LIVING IN THE SHADOWS:
Immigrants, advocates and experts speak about immigration trends
and the effects federal policies have had on local residents
Capstone: Public Affairs
Dec. 18, 2018
Emma Ramirez* goes to work every day with one thought looming in her mind.
What if she and her husband are deported?
This fear has grown more intense for many undocumented immigrants since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. His administration has curtailed funding for the 2012 Deferred Acton for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order. It has sought to build a wall along the southern border, floated the idea of revoking birthright citizenship and proposed a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census report, among other actions.
All of these moves have stirred fears within immigrant communities across the country. Communities in Walworth County, Wisconsin, are among those inhabited by immigrants grappling with intensified fears of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) roundups and deportation orders.
“Before [former U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions and [Trump senior policy adviser] Stephen Miller had an impact, you saw immigration attitudes that were much more positive,” said UW-Whitewater professor emeritus Jim Winship. “Once we get through this bump, I hope we’ll get back to being America.”
Winship taught social work courses at UW-Whitewater for about 30 years, and he has worked extensively on analyzing cultural patterns and issues. He lived in Latin American three times, served as an elections observer and was a Fulbright scholar.
He also co-chaired an organization that helps with community demographic integration, alongside immigration lawyer Jorge Islas and Whitewater Middle School English Language Learners (ELL) teacher Rosalinda Martinez.
Regardless of immigration patterns, U.S. demographics will change anyways, Winship added.
An estimated 10.7 million unauthorized immigrations live in the U.S., compared to an estimated 57.5 million total Hispanic population, according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report. Separate census reports estimate the U.S. Hispanic population will increase to about 106 million by 2050.
An October 2018 report by Pew Research Center showed that about 55 percent of Latino people who responded to a poll said they feel more concerned for their livelihood and under the Trump Administration than any other previously. Many respondents expressed serious concerns that a close relative or friend could be deported. That same poll showed 67 percent of respondents feel the Trump Administration’s policies have been harmful to all Hispanic immigrants, regardless of legal status.
“There are so many people here who are citizens that the impact will continue to be great,” Winship said.
The impact federal immigration policies and negative rhetoric can have is seen in various areas of local communities. In the Whitewater Unified School District, parents’ fears of deportation can affect their child’s educational development.
Mary Kilar, principal of Whitewater’s Washington Elementary School, said she has seen several children from immigrant families lose focus in school after ICE conducts a sweep in town. Their parents have often held their children home from school during those events, preferring to keep the family together rather than risk driving anywhere amidst the threat of deportation.
Some children have had outbursts.
Others just stare off into space, their minds wandering to anywhere other than school.
The Trump Administration’s demands for Congress to find a replacement to DACA, which protects people who were brought into the U.S. illegally as young children, led to the executive order fizzling out and cutting off the age for applicants.
Current DACA recipients must reapply for their status every two years, and no one under age 16 can apply anymore.
UW-Whitewater sophomore Nayeli Govantes Alcantar is a DACA recipient, also known as a DREAMer, after the DREAM act in conjunction with DACA.
Because she does not have legal citizenship status, Nayeli cannot qualify for student financial aid nor most scholarships.
Instead, she relies on her own funds earning through working and also on fundraisers held by the student organization UW-Whitewater DREAM Scholars and Colleagues (DSC). The organization hosts an annual tamale bake sale fundraiser every December since it was first established on-campus in 2012.
This year, the student members of DSC sold about 3,012 tamales to earn several thousand dollars in funds, which will be divided up between the five DREAMer students who are slated to be attending UW-Whitewater for the Spring 2019 semester. Those funds go towards tuition and housing costs.
Emma and Eduardo Ramirez* are undocumented immigrants, and they live in the shadows to ensure the well-being of their two sons, who were born in the U.S. They own a mobile home at Twin Oaks Park outside of Whitewater. She works at the Whitewater Greenhouse. He works for John’s Disposal.
Close friends and community members have been welcoming to their family. They brought food to the Ramirez home when they felt unsafe after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents conducted a sweep operation in 2014. The parents of the sons’ close friends have also promised to care for the boys if anything ever happened to their parents.
Her sons are involved in youth groups through St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Whitewater. The ministry serves as a sort of community gathering hub for local residents of various backgrounds and citizenship statuses.
Hector Villarreal, the deacon at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, said a large portion of the Hispanic community in Whitewater is Catholic.
Among the first tasks many immigrants have done when moving to the local area is finding a place of worship. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church provides referrals for how to locate immigration services and resources for low-income families. The church also offers bilingual religious services, with a special Spanish language mass held at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays.
Some immigrants have only spoken Spanish upon arrival to Whitewater, so having bilingual services has helped them feel more at home, Villarreal said. Many immigrants came to the area because they knew somebody who was already living in Walworth County.
