They risked everything they had for a chance at a better life. But for many undocumented Latino immigrants, entering the U.S. was just the beginning of a journey fraught with roadblocks greater than any border wall. Still, many in the Madison area have thrived, building homes, businesses and families despite the ever-present fear of deportation. They are farmhands who provide the milk on your table, the kitchen crew that prepares meals in some of your favorite restaurants or the college student seated next to you in the lecture hall. And amid the wake of rising political rhetoric against them, they’re starting to speak out.
Terrified but determined, 5-year-old Laura P. Minero silently repeated her new false name to herself like a soothing mantra—Linda Hernandez. Linda Hernandez. Linda Hernandez.—as the burgundy van rumbled down the dusty highway toward the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. She gulped back her fear in parched swallows, sneaking glances at the strangers in the passenger seats posing as her family, U.S. citizens risking their own safety to deliver her to her papá, who was anxiously, helplessly waiting for her and her mother in California. Penniless and desperate, he’d gone ahead first to find work and though they’d been separated for only two months, it felt like an eternity. She squirmed in her seat, trying not to worry about her mamá, stowed like cargo beneath the passenger seat of some other car, somewhere else. She pushed from her mind last night’s tearful goodbyes with cousins who were more like siblings to her, raised in the same tiny house in Guadalajara, Jalisco, a city she would never see again. She’d memorized as much as a 5-year-old could about her borrowed identity, knowing she could shuck it like shackles as soon as the van was safely through border patrol and she was back in her real parents’ arms on the other side. It was Christmas Day 1995 and there was no gift she wanted more.
Today, it’s easy to picture the 25-year-old University of Wisconsin–Madison doctoral student with deeply carved dimples, llama-like eyelashes and dark, swishing ponytail as the kindergartner she once was. What’s hard to imagine is the journey itself, which certainly didn’t stop at the border and—like that of so many thousands of other Mexican immigrants—led to Wisconsin. Although she’s assimilated to the point of being indistinguishable from any other student on campus, Minero’s Spanish-speaking parents still live in a tiny trailer in central California, her dad working the dairies and her mom in a supermarket, presumably for the rest of their lives. There’s no retirement option for undocumented workers (despite paying tens of thousands of tax dollars they’ll never get a return on), and upward mobility is impossible for those who can’t get a driver’s license, let alone a Social Security number. There’s no fix, either. Once you enter this country in the way Minero’s family did—crossing the U.S. border illegally became a misdemeanor crime in 1929—there is no legal pathway to citizenship, and legal immigration from Mexico to the United States is, by all accounts, a nearly impossible process.
“We didn’t have any other option,” says Minero, her chin lifting. Like the two other high-profile U.S. college students whose stories cycled through the news in recent months—exceptional students who “came out” as undocumented in their valedictorian speeches—Minero, who is studying counseling psychology, has excelled in this country despite significant barriers. Of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States (more than half of whom come from Mexico), Minero and roughly 2.1 million others are known as “dreamers,” based on a failed 2001 congressional bill called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, better known as the DREAM Act, aimed at providing a pathway to citizenship for kids whose parents brought them here illegally. Although that bill and other immigration reform attempts died in what many characterize as a hopelessly entrenched Congress, in 2012, President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, known as DACA, which has so far provided temporary relief from deportation to about 728,000 undocumented immigrants like Minero. In 2014, the president announced an expansion of DACA and a new initiative called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, called DAPA, but Texas and 25 other states (including Wisconsin) sued to block the orders. In June 2016, the Supreme Court chose not to change federal district court injunction that is keeping Obama from implementing expanded DACA and DAPA.
DACA granted undocumented young adults deportation exemption, eligibility for a driver’s license and renewable two-year work permits. Before that, although she graduated first in her class with a master’s degree, Minero couldn’t get a job beyond the fast-food restaurant positions that put her through school. She also couldn’t get financial aid because undocumented students are ineligible to apply. Through DACA, Minero was finally able to access the life she has today, including the ability to apply for highly competitive out-of-state Ph.D. research programs, a university job and health insurance for the first time.
“There’s a huge assumption that immigrants, in particular undocumented immigrants, just expect to receive things and be given things, and I can say that is the utmost incorrect assumption to have about us,” says Minero. “There has absolutely been nothing that hasn’t come from hard work and hard sweat and tough tears. Absolutely nothing.”
