in an Army hospital in France (Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina).
Republicans like Mr. Meadows and Representative David Rouzer, also of North Carolina and born in an Army hospital in West Germany, have mostly stood by the president, who aimed his remarks at four progressive House Democratic women of color, only one of whom was born outside the United States.
“No, I don’t think it’s racist,” Mr. Rouzer said.
But to others, Mr. Trump’s words — which he repeated on Tuesday — hit home in a deeply personal way, resurfacing painful memories of past racial taunts. Those feelings were reflected in the resolution the House took up Tuesday condemning Mr. Trump. Immigrant Democrats led the effort on the House floor.
“I first took the oath to support and defend the Constitution when I was 10 years old,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, the resolution’s chief sponsor, who was born in Poland and came here when he was 6, after his mother met an American journalist. “That’s meant a lot to me all my life.”
Mr. Trump’s “go back” remarks have long been a thread through the fabric of the United States, a nation founded by people who came from somewhere else. In every era, in every generation, and particularly in times of economic anxiety, notions of “the other” have seeped into the American psyche. But no modern president — not even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II — has made such aggressive use of his platform to whip up a fervor about foreigners.
That is making even some Republicans uncomfortable. Among them is Representative Daniel Crenshaw, a freshman Republican from Texas. Mr. Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, was born to American parents in Scotland, where his father worked in the oil industry, and he spent part of his childhood in Ecuador and Colombia.
“I don’t agree with the president’s remarks, but that doesn’t mean I accept the rhetoric we hear repeatedly from this group of lawmakers, either,” he said in an emailed statement, adding, “I find the constantly negative, anti-American comments concerning and tiresome.”
There are 14 members of Congress — all Democrats, 13 in the House and one in the Senate — who became citizens after emigrating to the United States, either through naturalization or a parent’s citizenship. They come from countries like India, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Ms. Hirono is a naturalized citizen; she spent her early childhood on her grandparents’ rice farm in Japan until her mother came to the United States after fleeing an abusive husband. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García, Democrat of Illinois, is a naturalized citizen from Mexico. Representative Adriano Espaillat, Democrat of New York, is also a naturalized citizen, born in the Dominican Republic.
“I dream American. I wake up American. I have dinner as an American,” Mr. Espaillat said. “I am a Yankee fan, and I love this country. It’s given me a great number of opportunities, including to be a member of Congress. For him to downgrade or even not take into consideration the kind of opportunities that this country gives these folks from all over the world, I think is sad and tragic.”
Far from making them less American, many foreign-born members of Congress said their experiences as children abroad made them far more appreciative of the freedom and opportunity in the United States than others who have spent little time in countries that lack such gifts.
“I grew up in Latin America at a time when most of the countries were under military dictatorship and soldiers were on corners with machine guns,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, who was born in Peru. That experience, he said, “has given me an unbelievable appreciation for the freedoms and liberties that we have here.”
Some white lawmakers born abroad saw a distinctly racial tinge to Mr. Trump’s singling out of women of color.
“My father got back from the Vietnam War, went to graduate school, and when he and my mom were young newlyweds, got a job outside of Dublin on a cattle feed lot,” said Representative Sean Casten, Democrat of Illinois. “They went over there, lived there for four years, I was born halfway through. No one ever called me an anchor baby.”
One of the 29, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father, and is considered a “natural born citizen” — a status Mr. Trump questioned during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
At the time, Mr. Cruz said Mr. Trump had “jumped the shark.” On Monday, he zipped toward the senators-only elevator, head down, to avoid questions.
Mr. Cruz, of course, was not the first politician to have his citizenship questioned by Mr. Trump. Long before he ran for president, Mr. Trump stoked the so-called birther movement to pressure President Barack Obama to prove that he was born in the United States.
This time, Mr. Trump’s comments were directed at the group of Democratic freshmen known on Capitol Hill as “the Squad” — Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts. All have been deeply critical of him.
Only one of the four, Ms. Omar, was born overseas; she fled war-torn Somalia with her family and spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States with her family when she was 12. In an interview in December, Ms. Omar told of how she fended off bullies in school who stuck gum on her head scarf, knocked her down stairs and jumped her when she changed clothes for gym class.
On Monday, Ms. Omar fought back. “This is the agenda of white nationalists,” she said, “whether it is happening in chat rooms, or it is happening on national TV, and now it’s reached the White House garden.”
Mr. Meadows, one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, pushed back, saying the real fight was over the president’s policies on the border, which Ms. Omar and the others in the Squad vociferously oppose.
“I probably talk to him more than anybody else,” Mr. Meadows said, “and he’s certainly not a racist.”
But to those lawmakers who have been bullied because of the color of their skin, like Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Democrat of Illinois, the president’s remarks were especially painful.
Mr. Krishnamoorthi came to the United States when he was 3 months old. His father moved to Buffalo to study engineering, and his family lived in public housing and on food stamps before they moved to Peoria, Ill., to start, as Mr. Krishnamoorthi put it, “the golden period in our lives.”
“People lifted you up and embraced you, and that’s America, that will always color my image of America,” he said, reflecting on his childhood. But he said racist heckles and taunts grew more prominent as he became an adult, during road rage situations in traffic and the like.
“I’m an ethnic, religious and a racial minority, and I’m an immigrant,” he said. “When the president says what he says, it hits home in a bigger way.”
Other immigrant lawmakers — at least the Democrats — said Mr. Trump is assailing the very idea of what it means to be an American, among them Mr. Ruiz, who is the first Latino to earn three graduate degrees from Harvard.
“Being American is not defined by color of skin or eyes or hair or any accent,” he said. “Being American is defined by our ideas, by our diversity and by the land that we call home.”
Authors: Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Lola Fadulu, nytimes.com