by: Carly Stingl
Janet sits timidly in the shade with her husband and children, keeping her distance from the chanting crowd. She knows it’s dangerous for her to be here.
“I truthfully don’t know what could happen to me,” Janet says, “I think maybe the police could come and arrest me, but we want our rights.”
Janet, who would not say her last name and spoke only Spanish, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She crossed the border with some friends a little more than two years ago, looking for opportunities and an easier life. She came to the protest in downtown Madison on May 1, which called for workers’ and immigrants’ rights. She is sick of the raids of immigrants’ homes and wishes she could get her papers to live and work legally in the United States.
Her 2-year-old daughter, Kenia, and her 8-month-old son, José, were born here and are therefore legal citizens. She and her husband, both without their legal documents, are in danger of being deported, and she is terrified of what would happen to her children.
According to a report by U.S. Department of Homeland Security on illegal immigration, 75,000 to 115,000 people live in this state without documentation. As a nationwide debate rages over immigration, undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin are looking for a balance between demanding rights and trying to stay invisible to avoid deportation.
Living without Documents
Janet says that one difficult aspect about living without documents is that she cannot find a good job, but it is certainly not the hardest part. Her biggest wish is that she could visit her family in Mexico, and have them meet her children, but if she leaves, returning would be too difficult and dangerous.
Her husband, who works in a chocolate factory and barely makes enough money to support his family, cannot ask for a raise because there is someone else who would simply take his spot for less pay. They live in Monona, pay taxes and want the same rights as anyone else living in Wisconsin.
Janet and her husband live in constant fear, saying they are not sure which laws protect or threaten them, but understanding that deportation would mean splitting up their growing family.
Madison immigration lawyer Amanda Gennerman says this confusion over immigration laws and rights is not uncommon.
“Unfortunately, people have so much misinformation,” Gennerman says. “I try to debunk it and make it clear. Everybody’s case is individual. They are most likely not as informed on the legal aspects of what is happening to them as they think.”
Gennerman, who started her practice three years ago with a focus on deportation cases, knows that a lot of rumors circulate about what lawyers can do for immigrants in tough situations. Unfortunately, illegal immigrants are rarely protected under U.S. law, she says, and in cases of deportation she cannot do very much for them except explain the rules. When an undocumented immigrant has a run-in with the law, family members try to help, but also fear for themselves.
“If you have a whole family of undocumented individuals, they find themselves on alert,” Gennerman says. “Many people who enter from Mexico without any papers are extremely limited in what they can do.”
One such example is Nicolas Rodriguez[name changed to protect identity]. He crossed the border on foot five years ago looking for opportunities and tired of dealing with police brutality in Mexico City.
According to a report issued by U.S. Homeland Security, more than half of the 11.6 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico, followed by El Salvador, India and Guatemala.
Rodriguez, who lives in a primarily Latino community on S. Park St., says everyone has personal reasons for leaving Mexico for the U.S., but all immigrants are here looking for opportunities not available in their home countries. Ninety-seven percent of the people he knows in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants, including his entire family.
His family came to the United States one by one. His father, tired of not having enough to feed his family, first came to Madison where his brother was already living and started working as a building custodian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then, Rodriguez’ sister and mother came, and five years ago, Rodriguez himself took the treacherous weeklong journey to cross the border. Now he lives with his parents, two sisters and his nephew in a trailer, everyone working hard to contribute to paying rent and buying food.
Although Rodriguez is not scared of being arrested and deported himself, saying it would not be half as bad as what he already experienced in his own country, he is scared of the resulting impact on his family members and the possibility that one of them will get caught.
“The majority of people are scared of what deportations bring, because it separates families,” Rodriguez says. “I am not scared for me, I am scared for my family, because I know that my mother would suffer a lot if they deported me.”
The family’s worst fear was realized three months ago when Rodriguez’ uncle was arrested for unpaid parking tickets and sent to prison because he could not afford the fines. On the day he was supposed to be released, the family could not find him for a week until he called from Mexico and said he had been deported.
The uncle left behind three motherless children, whom Rodriguez’ family will have to take care of.
“It doesn’t matter to the police who they are when they deport people,” Rodriguez says. “They take people without knowing if it’s a father with children and he will have to leave the children all alone.”
Yet, Rodriguez did think that his uncle was not careful, and as a person living in Madison without documents, one must try not to get noticed. However, he said he wished that some people did not treat him like he was below them.
“For the simple fact of being Latino and cleaning the bathrooms you are seen as something different,” Rodriguez says. “They don’t see us as human beings, but people who break the rules.”
