Making it in America

Latinx immigrants face adversity, but still find success in Eau Claire area

The Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals act is up for debate, potentially impacting the lives of some University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Students. © Madeline Fuerstenberg 2019

In 2017, 36 percent of Latinx people in Wisconsin were foreign born, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Of these more than 100,000 foreign-born Latinx immigrants, nearly 80 percent were from Mexico.

A little over half of the immigrants in Wisconsin have not obtained citizenship.

In Eau Claire, Latinx immigrants or children of immigrants have made Wisconsin their home. The following stories highlight the experiences, triumphs and hardships of those individuals.

John

 Note: “John Ramirez” is a pseudonym created to preserve anonymity and avoid incrimination.

 John Ramirez, a 29-year-old Eau Claire resident who works in finance, came to the U.S. in the summer of 2000 with his mother, his two younger brothers and his maternal uncle.

He was 9 at the time. In his hometown of Coscomatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, Ramirez’s father owned a bakery and an electronic repair shop. When Mexico’s declining economy forced him to shut down one of his businesses, Ramirez’s father looked to Northern Wisconsin for a new opportunity.

Ramirez’s father moved to Wisconsin in 1997, traveling back and forth between Wisconsin and Mexico for two years. When the Ramirez family was finally reunited in 2001, Ramirez’s father had $800 to his name. They settled in Eau Claire, where they still live.

“No one in my family has entered the country legally,” Ramirez said. “I always kind of put it in perspective like, if somebody who was very poor or homeless in the U.S. – I’m not saying we were homeless in Mexico – but if someone was of very low economic status, how would they know what jobs are available for them in Europe, for example? We didn’t have those resources.”

Ramirez said he has dozens undocumented of family members in the Eau Claire who are living here illegally.

 In 2001, Ramirez’s third brother was born a U.S. citizen. A decade later, Ramirez and his two Mexican-born brothers applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA benefits were granted to Ramirez in January 2012.

DACA is an Obama-era American policy that allows some unauthorized individuals residing in the U.S.  to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation if they were brought to the county as a minor. Recipients of DACA are eligible to obtain work permits, making it easier for them to eventually obtain U.S. residency or citizenship.

DACA does not equate to residency or assign a Social Security number to the recipient.

Today, Ramirez has his U.S. residency, while his two brothers remain DACA recipients. Their status is threatened as the Trump Administration aims to abolish the program. The U.S. Supreme Court recently had a hearing where the constitutionality of DACA was debated.

“It’s not an easy process,” Ramirez said. “I’m very lucky to do so. It’s very expensive, difficult and … just an ongoing process. I just received my 10-year Green Card last month and I’ve been in the U.S. for 19 years.”

Growing up, Ramirez said, he never felt out of place around his American-born peers until his senior year of high school.

Ramirez spoke English growing up. He did everything a “normal” American would do. Throughout middle school and high school, Ramirez had few Latinx classmates. Most of his friends were Hmong students. People even mistook him for being Hmong. Maybe, he said, that is why he felt so comfortable.

“I really thought I was normal,” Ramirez said. “It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when all of my friends were applying for college and figuring out what they wanted to do in life that I realized I wasn’t normal. I went to a counselor and she told me there was virtually no resources available for me to continue my education.”

Ramirez said he grew distant from his high school friends as they all left for college. He felt embarrassed for trying so hard in high school and on the ACT for essentially nothing.

“It really stung me when I realized that I couldn’t (go to college),” Ramirez said.

Ramirez went to work in a factory until he obtained his DACA in 2012. He found work in Eau Claire’s financial sector and applied for classes at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

After receiving his general credits at CVTC, he was ready to transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2014 with a 3.85 GPA.

However, the state of Wisconsin did not recognize DACA recipients as residents, leaving him ineligible for in-state tuition. In order to be eligible for in-state tuition, Ramirez had to obtain his Green Card, then wait another year after becoming a U.S. resident to be recognized as a Wisconsin resident by the university.

Four years after earning DACA, Ramirez was able to obtain a college education at a state university. Now, he is completing his final year at UW-Eau Claire. He will earn a degree in social work. He said he hopes to attend graduate school at St. Thomas University. There, he will work to obtain a dual master’s in social work and business administration.

After graduate school, Ramirez said, he aims to provide a bridge between the government and immigrants or children of immigrants, helping them understand the services available to them. He said he will be able to make a real difference, and potentially even help develop immigration policy.

Ramirez said he was naïve as a child, because he failed to notice any aggressions directed toward him because of his ethnicity. Today, he said a big part of what makes him feel as though he stands out is news and media. He said today’s news tends to focus on how minorities feel out of place.