Although Minero’s status is safe for now, executive orders are only as permanent as the presidents who enact them, and life as she knows it could evaporate in November. Depending on who is elected, she could eventually face deportation to a country as foreign to her as it is to any Wisconsinite. And that’s just one of many fears and challenges facing Latino immigrants in Madison, undocumented or not. Latino kids are especially vulnerable to the rising xenophobic rhetoric in the current presidential election, including a campaign pledge by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Kids are scared,” says Minero, who was asked to co-facilitate an immigrant youth support group at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton earlier this year. She says that although she “can’t lie” and tell them their families will never be deported, she can let them know that people care about them regardless of their documentation status.
“People need to believe that we are more than just this nine-digit absent Social Security number,” says Minero. “When 9/11 happened, I cried. The Columbine shootings, the Oklahoma bombing, I remember all of these things. I lived alongside the American people, feared the same things, loved the same things, celebrated the same things. I just didn’t have access to voting, didn’t have access to health care, but my lived experiences still tell you and show you that I am American. It’s a piece of plastic that I don’t have that says otherwise. But everything else about me as a human being, if you step into my shoes, will show you that.”
While some might think immigration is an issue reserved for border states, Wisconsin’s Latino population now ranks 15th in the nation (according to a March 2016 report), virtually exploding from 62,603 in 1980 to 336,056 in 2010. Dane County has the second-highest Latino population in the state, with 30,000—up from 5,744 in 1990—and the vast majority were born here as legal U.S. citizens. About one-third are immigrants, and more than half of those emigrated before the year 2000—which means most of Madison’s Latinos have lived here a long time. Many have built homes, families and businesses. The Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County boasts nearly 200 members.
“It’s a very layered community, it’s really complex,” says Karen Menéndez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano of Dane County, which serves more than 1,000 local Latino families each year. Menéndez Coller says Madison’s Latino community is an eclectic mix of people who came as university students generations ago and stayed, as well as those who followed migrant worker patterns throughout the U.S. and in Wisconsin itself; about 70 percent of Latinos in Dane County are of Mexican descent, she says, and the majority of Latinos in Wisconsin (63 percent statewide) are U.S.-born. But despite their growing numbers and generational longevity, much of the local Latino community remains pocketed and isolated, Menéndez Coller says, and so Centro’s work focuses foremost on engagement.
The 25 to 30 percent of Madison’s Latinos who are indeed immigrants (undocumented or otherwise) may face language barriers, educational disparities, unemployment, wage theft, poverty, isolation, vulnerability to crime and painful discrimination.
“The most important thing for me is for families to feel like Centro is a safe space, is a home,” she says of its programs spanning job and academic support, college prep and career planning as well as helping immigrant families, particularly kids. One room at Centro, the Dream Room, is dedicated to all Latino children.
“We call it the Dream Room because it’s where kids can come and dream about their future and speak about their status and be really open and honest,” says the Los Angeles-raised Menéndez Coller. She says she was floored by what was almost an “obsession” with status on the part of reporters and donors when she first came to Centro in 2013. “My entire first year, whenever anybody asked me a question, they’d always start with, ‘How many undocumented people does Centro serve?’ Why don’t you [ask] how many people we serve? It’s your community.”
The 25 to 30 percent of Madison’s Latinos who are indeed immigrants (undocumented or otherwise) may face language barriers, educational disparities, unemployment, wage theft, poverty, isolation, vulnerability to crime and painful discrimination. Many live with the hulking threat of deportation, hearing stories of local law enforcement collaborating with federal immigration enforcement officials to remove undocumented people for any crime (even, say, a drunken driving ticket from 10 years prior). Still others are uncertain of their rights at all, and so they keep a low profile, often not reporting crimes they witness or in which they themselves are victims. Arguably the biggest barrier of all is that undocumented immigrants can no longer get a driver’s license since the federal Real ID Act was passed in 2005.
Every time an unlicensed driver gets behind the wheel to go to work or take his or her child to school, it’s a criminal act. As Madison Police Department Chief Mike Koval put it in a November 2015 blog post, “We are forcing people to make difficult choices between violating the law and providing for the essential needs of a family.”
Much of the backlash against undocumented immigrants takes place on the national stage and is led by groups promoting immigration reform—but not the same kind of reform that provides greater opportunities in this country for immigrants. Politically, the issue historically has been split along party lines, with Democrats favoring a pathway to citizenship and Republicans supporting a more controlled policy that further limits immigration.