Villarreal arrived to the U.S. in 1971 with his immediate family. He met his wife, Bianca, in 1989, and they settled into Palmyra, Wisconsin in 1990. They worked at Kincaid Farms there, which employs a number of Hispanic immigrants, both undocumented and of legal citizenship status.
He was ordained as a deacon at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in 2009, and since then he’s noticed an upward trend of immigrant populations.
He counted at most 20 Hispanic immigrants attending the Spanish masses at the church in 1990. Now, in 2018, he has noticed as many as 200 Hispanic people attending those same church services every week.
Part of his role as deacon involves visiting sick people in hospitals and inmates at jails to offer word from the gospel.
“They feel like their lives matter to somebody,” Villarreal said, adding that belonging to a ministry provides guidance to people on how to live a productive life.
The church has helped to integrate the Hispanic immigrants into the community at large. Particularly among younger Hispanic individuals, the language barrier between English and Spanish speakers has become less of an issue, and the high school students of varying backgrounds are more open to one another than when Villarreal first came to the U.S.
Villarreal said Hispanic immigrants brought new life to the church. They came with their own traditions and foods, and many residents have learned Spanish and gotten to know the immigrants.
“It’s very important to keep traditions,” Villarreal said.
One such tradition is speaking Spanish at home, as many Hispanic immigrant families do. His children spoke Spanish at home growing up, but while being educated mostly in English at public schools, he has worried about his children losing touch with their Spanish language roots, a concern he shares with other immigrants.
“I think it’s only natural,” Villarreal said. “It’s going to happen sooner or later. It’s sort of sad, like giving up your culture. Kids get assimilated into the dominant culture and lose traditions.”
UW-Whitewater senior Brenda Echeverria has felt the effects of cultural shifts firsthand.
“Me, personally, I feel uncomfortable talking in Spanish when I’m not at home,” Echeverria said. “Even in my own Spanish class, I feel weird, because it’s personal to me. I know it’s not the same for all Hispanic kids, but I tend to lean more toward the American side than the Hispanic side.”
She and her older sister grew up speaking Spanish at home. Their parents immigrated from Mexico decades ago, and English has always been their second language. Their family has lived in Delavan since Echeverria was born 22 years ago. She went to public school and translated take-home forms for her parents to sign in grade school.
Many of her friends had similar experiences, and they all gravitated towards speaking English more often growing up.
“I just never got used to talking with friends,” Echeverria said. “I just kind of fell into this sort of, ‘Spanish is for home, English is just normal with everyone else.’ To just switch and communicate Spanish with some people is not the norm.”
She said most Mexican-American students she knows had leaned more towards either traditional Mexican or American cultures.
“With Mexicans, you’re at different percentages … it has a lot to do with your interests,” Echeverria said. “Like Mexican music or the Mexican culture, and I don’t feel as tied to it, so that’s why I don’t feel as Mexican.”
Every Hispanic person’s cultural experience is a little bit different, she noted.
For undocumented immigrants such as Emma and her husband, remaining in the U.S. has always been their ideal option, despite the many challenges they face here.
Emma said she does not trust bringing her children to Mexico. She and her husband separately fled violence and gang activity there in 1999 and 1996, respectively.
They both know people who were removed from the U.S. and sent to Mexico, where they disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
One man willingly returned to Mexico with his son after being placed into removal proceedings by ICE. Upon returning to Mexico, his son was kidnapped and held for ransom by drug cartel members, and a deal securing his freedom.
Another man they know simply vanished and was never heard from again. They fear he was killed.
Emma met Eduardo at her brother’s New Year’s Eve party in 1997. They had both come to the U.S. with the intention of working for a few years and returning to Mexico. The births of their two children changed everything. They married in Whitewater and raised a family locally.
Emma said she believes there is no longer a viable way for her and her husband to obtain legal U.S. citizenship.
Emma works at Whitewater Greenhouse, where she says the employer is not immigrant-friendly. Many undocumented immigrants work there under challenging conditions. Hispanic workers are often sent home on extremely hot summer days, rather than given a short break on the job. Other works simply fill their place and collect their pay. The holiday season is the busiest time of the year, requiring Emma and others to work from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. on some days. Employee turnover is high.
Emma pays Medicare taxes and files reports annually. She uses an I-10 number instead of a Social Security number in order to earn her children federal tax credit.
“We are not bad people,” she says in Spanish, glancing between a reporter and a translator who assisted with the interview. “We are not taking the jobs of any white person. If we come here, it is because of necessity.”
Immigrants to the U.S. overall come from a wide range of ethnic or national backgrounds and varying economic statuses.
Many immigrants come from poorer countries to flee violence and poverty.
But many other migrants come to the U.S. as highly educated workers for universities or corporate businesses.
“For a small town, direct migration does not cause firms to leave,” said Jeff Heinrich, a UW-Whitewater professor and chairman of the Economics Department in the College of Business and Economics. “Immigration represent additional consumers. We need to be careful of what we’re talking about, because when a lot of people think of immigrants, they think in terms of poor immigrants, from the South of the Americas. But that’s a very narrow view. They may represent the largest numbers of unskilled migrants, but migrants also include people from other parts of the world and of very different skills sets.”
