Legislative Melting Pot

In this Article

State Legislatures Magazine: July/August 2002 by Diana Gordon

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of NCSL's magazine, State Legislatures. To subscribe contact the marketing department at (303) 364-7700.

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. Brutus came to America from Haiti at the age of 14. He studied law and began his practice in Florida. He ran for office in 2000 because he thought he had something to offer his constituents, but particularly to the Haitian community, which, he says, "had been ignored, exploited and marginalized."
As an immigration attorney, Brutus has amended numerous bills that would "negatively and unnecessarily impact immigrants."

New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz was the first from his family to move from Puerto Rico to the United States. His passion is providing better lives for youth. It was an avocation he began at an early age. When he was 10, he circulated a petition requesting that the Puerto Rican governor support the formation of a baseball league by donating the necessary equipment. The movement succeeded. Today as a New York legislator, Ortiz works with the youth of his district, as well as troubled youngsters who become gang members.

Rhode Island Representative Fausto Anguilla sometimes thinks about his homeland, Sicily, wondering "what would have happened if I'd remained there. Odds are I would've been a tailor like my dad."
Instead he earned a degree in foreign services from Georgetown University, then went to Georgetown Law School.

"The greatness of this country is you can become anything you want," he says simply. "And it may sound corny, but I see politics as a way to give something back to this great country. That's the impetus behind my legislation."

America Is Her Home

Why did Velma Veloria run for public office? As an immigrant woman from the Philippines, whose first language is not English, she ran because "I want to declare the United States of America my home." Because of her background (her father was retired from the Navy and her mother was a teacher in the Philippines), the Washington representative is especially sensitive to "issues that provide people of color and immigrants equal access to education, housing and economic opportunities."

Pennsylvania Representative John Pippy, also born of a military father and mother from another culture (Thailand) calls himself "pretty much a product of the Vietnam War." Although he moved to America at 1, he lived in public housing outside of Boston. And that shaped him. "I'm very pragmatic. I think that comes from my experiences growing up in the projects, as well as my mother's experiences as an interpreter. One of the biggest issues in our nation is that society is changing. I'm Asian American. We're a small group, but we are going to become more involved in government. There's going to be even more diversity."

Diversity is one thing immigrants bring to state government, another is the expertise to work well with their neighbors. Originally from British Columbia, Alaska Representative Fred Dyson has some expertise in dealing with neighbors across the border. "Canadians have sensitivities about American issues that few Americans realize. My Canadian connections help build relationships on mutual interest levels," he says, such as border enforcement, hunting, trade and tourism. These immigrants also have a passion to work with their native subculture in the United States.

New Hampshire Representative Saghir Tahir, who came from Pakistan in 1972, is "committed to providing the highest education to our children so that they can compete here at home and abroad."
He also has another agenda: In 2000, just after being elected, he "hit the road to make appearances and speak to Pakistani American communities." His message is to "give a wake-up call to all Muslim Americans to show that the United States is your home, and you must give back to local communities so that Americans of other faiths will look at you as brothers and sisters, instead of adversaries."
Tahir also asks the members of his culture to say "thanks to the veterans because their efforts and sacrifices gave us this land of opportunity."

Easing Into American Life

One of NCSL's newest projects, "Building the New American Community," has selected three cities to help refugees and immigrants adapt to American society. Groups in Nashville, Tenn., Portland, Ore., and Lowell, Mass., are attempting to unify diverse communities through innovative outreach, leadership development and civic engagement.

"Helping America's newest citizens adjust to life in the United States is an issue that policymakers must continually address," says Massachusetts Representative Kevin Murphy. "This new project, which encourages immigrants to become active civic participants, will help us identify promising strategies that may be valuable tools in other communities."

NCSL, the Urban Institute, the Migration Policy Institute, the National Immigration Forum and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center are working together on the project funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Call Ann Morse at (202) 624-8697 for more information.

Dianna Gordon is an assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.
©2002, National Conference of State Legislatures. All rights reserved.