Cass County’s melting pot examined

Published 7:32 am Thursday, August 31, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Dowagiac Daily News
CASSOPOLIS – Everybody came from someplace else.
Panelists for the Minority Coalition's two-hour immigration and racism dialogue Wednesday night at William E. Lozier VFW Post supported that with the diverse tapestry they wove just with the threads of the travels that ultimately threw them together in Cass County's melting pot.
Of her Russian roots, moderator Ruth Andrews recalled the 1920s "as a really bad time to be living in the Ukraine. The white army chased the red army" and vice versa.
"Anarchists and bandits were taking advantage of the situation to rape and pillage," she said. "My family is Mennonite, so they were pacifists. They didn't believe in having guns to defend themselves so they were really in an untenable situation.
"My grandfather went to Moscow and negotiated passports for 5,000 Mennonites to leave Russia," Andrews said. "He risked his life to do it. They rode on boxcars through Poland to the sea, got on a freighter and went to Canada. My grandfather, who had been an artist in Russia, trained in Europe, worked as a bricklayer for a year in Alberta, Canada. Then a Mennonite college in Ohio invited him to teach art. That's how my family came to the United States. My father was born in Ohio."
Andrews said her grandfather's pacifism hindered his desire for American citizenship.
"Every year the judge asked him if he would bear arms to defend his country and he said no. He was kind of Gandhi-like in his humble presentation and he went back every year."
Finally, when her father was 5, the judge relented.
Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz, with 24 years in prosecution – the last 3 1/2 in Cassopolis – traced his family's convergence from Germany and Finland.
His German ancestors came in the late 1800s to Tennessee, then migrated to Kansas and became involved in the grocery business. Fitz's dad was born in Independence, Kan., and went on to become a Lutheran minister. His parents met at a Lutheran college.
"The reason for the family to come over from southern Germany was economic opportunity," Fitz related.
On his mother's Finnish side, his relatives settled in Duluth, Minn.
His great-great-grandfather walked from Minnesota to South Dakota, then continued on to Oregon and California, where Fitz's mother was born.
She went to college where Fitz's father was dean of students, became a secretary and "the rest is history," concluded the lifelong Michigan resident.
"This truly is a country primarily of immigrants," Fitz said. "Each generation a new wave comes. That is the story of this country. Right now, this issue has come to the forefront and made headlines after percolating 30 or 40 years. Someone once said, 'The difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is that a dictator is often efficient, but will occasionally sink to the bottom. In a democracy, your feet are often wet because of the sloppiness – democracy's not a neat process – but it will rarely, if ever sink. Sometimes issues are ignored and not addressed until they come to a boiling point. I think that's probably where we're at in our country today."
"Each wave of immigrants has brought many blessings to this country, many positive things," Fitz continued. "It's important as we deal with this issue that we look at it as an opportunity – not an obstacle. Most people coming here are looking for a better life for their family, better jobs."
Fitz reviewed immigration legislation pending before Congress, concluding, "The House bill is more punitive than the Senate bill. It focuses far more on punishment and law enforcement activity, as opposed to the Senate bill, although it calls for a border control increase, from 12,000 to 15,000. The Senate bill keeps entry violations at the misdemeanor level. In the House bill, if you assist someone who is not legally in this country, you can face a felony offense. The Senate bill is much more comprehensive in providing a program for worker visas, for a person to become a naturalized citizen, including if a person can document that they've been here five years working and they're willing to pay back taxes of $3,250 that they can continue to stay and apply for citizenship after five years. Persons who have been here two to five years would be required to go to the border and apply for entry. Less than two years, the Senate bill would require them to leave the country. If you have a felony or two misdemeanors, you would be subject to mandatory deportation. Finally, I note the Senate bill allows people here in a non-legal status, a portion of their paychecks would be utilized initially to reimburse for hospital treatment costs."
Moderator Ruth Andrews asked Village President Michelle Andrews to discuss whether people's fears and economics are related.
Her parents died at young ages. She relied on her grandmother, 84, of Vandalia, and an aunt, 92, of Cassopolis, to fill in family history gaps.
Andrews was able to review a letter written by an ancestor who was a slave in Alabama in the 19th century. "My great-grandfather was born in Virginia and was released from the military in 1864. I saw an old certificate stating he was a 'free man of color' to be released back to Virginia. In 1893 he migrated to Chicago and began to work for the post office," where he found a 32-year career.
He also taught languages at Howard University and at the Lincoln Institute of Jefferson County, Mo. He wrote several books," belonged to the Odd Fellows and the Masons and fathered seven children.
Andrews came to Cassopolis as a young girl and made it her home 10 years ago when her daughter was 5 because she likes the intimate rural setting. "I remember downtown being a thriving area. We used to do a lot of things – go to Camp Baber, swim on Diamond Lake, go to the middle school and skate. When I moved up here, I noticed a lot of recreation activities for children were very limited. I worked in Indiana six years when I moved here because I was not able to find employment in this county.
"The vast majority of individuals I know go to Goshen, Elkhart, Middlebury, South Bend, Kalamazoo, Watervliet. They travel for work. It's very important to build our economic status. We have a dormant industrial park that we've been blessed with a grant that will get in a business that will employ 15 to 20 low- to moderate-income people within a two-year span. Hopefully, that will create a domino effect so people who live here can work here. I'm very comfortable here and I feel safe here. A lot of our kids don't come back here until they get older. I'd like to see our youth return and call it home."
Andrews said "the fear a lot of people have is that they're used to a small community and they don't want vast change. But they do want to see some change that will benefit individuals who reside in our village."