Constitutionally, immigration law and its enforcement falls to the federal government—this dates back to U.S. negotiations with indigenous tribes of this land, when everyone else was an immigrant. But new federal laws can muddy the waters (particularly buoyed by a heightened sense of post-9/11 fear), and state and local municipalities propose and pass laws and ordinances all the time.
In Wisconsin, anti-immigrant sentiment exists on both sides of the aisle, but “by and large the Republican Party’s position has been that undocumented immigration is bad for national security reasons,” says Rachel Ida Buff, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, whose research interests include immigration and the history of immigrant rights. A possible exception, she adds, is Republicans who represent districts with lots of dairy farmers—more than 40 percent of employees on Wisconsin dairy farms are now Latino immigrants. Buff says some politicians have made anti-immigration policies a priority, particularly U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, (R-Wis.), who authored the Real ID Act and was one of the key champions of the Patriot Act.
“Well before Trump, Wisconsin has its own really intense anti-immigrant sentiment,” says Buff, adding that it’s also been characteristic of Gov. Scott Walker to reverse former pro-immigrant “wins” since he was elected. In his very first budget, he inserted a provision that eliminated the ability of undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at UW System schools.
This year Wisconsin Republicans doubled down on the driver’s license block with Senate Bill 533, which prohibits local governments from issuing photo ID cards. When Walker signed the act into law in April, he said it was to “protect taxpayers and the integrity of elections.” Immigration reform advocates consider this kind of legislation “anti-immigrant” while supporters characterize it as critical to either voter integrity or national security. But what threat, specifically, undocumented immigrants pose is not always clear.
“People think that the immigrants took their jobs,” says Buff, because working-class people without a college degree could still achieve a middle-class standard of life in the not-so-distant past. They could send their kids to college, pay off the mortgage and retire with two cars in the driveway. “At the same time that we’ve lost these jobs” to deindustrialization, outsourcing and more, “immigrants have showed up.” The two are not causally related, says Buff, but they seem to be.
“I think there’s a lot of people who aren’t racist but who often feel like things are not what they used to be around here. Then the explanation that they’re given, like, ‘Look around you, here are these immigrants, they’re taking your jobs’ seems compelling,” says Buff. “They’re wrong, but they can seem compelling.”
But every time the tides of anti-immigration rise, so too does support for immigrants. On a frigid February day this year, an estimated 14,000 Latinos and their supporters descended on the Capitol Square to protest SB 533 and a second proposed bill (to fine so-called sanctuary cities that restrict police from asking one’s immigration status, a measure that failed). “A Day Without Latinos,” mobilized by Voces de la Frontera (which established a Madison chapter this year), drew non-Latino support as well, including the powerful Green Bay-based Dairy Business Association, and many area businesses closed that day in solidarity. In recent years, several groups have come out publicly in favor of immigration reform including the National Restaurant Association, the National Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, driven mostly by the bottom line. Immigrants account for a healthy chunk of the economy and the workforce. A 2016 report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that undocumented immigrants pay nearly $12 billion each year in state and local taxes, and a 2015 memo from the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C., says that if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Wisconsin today, the state would lose $2.6 billion in economic activity.
Still, some national pundits say that if immigrants don’t like the barriers and lack of basic rights, they shouldn’t enter this country illegally—do it the right way, and their problems are solved.
But that there’s a “right way” to immigrate here, say advocates, is the biggest misconception of all.
“There is no way to come the legal way, and that’s the thing that really irks me the most,” says Grant Sovern, an immigration attorney at Quarles & Brady in Madison, where he helps large research and development employers legally integrate talent from other countries. “People just assume there’s a normal … ‘way’ to come. But the ways to immigrate permanently to the United States are so dramatically limited that nobody even believes it.”
In addition to an “alphabet soup” of work and travel visas (all temporary and very limited in scope), the holy grail is Permanent Resident Status, otherwise known as a green card. There are generally four ways to apply for a green card: sponsorship by a close family member (spouse, a child older than 21, parent or sibling) who is a U.S. citizen or green-card holder, which takes between two and 20 years; marriage to a U.S. citizen, which takes about a year; sponsorship by a U.S. business (and only after they have recruited within the U.S. for six months and can show the Department of Labor there was no qualified U.S. citizen for the position), which takes two to 15 years; and the Diversity Visa Lottery—open only to high school graduates from countries that don’t already send a lot of immigrants to the U.S. and bestowed upon only 50,000 of the 12 million applicants each year. Further, the U.S. immigration system is designed by category and country and is skewed toward wealthier countries, limiting each to a set number of immigrants annually—and those numbers haven’t been updated since 1952. Four countries are dramatically oversubscribed, and Mexico is one of them. Any Mexican filing papers for legal immigration to the United States today will have a waiting period of two to five years if they are applying for an employer-sponsored green card, or 15 to 20 years if it's a family-based card.
