“Families who want to come to America, work in America, raise families in America ought to be welcome because that’s the thread that has made this blanket so warm in this country. We need to have a system that allows people a path to citizenship. That’s the way we’ve done it for the last 150 years.”  – Governor Brian Schweitzer, 2008.

Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to hear our governor speak on the issue of immigration and the need for reform.  However, I highly recommend that everyone read an interview that  Governor Schweitzer gave to the Iowa Independent in 2008.  I was surprised by the insight he provided into the issue, and I look forward to his input as the debate on immigration reform ramps up this year.

The governor is half Ukranian and half Irish, and his ethnic heritage had a huge affect on him.  While some politicians, including Senator Jon Tester, are quick to support English as a national language, our governor understands the complexity of this issue:

My father’s family were homesteaders in Montana and they came from Ukraine but they were German speakers. They were so-called German-speaking Russians.

While his parents and their parents had never been to Germany, when World War I came around, they were discriminated against across this country and they passed the Sedition Act and made it against the law to speak or read in German in Montana.

My father served in World War II, but since German was his first language, there was always a concern about ‘Is he a patriot or not?’

And my grandmother, she never learned to speak English, only German. My parents, they kind of kept us away from her because they saw it as a detriment to be able to speak German.

Governor Schweitzer notes that the disfavored immigrant groups have changed over the years, depending on social and political factors.

Some say that the derogatory term “wop” actually stands for “without papers” and that they referred to all of the Italian immigrants for a time that way.

. . .

My first day of school, I’m going to school, and my mother sits me down — and I just went to a little country school, nine kids in my class — and she said, because by this time it’s 1961 and we are in the Cold War, “If anyone asks you about the name Schweitzer, don’t tell them we’re Russian, tell them we’re German.”

So it swings back and forth in this country, and it has for a long time.

Immigration policy is not a debate that just happened this year. We’ve been debating it for 150 years.  There’s an ebb and flow. The bottom line is almost everybody here comes from an immigrant family including myself.

While individuals of Ukrainian and Irish ancestry no longer experience quite the same level of scrutiny, I am grateful that Governor Schweitzer has internalized the experiences of his youth and understands that we must be welcoming to our newest immigrants.  I am hopeful that his experiences can influence Senators Tester and Baucus, who have espoused views that are diametrically opposite to our governor’s.

Thanks to Governor Schweitzer for his refreshing take on immigration and the need for reform.