Posted on September 23, 2004

Some Latinos Mark Culture Quietly

Sheila B. Lalwani, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sept. 14

As first- and second-generation Latinos throughout the state mark National Hispanic Heritage Month beginning Wednesday with public education forums, festivals, luncheons and other cultural events, another group is more likely to celebrate in silence: undocumented immigrants.

As the Latino population has surged throughout the state — notably in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Racine — so has the community of undocumented residents who are here illegally, experts say.

Organizations that work with migrant populations estimate that the number of undocumented people living and working mainly in low-wage jobs throughout Wisconsin are into the thousands and continuing to increase.

Maria Morales, a coordinator with Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee organization that works with migrant workers to protect their rights, said illegal immigrants keep a low profile. Her organization has been pushing for undocumented high school students to pay in-state tuition fees at colleges and universities in Wisconsin. Undocumented workers stay quiet because they risk losing their jobs or being deported, she said.

“Secretly they might make their dinners at home and celebrate,” she said. “They don’t want to be pointed out.”

U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the number of illegal immigrants coming to the state ballooned from 10,000 in 1990 to 41,000 in 2000. Government statistics say 7 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the U.S. in 2000.

National Hispanic Heritage Month was initiated as National Hispanic Heritage Week under former President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The week was expanded to include the entire 31-day period in 1998. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala celebrate their independence today. Mexico’s independence day is Thursday.

Throughout the state, Latinos and organizations that serve Latinos are holding special luncheons and ceremonies that will highlight Latino and Latino-American contributions.

In Racine, students at Horlick High School plan to hold their first-ever Latino celebration. The students have traveled to Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee to call on elected officials to pass legislation aimed at granting greater rights to undocumented immigrants and their children.

Juan, an illegal resident from Mexico, said Tuesday that he was proud of his heritage but does not plan to showcase it. He has lived in Racine for about 10 years and has made a living as a carpenter. He does not proclaim his nationality for fear of being caught. Juan’s last name was withheld to protect his identity.

“I think it’s a real fear,” said Alberto Benitez, a professor of clinical law and director of the Immigration Clinic at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “There’s no dispute. These people don’t have a legal right to be in the United States. They live their lives, they go about their business, they work, send their children to school. They exist. It’s always tempered with the real possibility of being arrested.”

Mexico is the single largest source country for unauthorized immigration to the U.S. The Center for Immigration Studies, an independent, non-partisan and non-profit research organization in Washington, D.C., estimated that illegal resident population from Mexico increased from about 2 million people in 1990 to 4.8 million in January 2000.

“People who are undocumented do not stand alone,” said Christina Neumann-Ortiz, coordinator with Voces. “The reality is that people shouldn’t be afraid, especially just to come to a festival. You’re not having an immigrant agent check you at the door.”

That may be, but Roberto, an illegal alien from Mexico, said Tuesday that he plans to hold back this year. His last name was withheld to protect his identity. He has lived and worked in Wisconsin for years but is still afraid of being sent back, he said through a translator, Manuel Avila of Racine.

“They are afraid they are going to be sent back,” Avila said. “What job they have here, however little it pays, they want it.”