He says he is doing a job that no one else wants to do, which is custodial work in the WARF building on the west end of the UW campus for five hours every afternoon. This job, as well as teaching dance lessons on the weekends for six hours each day, gives him enough income to know he will eat every day, which isn’t a luxury he could always rely on in Mexico.
“I had to decide sometimes between a pair of new shoes and food,” Rodriguez says. “In reality, I didn’t want to leave Mexico, but this is a much more stable situation for me here.”
Rodriguez does not think he will ever feel completely at home here, and learning English has been a struggle for him. But he is grateful for the opportunities Madison offers.
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) says it is unforgivable that some immigrants entered or are living in the United States illegally. He says he thinks this automatically strips undocumented immigrants of any rights and that more people need to be deported.
He says families did not necessarily need to be separated, because other members of the family could return with the person being deported.
“If we are paying for the parents to go home, you might as well ship the kids with them,” Grothman says.
He says that the problem is huge because the Clinton and Bush administrations did a horrible job dealing with immigration. Grothman is not against immigration, noting that the U.S. historically has admitted more immigrants than the rest of the world, but he says he does believe those here illegally need to leave.
“You deport people who are clearly a problem and crack down on some businesses that are blatantly hiring illegals,” Grothman says. “Then you try to bring people here legally.”
In the U.S., about 164,000 people are put through the deportation process every year, according to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Gennerman says that when immigrants without documents are arrested in southern Wisconsin, they are sent to the Dodge County correctional facility.
According to a written statement by Sheriff Todd Nehls on Dodge County’s Web site, illegal immigrants who are arrested for committing a serious crime or a felony will have to serve their time and will eventually be deported.
He notes that his office works closely with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement, and says it is ultimately up to them if the offender will have to leave the United States. According to Nehls, once a week an ICE agent will come to the facility and speak with individuals in danger of deportation. He writes that his office does not condone those here illegally, nor those who employ them, and will continue to work to make sure undocumented people who commit crimes cannot stay in the country.
State Rep. Pedro Colón (D-Milwaukee), the first Latino elected to this position, agrees that people committing crimes should not be able to stay here, but adds that many undocumented people abide by the rules and do not deserve to be separated from their families.
“I have had grown men cry in front of me, asking me to stop it. You really have an emotional demise of people,” Colón says. “We go about our daily lives and we don’t think about it, but there are really miserable situations.”
May 1 Protest
On May 1, hundreds of people protested in the streets of Madison. Among the groups present was MEChA, the student Chicano movement on the UW campus. MEChA co-chair Ismael Cuevas sent out an e-mail to all the student organizations on campus a week before, informing them about the march and asking for their attendance and support.
He said some groups decided to participate, such as the UW Socialists whom he referred to as “cool-a-- white people.” But the toughest part about getting people to come to the event is that some students do not think that the issue affects them.
In response to this, Cuevas says, “You know when you go out to eat at a restaurant, you know who’s making the food, who’s cleaning the dishes, who is cleaning up after you? You know who is cleaning the campus? Well, that’s my people. That’s immigrant jobs.”
Cuevas, a Latino who feels particularly emotional about this because he spent his first 10 years in the United States undocumented, says he expected a big turnout from the community, but a smaller one from the campus at large. But he says some fear a police crackdown and this deters especially undocumented people from attending.
The march was calling for no more deportations, separation of families, exploitation of immigrants and workers, police oppression and racism. Cuevas says both documented and undocumented workers get exploited and many just want their rights.
The march started at noon at Brittingham Park where a crowd of about 500 people starting walking together in protest up W. Washington Ave. chanting “Si se puede (yes we can).” They headed toward the State Capitol, ending in front of the City-County Building. Representatives from several groups, including Madison Immigrant Workers Union, Campus Antiwar Network and the Student Labor Union, spoke to the crowd, some in Spanish with a translator and others in English.
Ben Ratliffe, a member of the UW Socialists and a December graduate, attended the march because he is angry about how immigrant workers are treated and he wants to support them.
“I think an injury to one is an injury to all,” Ratliffe says. “The way that we have demonized immigrant workers that come to this country is not only immoral, but repugnant.”
Grothman, however, says the march gives people the wrong idea.
“I think it [the march] is wrong because the leaders are confusing immigration with illegal immigration and there is a big difference,” Grothman says.
Some do not think that documentation matters, because those working in the country deserve rights. Marco, from Mexico, who did not want his last name used, attended the march because he wants equality for everyone, documented or not. He says that despite having his papers and living in Madison for 10 years and working at a production company, it is still his responsibility to make sure everyone has equal rights.
“All we want,” Marco says, “is the laws to be the same for everyone.”