There are doctors and business leaders among those migrants.
UW-Whitewater’s Economics Department alone employs seven foreign-born individuals out of a total staff of 14 people.
Heinrich said U.S. immigration rhetoric has shifted towards trying to find reasons to deny Visas or work status, which has proven difficult for the university in its hiring processes.
And poorer migrants are willing to perform tasks and work jobs that other people in the U.S. might not be willing to do, such as agriculture or landscaping.
“We know there are employers in the U.S. who are willing to employ undocumented workers as a cost-saving measure, and that may have negative impacts on competing workers … but experience shows us that when you cut off the migrant work force, that doesn’t translate to a one-to-one replacement of those jobs to American workers,” Heinrich said.
Harsher immigration policies in some cases could provoke businesses to move overseas.
Immigrants also bring unique skills and traditions, along with new perspectives that can help enrich the overall community. They pay sales taxes and other federal dues, as is required of all U.S. residents. Particularly in educational settings, having a more diverse staff reduces the likelihood of group think and results in the team producing more original ideas.
Jorge Islas, an immigration lawyer and a representative of the immigration advocacy group, Voces De La Fonterra, works on court cases as a translator. He has translated case for many immigrants facing removal proceedings.
Islas, whose brother owns the La Preferida Mexican grocery store in downtown Whitewater, said federal U.S. immigration laws are supposed to deport criminals, but instead he has seen many hard-working immigrants of good moral standing sent away.
He recalls in particular a case in which a man faced removal proceedings because a female coworkers alleged he sexually assaulted her. The court proceedings found him not guilty of the charge, but he was removed and sent to Mexico, anyways, because he was an undocumented immigrant.
In many cases he has worked on, Islas said clients were detained by ICE agents after being discovered as not having permanent legal status when local police conducted a routine traffic stop.
One such incident affected a Whitewater resident earlier this year.
Enrique Enrqiquez* lives at Twin Oaks Park outside of Whitewater with his wife and three children. His two brothers lives in Delavan, where they work together.
The threat of ICE raids looms over his family every day, but he said he feels comfortable overall and is grateful to be with his family here in the U.S.
“We are all here together, so what more could we ask for?” He said.
Enriquez came to the U.S. in 1993 looking for work with his two brothers. He wanted a big truck and a large savings account of money. He never intended to stay long, but like Emma, having children changed the whole picture.
“All those dreams went down the drain,” Enriquez says with a wide grin, shaking his head as he looks to a translator who assisted in an interview with a reporter.
The 2006 Dodge Caravan parked outside his Twin Oaks mobile home serves as a testament to his altered life plans.
Enriquez has been pulled over by City of Whitewater police officers multiple times. Some for speeding, once for a broken headlight. Each time he was asked to provide a driver’s license and proof of vehicle insurance. As an undocumented citizen, he has neither.
Enriquez said the local police officers in town are just doing their job. He feels comfortable living in the area.
In February 2018, Enriquez was followed home by a police officer who noticed the broken headlight and scanned his plates, noticing traffic violations on his record. He was arrested and was sentenced in May to six days in jail, serving three before early release.
He no longer drives since that incident.
This puts a new strain on the family, with his 17-year-old daughter doing most of the driving now after obtaining a driver’s license. His brothers drive him to work every day, where the three men run a landscaping business based in Delavan, Wisconsin.
Delavan has the state’s highest percentage of Hispanic resident proportionate to its overall population, according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report. Approximately 30.3 percent of Delavan’s 8,356 total residents are Hispanic or Latino. The estimated percent of foreign-born persons is listed at 16 percent in the report.
“We are here to work,” Enriquez says, waving a hand as he articulates his words to a translator, stopping at several points to ponder his message. He nods once, then cocks his head, explaining he’s thinking of his family. “We are not here to hurt anybody. If one makes bad choices, sooner or later you pay for those. We are here to bring our families, to get our families ahead. We want our children to get an education and be better than we are. This is my only purpose right now.”
Enriquez’s wife, Maria*, works at Jessica’s Family Restaurant. The owners employ several undocumented immigrants. When ICE agents came through town in 2014, the owners sheltered their workers in a back room and locked the door to keep them hidden.
Enriquez said the local police officers in town are just doing their job. He feels comfortable living in the area.
Overall, the Whitewater community has been welcoming to immigrant families, multiple sources said in various interviews.
Emma Ramirez* sits back in her chair, second from the wall in her family’s mobile home kitchen in Twin Oaks Park in Walworth County, Wisconsin. Her shoulders arch, then fall, as she releases a deep sigh, a fresh breath of relief after sharing her story with a reporter.
“Yes,” she says, nodding with a smile, she and her children feel accepted here.