“I always joke around, right, when people who ask you: ‘If you could have three wishes, what would they be?’” Ramirez said. “And I think my only wish would be, at times, ‘I wish I was a straight, white male.’ And I wanted to talk to individuals and to see: Are they racist? Or are they just jerks? Because as someone who is Latino and is a minority, and if someone is rude to me, I can’t tell if they are rude or if they are racist.”

In 2015, Ramirez married his wife, a natural-born American. He said he has about 40 family members scattered around Eau Claire.

While his family has largely adapted to American culture, Ramirez said, they still face some struggles. Wisconsin’s 2007 legislative decision to prevent people without social security numbers from obtaining driver’s licenses forced the Ramirez family to develop a system for traveling around the city.

Ramirez said a lot of his younger cousins are U.S. citizens, and are therefore able to legally drive their older relatives from place to place. Otherwise, they are limited to public transportation.

Despite the difficulties that Ramirez and his family have faced as immigrants in Wisconsin, Ramirez said his parents made the right choice bringing their family here.

“I think it was very difficult for them to start from zero, again,” Ramirez said. “Not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, not knowing the system, overall. But I think, if we wouldn’t have left, I don’t see where we would’ve ended up. I don’t know where my future would’ve been. I don’t see myself as a baker. I don’t see myself fixing electronics – that’s not my passion. I don’t know what life I would’ve had.”

A nation of immigrants

The Eau Claire area’s Latinx immigrant community faces distressing circumstances as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement carry out raids that so far resulted in the arrests of four people from Eau Claire Country and four from nearby Arcadia, in Trempealeau County.

 Located in Trempealeau County is the City of Arcadia. According to Arcadia’s mayor, Rob Reichwein, Trempealeau County contains one of the fastest-growing Latinx populations in the U.S., with Arcadia serving as the largest Latinx population center in the county.

U.S. Census data shows that the Hispanic population in Arcadia has almost doubled during the past five years.

The Arcadia ICE raids carried out in August resulted in a lot of “rightful” fear within the local Latinx community, Reichwein said. Though ICE gave county police a 24-hour notice before conducting any raids, city officials themselves were not notified, Reichwein said.

According to the ICE website, ICE works closely with law enforcement with the goal of ensuring the safety of local communities.

“The 287(g) program enables a state or local law enforcement entity to receive delegated authority, training, and technology resources for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions,” the website said. “ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center coordinates response and enforcement actions with law enforcement partners using biometrics to identify foreign-born individuals arrested for criminal offenses.”

The 287(g) program is outlined in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Through the program, state and local police collaborate with the federal government to enforce federal immigration laws, according to the American Immigration Council.

In this case, Reichwein said local law enforcement was informed, but did not collaborate.

While Reichwein said some community members expressed concern following the ICE raids, he believes ICE is deliberate about who gets targeted – people with previous criminal records.

“(Enforcement and Removal Operations) also enhances the impact of multi-agency task forces through its administrative authority to arrest individuals deemed a threat to public safety on their unlawful immigrations status without additional criminal charges,” the ICE website said.

“I’m not a fan of criminals, no matter what,” Reichwein said. “Illegal aliens are just a little different. If that’s their only crime they committed I guess I’m a little bit more laissez faire about it. However, if you have domestic abuse-type issues, child abuse, sexual abuse, drugs, violence – whether you’re any race – I have an issue with that. And we don’t need members of those in our community or, in my belief, any community. So, I look at it as: Those people – and again, any race – should be dealt with.”

Though Reichwein said he did not know any of the four people who were arrested by ICE, he said he believes ICE targets criminals, and he said anyone – regardless of race – should have to face punishment for crimes committed.

However, he also said natural-born Americans tend to forget that they themselves are not so far removed from the ancestors who were also new to this country at one point in time.

“The (Latinx) community is vibrant, fun – they want to better themselves. And we – as city officials, and as their friends and neighbors – we need to cultivate that.”

Maria

 Nineteen years ago, a single mother of three loaded her children and their belongings into her pickup truck. She drove them away from their home in Chihuahua, Mexico, toward a new life in America.

Maria Villa-Rivera was only 2 years old at the time – too young to remember it.

“(My mom) kind of realized that there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for her, as a single mother, and also for (my brothers),” Villa-Rivera said. “And she was also kind of worried like, ‘What’s it going to be like raising my daughter here when she gets old enough?’ That kind of thing.”

Villa-Rivera came to Wisconsin with her mother and two older brothers, Carlos and Eduardo, who were 15 and 8 at the time. Her aunt and uncle were already living in Kiel, Wisconsin. There, they worked on a large farm. Villa-Rivera’s father, whom she met for the first time at the age of 17, still lives in Mexico.

Her mother was working as a secretary for a tire company prior to moving to Wisconsin. She asked Villa-Rivera’s aunt and uncle if there would be opportunities for her in America – if she would be able to find a job. They said, “Yes.”