“So when people talk about the ‘immigration problem’ in the United States, they think of it as people illegally coming to the U.S. and circumventing our laws. But in my mind, the real problem is our system does not reflect reality,” says Sovern. “We have businesses who want to hire people, we have individuals who want to come here and add to the economy. But our system hasn’t been updated.”
Not only that, it’s gotten worse. In 1996, Congress passed a law stating that if you came to this country illegally—snuck across the border or overstayed your visa—the only way to get your green card was to leave the U.S. and, if you'd been in the U.S. for more than a year, wait 10 years before you could come back. The biggest effect this law had on Latino immigration was that the number of migrant workers going back and forth dropped and, instead, they started staying and bringing their family members to join them. Contrary to some of the national rhetoric, border crossings like that of the Mineros have steadily declined every year since 2008 (although the U.S. spends tens of billions of dollars each year enforcing the border), and America’s Latino population has continued to grow as generations put down roots. For the most part, says Sovern, the chance of Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform seems implausible, leaving each state’s legislature, courts and local municipalities to battle over their own policies.
“Our immigration policy in the United States for the past 10 or 15 years is to slowly, slowly take away every semblance of living and being a human so that eventually you will go back home because you wouldn’t want to stay,” says Sovern, adding that it’s a dangerous misreading of reality on the government’s part. “People often assume it’s the pull factor that brings people to the United States. But for a lot of people, it’s the push factor. They just cannot live where they are. And you cannot make it miserable enough for people to leave because things are so bad back home.”
And so they come anyway, fleeing civil war, gang violence, oppressive, corrupt governments and dead-end futures. Speaking at a July fundraiser at Centro Hispano, award-winning Latina author Reyna Grande (whose husband is from Wisconsin) spoke of the heroin cartel in her hometown of Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, the same place where 43 college students disappeared in 2014; of 60 mass graves found near Iguala and the extreme poverty, violence and instability in and around the community. Although her personal story is one of an undocumented immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, others who have fled their homeland to this country are not so fortunate. Forced to work hard and lie low, many still manage to build new lives, even thrive in communities, depending on the local political climate. Here in Madison, where Latinos now make up close to 7 percent of the population after multiple generations of immigration, there is a robust network of resources, most led and nurtured by the Latino community itself.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be Latino in Madison where most people assume you’re undocumented when A, it’s not true, and B, it’s true of other people, you just can’t see it,” says Sovern. “If you have a European accent, we assume you’re at the university. But if you have a Spanish accent, we assume you’re undocumented.”
Sovern says there are only a handful of "qualified" immigration attorneys in town, mostly because immigration law is complex, the closest U.S. immigrations court is in Chicago and there’s not a lot that can be done for the people who need it most anyway. In 2012, Sovern and other immigration attorneys helped start the Immigrant Justice Clinic at UW–Madison, where a small cohort UW law students argue a handful of cases annually in federal immigration court to help clients facing deportation. Once a month, these students conduct an all-day intake session at the Dodge County Courthouse, which contracts with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At any given moment in Wisconsin, there are about 200 detainees awaiting deportation proceedings in Dodge County. They’re housed with the general prison population, they were often taken from home or jobs with no warning and they have very limited Fourth Amendment rights. Even still, the justice clinic can help only a miniscule percentage—because, for most people, there’s nothing that can be done.
“If we had triple the number of immigration lawyers, it would not make any difference because it’s the law that’s the problem,” says Sovern.
Earlier this year, two dozen Madison-area hotels and restaurants made scandalous headlines after a U.S. Department of Labor investigation revealed $724,000 in unpaid wages owed to area workers, most of whom were undocumented. According to Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers Rights Center, or WRC, on South Park Street, this incident barely scratches the surface.
