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Family Roots Matter, If You're A GOP Convention Speaker

South Dakota Sen. John Thune waves to delegates during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.
J. Scott Applewhite
South Dakota Sen. John Thune waves to delegates during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.

If Republicans really do have a problem with the issue of immigration — as even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush intimated on Thursday — you wouldn't know it from the litany of GOP convention speakers who have made a point of stressing their country of origin.

The international parade of nations has ranged from Norway (South Dakota Sen. John Thune) to India (South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley), to Ireland (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) to Wales (Ann Romney) to Haiti (Utah congressional candidate Mia Love).

Expect that to continue as the convention ends Thursday with highly anticipated speeches from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (whose parents came from Cuba), and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (whose father was born in Mexico).

The Republican Party's immigration stances — and Romney's in particular — got lots of attention during the primaries. At one point, then-GOP rival Newt Gingrich called Romney "the most anti-immigrant candidate" in the race.

And recent polls show Romney trailing President Obama badly among Hispanics and Asians.

On Thursday night, Romney was set to include this statement in his speech, according to excerpts:

"We are a nation of immigrants. We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better."

On Wednesday night in front of thousands of convention attendees, Thune spelled out his family's Norwegian surname: "G-J-E-L-S-V-I-K."

Later, New Mexican Gov. Susana Martinez, whose grandparents were from Mexico, explained the American dream in Spanish, "El sueno Americano es tener exito." (The American dream is to be successful.)

And on Tuesday, Ann Romney spoke of her Welsh heritage:

"I am the granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner who was determined that his kids get out of the mines. My dad got his first job when he was 6 years old, in a little village in Wales called Nantyffyllon, cleaning bottles at the Colliers Arms."

These stories were often linked to their ancestors' pursuit of a better life, like Thune's relatives:

"Back in 1906, two Norwegian brothers named Nicolai and Matthew Gjelsvik came to this country in search of the American dream. When they reached the shores of America, the only English words they knew were 'apple pie' and 'coffee,' which evidently they had plenty of on the trip over."

Thune explained how Ellis Island officials thought Gjelsvik was too difficult to say and asked his ancestors to change it.

"The two brothers picked the name of the farm where they worked in Norway, which was called the Thune Farm. And so Nicolai Gjelsvik became Nick Thune, my grandfather."

The stories have been used to frame an economic narrative.

"They learned English and saved enough money to start a small hardware store," Thune said in his prepared remarks. "And yes, Mr. President, they did build it!"

Since the start of the convention, Republicans have used a "We built it" theme to criticize Obama's remarks at a rally — which Democrats say were taken out of context — about the relative role of government in the success of small businesses.

Many of these immigration stories reinforce a contention that the GOP is the party most in line with the anything-is-possible ideals of the American dream.

On Tuesday, Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz spoke of how his father fled Cuba in 1957 and arrived in the U.S. with $100 sewn into his briefs.

"He washed dishes making 50 cents an hour to pay his way through the University of Texas, and to start a small business in the oil and gas industry," Cruz said in his prepared remarks.

"El no tenia nada, pero tenia corazon. He had nothing, but he had heart. A heart for freedom," Cruz said.

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Padmananda Rama
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