Villa-Rivera said her mom obtained some sort of visa – she couldn’t remember what for – and brought her family to the farm in Kiel, where Villa-Rivera spent her early years primarily interacting with the children of the farm owners.

According to Villa-Rivera, there was a span of time after her mother’s visa had expired when she and her family were undocumented. However, Villa-Rivera and her family obtained U.S. residency when she was 12. She then became a U.S. citizen three years ago, at the age of 19.

In school, Villa-Rivera became increasingly aware of the differences between herself and her classmates. She said she attended school with only one other Mexican student, in a rural community, with a predominantly-white population.

Growing up, Villa-Rivera knew she stood out among her peers. There were cultural differences between her family and her peers she said she didn’t like to explain to people unfamiliar with the Mexican culture. She felt the need to “act white” around her friends to avoid making them feel uncomfortable.

“Somebody would say something, and it would kind of just be like, ‘Oh, right. You really don’t see me as a person of color. You really don’t see me in any other way besides the white way I have to act around you,’” Villa-Rivera said. “It’s hard to explain why you don’t do certain things in front of white people and why you do other things.”

Villa-Rivera said she even had a classmate who didn’t like the way Villa-Rivera rolled her R when she said her own name, so that girl mockingly called her “Mia” up until her senior year of high school.

Other members of her family faced similar incidences of racial bias and prejudice.

One night, Villa-Rivera’s brother was running through their neighborhood, trying to reach home before curfew. He slipped on a patch of ice and fell. As he climbed back to his feet, a police officer in a squad car pulled up beside him.

The officer told Villa-Rivera’s brother that he had received reports of a suspicious person running through the neighborhood. Her brother explained what he was doing. He told the officer his house was just down the street and invited the officer to follow him there and see for himself.

The officer handcuffed Villa-Rivera’s brother, sat him in the back seat of his police vehicle and drove him half a block down the street to his house.

Despite the adversity Villa-Rivera’s family faces as immigrants, they strive to stay in touch with their Mexican culture.

“I’m not allowed to speak English at home,” Villa-Rivera said with a laugh. “Even the little things – it’s so stupid, the things that we’ll say that’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re American now.’ Like my little brother went through a phase where he didn’t like eating beans and we were like, ‘That’s it. We lost him. We’re down one more Mexican in this town.’ And he got real sad about it.”

The Villa-Rivera family would often gather in the yard outside their home for family picnics. They would prepare Mexican food and listen to Mexican music. It was funny, she said, celebrating her culture while surrounded by Trump signs in her neighbors’ yards.

One neighbor in particular would come out during her family cookouts, pull up a lawn chair and a beer and just sit and watch her family silently. When her uncle once invited this neighbor to join them, he responded by wordlessly picking up his chair and going back inside.

“You putting up a sign in your yard and you sitting and watching us – it’s not going to do anything,” Villa-Rivera said with a shake of her head. “It’s just weird.”

Villa-Rivera said she has noticed that people are generally more accepting and tolerant now that she’s in college. She said racial issues are still here, they’re just not as prevalent. At this point in her life, Villa-Rivera said “acting white” comes naturally. You live in a society and you’re a part of the society where you grew up, she said. She is two sides of the same coin.

Today, Villa-Rivera’s mother is remarried to a man she met on the farm in Kiel – a man also from Chihuahua. She has a younger half-brother, Sebastian, 15, who is the only natural-born U.S. citizen in their immediate family. Her mother works as a secretary for Sargento Foods.

Her mother became pregnant for the first time at 18, preventing her from going to college. Her step-father dropped out of school in 4th grade in order to help out at his family ranch.

“My mom was alone (when she came to the U.S.),” Villa-Rivera said. “It’s insane that she just decided to pick up her three kids – doesn’t know the language and doesn’t have any game plan, really – and it ended up working out really well for us, in the long run … I really do think it was worth it and I think my mom has said it multiple times: she would do it all over again if she could.”

Villa-Rivera’s older brothers, now 34 and 27, are both serving in the U.S. military.

Today, Villa-Rivera is a fourth-year critical English studies student at the UW-Eau Claire. She is also working toward certificates in the history of race and gender in society and legal studies. After graduating from Eau Claire, Villa-Rivera said she hopes to move on to graduate school for English with an emphasis on critical race theory.

Ultimately, Villa-Rivera hopes to teach. She said she wants to help people who are in situations similar to the one she grew up with – especially considering today’s political climate. She also expressed interest in translating legal documents for non-English speakers.

“I do love being here and I wouldn’t go back to Mexico,” Villa-Rivera said. “I just want it to be better, and I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. I just want to be OK, and I think that’s kind of the sentiment of a lot of people that come here, where it’s just like, ‘We came here for a reason and we are doing well and we do love the country and like to contribute’ … Sometimes it sucks, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love it.”