“If they had looked at all of the restaurants and hotels, there would have been multimillion dollars of unpaid wages. You’re hard-pressed to go to a place where you’re not going to find some kind of labor violations,” says Hickey, who, through the WRC, has helped recover more than $1.25 million in unpaid wages, overtime and penalties in the center’s 15-year history. The WRC serves about 500 workers a year, 65 percent of whom are Latino immigrants and all of whom legally share the same rights as their documented coworkers—though they often don’t know it.
“A lot of the issues and problems that workers are dealing with [are] because of their immigration status,” says Hickey. “They’re not being paid because they’re undocumented. They’re being sexually harassed because they’re undocumented. They’re not getting workers comp protections because they’re undocumented. Since they don’t have their driver’s license, because they can’t get one, that’s leading to problems. They can’t change jobs as easily because they’re undocumented, so they’re trapped in a bad job.”
Miguel Murillo is no longer trapped in a bad job, but his employment options are limited by his undocumented status. “I did try in 2000 because I have a brother that is a U.S. citizen, and I have been waiting,” he says, through an interpreter, of his pending application for a sibling-sponsored green card, now 16 years in process. “Every day they just get behind and behind and behind.”
When the Guadalajaran-born Murillo crossed the border 22 years ago, He was caught five or six times. "I had to be two weeks without eating, no shoes, and then the heat, without money.” All of this was preferable to suffering under the reign of then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Murillo’s brothers were already settled in Wisconsin, so he aimed his compass here, pulling his wife and two young children in the direction of a new north. A third child was born in Madison a couple of years after their arrival, and the family of five settled in to build a life. (Just two years ago, a fourth child was born; their kids are now 23, 19, 17 and 2.) Murillo, a construction worker back in Mexico, worked his way up in local hotels and restaurants, even training as a supervisor, but “once they started looking for documentation, I had to leave.” Meanwhile, his wife Maria worked two hospitality jobs at a time throughout a pregnancy and during Murillo’s bout with cancer in the late 1990s.
The Murillos are now a mixed-status family, like so many immigrant families in America. Two of their children are U.S.-born citizens while the other two, like Laura P. Minero, came here as toddlers and have never known another country. Miguel and Maria remain undocumented; they would have been eligible for DAPA (which sought to grant deportation exemptions and renewable three-year work permits to undocumented parents of U.S.-born citizens) when their 17-year-old daughter eventually turned 21, if the Supreme Court ruling had unblocked it in June. Now, their last remaining hope is that the pending green card application finally goes through—although Murillo is hardly holding his breath.
“I think about opening my own company, but I can’t because I don’t have a driver’s license,” says Murillo, who would love to put his passion for construction, his business savvy and his leadership skills to work in this economy. “I think that some people might think that we come here and steal somebody else’s job, but we don’t do that,” he says. In fact, he’d like to be the one creating jobs. He would also like to buy a home, but a mortgage is impossible without a driver’s license.
Just last year, Murillo’s current employer provided him with health insurance for the first time in his life. Previous to that, all of the family’s medical expenses were paid out of pocket on payment plans, siphoning almost every dollar they earned, especially during Miguel’s cancer years (in a twist of fate, a wealthy benefactor from St. Louis paid for Miguel’s bone marrow transplant in 1998, a story documented in several newspapers including the Wisconsin State Journal).
The Murillos consider themselves hardworking, moral people—Miguel even called the police on his own teenaged son after he’d come home under the influence of drugs—but in fact they're lawbreakers every time they get behind the wheel. Both Miguel and Maria drive to work and run errands without a driver’s license. Auto insurance is now legally required in Wisconsin, but as you can’t buy it without a license, they’re breaking that law, too. “It’s difficult to call the police because when there are times that you have asked them to come for help, you are the one that ends up with a ticket,” says Miguel, “and most of the cases it’s for driving with no license.”
The Murillos live in a Dane County community just outside Madison. Two and a half years ago, their apartment was burglarized and Miguel says although the perpetrator was never caught, one of the investigating officers started following him for months. One day the officer finally pulled him over—Miguel insists without cause. The interpreter interrupts him here: “One of the issues is, the police tell you the only way for them to find out who you really are, and that perhaps you haven’t committed any crime, is to take you downtown and run your fingerprints,” he says. “And they match those with the FBI and also with immigration just to see if you have a pending deportation.” (Although the Madison Police Department has a policy of not asking about immigration status, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office runs everyone through the ICE database and alerts them to undocumented arrests.)
Murillo waits, listening, then speaks again. The interpreter nods, slipping back into Murillo’s voice.
