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Governor Brian Schweitzer’s Thoughts on Immigration

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.

Governor Brian Schweitzer is well known for speaking his mind, and as he approaches the end of his term in office, he remains one of the most popular governors in the country. What many Montanans may not know is that Governor Schweitzer also has a very unique and refreshing perspective on the issue of immigration.

Governor Schweitzer is half Irish and half Ukranian, and when he recently delivered the keynote address at the Ohio Democratic Party’s annual dinner, he told the story of his grandmother’s illegal entry to the United States. She used a passport and visa that was meant for her sister, and entered the United States through what we would call “visa fraud” today. The story is told in riveting fashion by the Governor:

Governor Schweitzer has been very open about how his family history has impacted his views on immigration, and many of us have been fortunate enough to hear him tell this story before. He also shared his thoughts on immigration in an interview with the Iowa Independent in 2008, where he also talked about his father’s side of the family:

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.

In a time when many politicians are quick to attack and scapegoat new immigrants, we are grateful that Governor Schweitzer has internalized the experiences of his youth and understands that we must be welcoming to our newest immigrants.

As Governor Schweitzer states of those who would deport everyone who is the product of illegal immigration:

On that basis Mitt Romney would send the Governor of Montana back to Ireland. That’s my story. What is yours?

Thanks to Governor Schweitzer for his willingness to share his thoughts on immigration and the need for reform.