This article was originally published by The Mennonite

My ancestors were illegal immigrants

Opinion: Perspectives from readers

Mishawaka, Wawasee, Shipshewana, Topeka, Dowagiac, Pokagon … the very place names in the region where I live bear witness to native peoples who were dispossessed of their land almost two centuries ago by my forebears.

Kraybill_NelsonRemoval of Indians from Indiana perhaps was not as brutal as elsewhere, but the original inhabitants faced an impossible choice: accept the white man’s treaties or be forcibly expelled. In 1838, Potawatomi people who did not sign the treaties had their homes and crops burned. A federal militia then force-marched them 660 miles from Indiana to Kansas—a journey they remember as the Trail of Death.

Because my ancestors were Mennonite and pacifist, they were not part of the militia that removed or killed native peoples. But my forebears in Pennsylvania and Indiana were poised to move in and homestead as soon as others had cleared the way. From the perspective of native peoples who once inhabited much of North America, invading Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries were illegal immigrants.

Now, centuries later, bills designed to make life difficult for today’s immigrants have appeared in some 30 state legislatures. The proposed or approved laws aim to put penalties on companies that hire undocumented workers. They eliminate use of Spanish from certain government communication and give police added power to demand documentation from people they suspect of not having legal status. The bills add threats of imprisonment or fines.

Proponents of such legislation might consider these questions:

• How fluent are you in Potawatomi, Navajo, Algonquian or any other native language of your region? I find no evidence that my ancestors in Lancaster, Pa., learned to speak Susquehannock. Can I demand of today’s immigrants what my forebears did not do?

• Where are your papers from native peoples showing that you have a right to live where you do? My ancestors in Pennsylvania had permission to homestead on land granted to them by William Penn, who received territory that the British Empire took from native peoples by force. What right did a European power have to give away land on another continent that native tribes had inhabited for centuries?

• If your forebears settled on land taken by force, why be hostile to today’s immigrants who arrive peacefully to seek employment and opportunity? The first European immigrants often slaughtered or deported native peoples. Today’s immigrants simply want to work in our factories, start businesses and get education for their children.

Two years ago I spent a month in Guatemala studying Spanish, graciously hosted at a humble home in Quetzaltenango. The family was so poor the refrigerator often was empty. A son-in-law of the household was working undocumented at a restaurant in New York City. He had a wife and child in Guatemala and had been gone for three years. But when he returned to Guatemala shortly after I left, he brought home enough money to build a house for his family. All he wanted was the same thing that I and millions of others want for our families: decent housing, enough food, opportunity.

The Law of Moses instructed ancient Jews: “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens. … Remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:14, 18). Jesus told of a future day when some people will hear him say, “I was hungry and you gave me food. … I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

Every time an ATM machine asks me if I want English or Spanish, I rejoice that someone in my community is showing hospitality to strangers and newcomers. I believe schools and government should do the same. I have been a stranger in a foreign land.

Every time a new Mexican or Korean restaurant opens nearby, I celebrate the culinary diversity it brings to my home area. Northern Indiana is a more culturally rich place than it used to be, and recent immigrants have helped make that happen. I am glad they are here.

There are no easy answers to immigration issues. But the laws now before many state legislatures have a punitive and vindictive spirit. I protest and will do everything possible to welcome and receive people of other languages and nations who come here to seek a better life, to live in a land where my forebears arrived as illegal immigrants.

J. Nelson Kraybill is lead pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind.

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