Oct 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP candidate and immigration hardliner had a grandmother who faced deportation

 Nevada Republican U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt looks on during a Hispanic Heritage Month Fiesta at the RNC Hispanic Community Center.

Nevada Republican U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt looks on during a Hispanic Heritage Month Fiesta at the RNC Hispanic Community Center in Las Vegas. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nevada's Republican senatorial nominee, Adam Laxalt, has taken a hard-line stance against DREAMers and illegal immigration — despite his late father, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, once saying Laxalt's grandmother was undocumented.

Why it matters: Republicans are making illegal immigration a crucial issue in the midterm elections, and Laxalt is seizing on this in Nevada, where more immigrants have been moving to work in the casino and hotel industries.

  • But family histories are complicated and can disclose uncomfortable truths that conflict with today's politics.

Details: Domenici in a 2006 Senate floor speech shocked colleagues when he revealed federal immigration authorities once detained his Italian-born mother, "who unknowingly was an illegal alien."

  • Domenici said she came to the U.S. when she was 3 years old and lived in New Mexico. He said he was a child when authorities took her away in a black car in the early 1940s.
  • He didn't say why she had been deemed an "illegal alien." Many Italian immigrants weren't considered as such if they entered the U.S. before 1920, when the federal government introduced quotas.
  • "They decided she had to be arrested because she was an illegal alien. So, sure enough, they came to do that and a neighbor had to come over to take care of us kids. I was about 9 or 10. I was pretty frightened," he said during his speech, delivered during debate over an immigration bill.

Laxalt's campaign spokesperson, Courtney Holland, did not immediately respond to an email, a phone message or a text message.

  • The campaign of Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Laxalt's opponent, declined to comment.

State of play: Cortez Masto is the nation's only Latina senator and she's made defending young immigrants known as DREAMers key to her campaign.

  • During the GOP primary, Laxalt's campaign spent around $13,000 running radio ads in Elko and Las Vegas touting his opposition to DREAMer protections.
  • As Nevada's attorney general, he joined a lawsuit against the federal government over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
  • DACA is the Obama-era policy that has shielded from deportation over 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
  • Laxalt's campaign has likened the policy to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Between the lines: Immigration laws were fundamentally different in 1907 when Alda Vichi, Domenici's mother, entered the U.S.

  • Vincent Cannato, an immigration historian at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, tells Axios that the concept of being undocumented wasn't widely recognized before 1920 — except for people affected by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
  • It's likely Laxalt's grandmother was detained because the federal government deemed her a potential enemy as World War II was starting, Cannato says.

Reality check: An Axios search found Alda Vichi Domenici's amended "certificate of arrival" (subscription required) from 1941, which declared she had lawfully entered the U.S. back in 1907.

  • Domenici had said the family had hired a lawyer to fix her immigration status, which took place six months after she was detained.

Yes, but: Rarely do undocumented immigrants today have the same options. They're usually deported before they try to fix their status, Astrid Silva, a DREAMer activist in Las Vegas, tells Axios.

  • Amy Maldonado, an immigration lawyer in Michigan, says it's hard to know whether Laxalt's grandmother today would be deported, because so much is unknown about her status, but immigration rules have gotten more restrictive.
  • "Why doesn't he want people today to have the same benefits that his own grandmother got?" Maldonado tells Axios.

Flashback: Domenici disclosed in 2013 he was the father of Laxalt, a child born in the 1970s to the 24-year-old daughter of one of his Senate colleagues.

  • "I only got to know my dad, the late Senator Pete Domenici as an adult, and I came to respect his remarkable commitment to this nation," Laxalt said when he launched his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2017.

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