Legislative Melting Pot: Nearly a Hundred State Legislators Are Immigrants. They Bring a Special Work Ethic and Empathy to Lawmaking

By Gordon, Dianna | State Legislatures, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Legislative Melting Pot: Nearly a Hundred State Legislators Are Immigrants. They Bring a Special Work Ethic and Empathy to Lawmaking


Gordon, Dianna, State Legislatures


My mother was standing on the deck and holding my hand," says North Carolina Senator James Forrester. "And she said, 'Jim, this is your new country, your new home. You can succeed at anything here--if you try. And I want you to remember those who helped you and reach out and help others." He did and still does.

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, he became a naturalized American citizen at 10.

He went on to study medicine and in giving back to his country became a National Guard flight surgeon. Not done, he turned to public service and has been elected to the North Carolina Senate six times.

"I found that if you get out and work hard enough, you're going to succeed. I value my citizenship, maybe sometimes more than people who were born here," he says.

There are at least a hundred legislators who list a foreign birthplace. A few of them were adopted or had parents in the military or on vacation, but many foreign-born lawmakers came to the United States speaking their native languages such as New Jersey Speaker Albio Sires, the first Cuban-American legislative leader in the nation. And they came from all over the world--Austria, the Azores, the Bahamas, the Cape Verde Islands, Canada, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, Haiti, Hungary, India, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Laos, Mexico, Norway, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Spain, Thailand and Venezuela.

Their occupations are diverse, as well. They are attorneys, professors, teachers, principals, small business owners, store managers, tavern keepers, flight attendants, plumbers, dental hygienists, physicians, graduate students, mortgage lenders, nurses, computer specialists, engineers, real estate brokers, funeral directors, automobile dealers, farmers, ranchers, financial managers, tree specialists, housing and urban developers, homemakers, bankers, and a union organizer.

California Senator Maurice Johannessen (Norway) says his early experience of living under Nazi occupation has influenced his "strong feelings toward the freedoms offered by this country." He entered the United States at age 17 and enlisted in the Army. "Eventually, I posed for my citizenship papers in my Army uniform," he says.

"My efforts to become an American citizen give me a unique perspective on what this country means to people of foreign descent. My success as a businessman clearly demonstrates the opportunities that are present in this country if one only puts his mind to it," Johannessen says. Perhaps in light of his youth in an occupied country, he is a firm supporter of the Second Amendment. His passions also are land and water rights.

Representative Walter Pawelkiewicz of Connecticut remembers stories from his parents about how they were taken from their homes in Poland and the Ukraine. His father at 17 was placed in a slave labor camp. His mother at 14, was put on a work farm in Germany. Leaving the hardship behind, the couple left the war-ravaged land when Pawelkiewicz was an infant.

His background as a psychologist, child advocate, legal immigrant and municipal official has given him a keen vision about his service in the Connecticut legislature. His goals are to create positive social change and give people opportunities to improve their lives and their communities.

CHAMPION OF THE POOR

Maryland Delegate Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (Jamaica) was 21 when she came to the United States. Though she grew up in a comfortable home, she notes that she does come from a "Third World country" and saw poverty all around her. As a legislator, her background draws her to champion "the poor and those unable to help themselves." And as a nurse working in the inner city, proper health care "has become my passion."

Also from a Third World country and one of the poorest nations in the world, Florida Representative Phillip J. …

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