Technically, Tina Siemens is a Mexican. She is also a Canadian and an American. She and more than 500 other members of her Mennonite faith almost lost their right to be Americans as the result of what was either an outright misrepresentation or a misunderstanding about what it would take to get permanent residential status in the United States, specifically in Seminole, Texas, about 30 minutes east of Hobbs across the state border.
Siemens, who provided a face-to-face interview at a coffee shop in Seminole Friday launched her book about her family’s and the colony’s experiences on Sept. 13 from 4-7 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Seminole. The book is titled “Seminole: Some People Never Give Up.”
“The book really has two themes,” Siemens said. “One of them is about the Mennonite religious tradition and the other is about my family’s struggle to stay in America.”
Siemens, whose family of seven was one that went first to Canada, where the growing season was so short it made earning a living difficult, then went to Mexico, where the government reneged on agreements about religious freedom, and arrived in Seminole on March 26, 1977, when she was 8 years old.
They were part of a group that had been told if they bought land, they would be able to immigrate. As a group, they made a down payment on several thousand acres, planted crops, then learned they had no water rights and during the third year, lost the land and their investment in a public auction.
By that time, Immigration and Naturalization Service officers had already notified some of the leaders of the group that they had overstayed their visitors visas and were facing deportation. Officials urged them to leave voluntarily, to return either to Canada or Mexico and apply for legal immigration status. Such applications would probably have been futile, however, because in the late ‘70’s, the quota from each country was 20,000 people and others seeking homes in the United States were likely to have made application before they did.
On the advice of their attorney, John Shepherd, most did not voluntarily leave the United States, but decided to hang on to their jobs and to whatever property they had been able to acquire, waiting to see what would happen.
During that time, Siemen’s father, David Rempel, held two jobs, one in the day time and one at night.
“I don’t know when he slept,” Siemens said. “All of us worked at something to help support the family. Our mother got work cleaning houses. The women would pick her up and bring her home. It was hard because none of us spoke English. The women would take her and show her cleaning products and show her how to use them. At times, when all the bills were paid, we might have $50 or $75 left over for each member of the family and that money went to pay the immigration attorney.”
It’s those stories, told without resentment or any effort to evoke sympathy or promote a political viewpoint, that make Siemen’s book a must-read.
Siemens, who arrived at the interview wearing jeans, silver sandals and a blowsy shirt, said she does not attend church with any of the 12 or 13 Mennonite congregations.
“I still cling to the Mennonite faith. It is like other Christians. We believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins and that by God’s grace we are saved,” she said. “But I don’t follow some of the teachings related to dress and other customs. I see myself as a bridge between the Mennonite community and the non-Mennonite community.”
Among other local Seminole citizens, Siemens credits then-mayor Bob Clark with much of the work that eventually led U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, to file a private bill granting the Mennonites the right to stay in the United States.
Senate Bill 9662 was filed in the Senate on Aug. 2, 1979. It was passed in the House on Oct 2, 1980. President Carter signed it on Oct. 19, less than three weeks before the election that propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House. On October 31, 1986, Siemens and her family became United States citizens.
“My book is a way of giving back to the community that gave so much to us,” Siemens said. “I love America and I love being an American.”