“When I went to the police station I [asked] the officer: What is the worse crime?” he says. “Driving without a driver’s license? Or not providing for the needs of my family?”
In 2016, the WRC release a 43-page report called "Struggling for a Better Life: The State of Working Latinos in Dane County," offering an unprecedented look into the local Latino population that doubled in the last 10 years. In addition to data crunching, census reports, community forums and focus groups, the WRC collected 243 surveys from Latino workers in Dane County, most of whom were Spanish speakers between the ages of 30 and 40. Sixty-two percent have lived in the U.S. for 11 years or more and another 25 percent between six and 10 years. The average worker surveyed had four children and worked 40 hours per week for a median wage of $10.50 an hour. Forty-three percent reported some form of wage theft. Forty-five percent had no health benefits. Overall, 28 percent of Wisconsin Latinos live in poverty—double that of the general population, which was 13 percent in 2014.
“The stereotype is that they don’t cause trouble, they don’t make waves, they work really hard,” says Hickey. “You’ve got them over a barrel, so if they do start causing trouble, you can just get rid of them and replace them.”
That’s not to say Wisconsin’s manufacturing and hospitality employers are looking to take advantage of undocumented workers left and right—not even close. Today, most strike a tentative “don’t ask, don’t tell” balance between hiring good workers and toeing the legal line themselves.
“Early on, we would get probably as many calls from employers as workers when there were issues about people’s status,” says Hickey. They’d say things like they just found out half their workforce doesn’t have a valid Social Security number, or they really need these workers for their business; these are supervisors, managers, what’s the process? “And we’d have to tell them, there isn’t one,” Hickey says.
The WRC report outlines 10 suggested recommendations including Latino political power, access to driver’s licenses and in-state tuition, raising the minimum wage, implementing penalties for employers who exploit undocumented workers (currently, those penalties are minor or nonexistent), expanded job training, universal access to health care and more. But Hickey says immigration is so polarizing in the U.S. Congress—the only body that can change the federal laws—that he’s skeptical he’ll see any real change soon.
“The pressure on the Right is so intense that the reasonable members of the Republican Party can’t come out in support of this without being kicked out of office, which is why Obama has done what he’s done with the executive orders,” says Hickey. As for DACA, “We know a lot of people here in town, it’s changed their lives.”
Like the two area high school students who spoke in support of DACA and DAPA at an April news conference in Madison.
“Receiving DACA has opened many doors for me, including being able to contribute to our economy and get more professional work experiences through internships that I’ve been able to get through my work permit,” said Madison East High School senior Lupe Salmeron, flanked by Menéndez Coller and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. “DACA has also empowered me to step out of the shadows and show the world what hardworking immigrants like us can actually do.”
This is typical, says Hickey. Madison’s “DACAmented” children are in college, they’re working, they’ve been able to go from a not-such-a-good job to a much better job. “But that’s also a limited program,” he says. “That ends when Obama’s term ends.”
Which is precisely what student Laura P. Minero fears most.
While Minero considers herself a success story in her community, the road to this point had barrier after barrier, and students like her often don’t realize the full impact until they smash up against each one. While growing up in California, Minero knew her family was different, that her parents worked harder than most, that their single biggest threat was the white vans with the ICE symbols that occasionally rolled through town. But it wasn’t until her classmates started getting driver’s licenses, jobs and college scholarships that she felt the full exclusionary force of her reality.
All undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, state aid laws vary and every college has the prerogative to set its own rules, whether it’s extending scholarships or accepting in-state tuition. In Wisconsin, an undocumented “dreamer” raised here since childhood and brought up in public schools cannot receive in-state tuition at UW–Madison (the difference between $10,488 and $32,738 each year), putting attendance well out of reach for even the most stellar local students. Even in California, although state law allowed for in-state tuition, $26,000 a year was still an exorbitant price tag for the University of California, Santa Cruz, Minero’s first choice. Instead, she accepted a two-year full ride from a local community college. She then used a state grant, the efforts of her minimum-wage-earning parents and the income from her own two fast-food jobs to transfer to California State University, Fullerton. During her undergraduate, Minero had no options beyond minimum-wage jobs until DACA changed everything. Now, Minero sees her future looking so much brighter—at least until the 2016 presidential election results are in.
DACA didn’t just open up UW–Madison as an option to Minero, it opened up Minero as an option to UW–Madison. After earning her master’s degree and graduating first in her class, Minero was accepted into several elite Ph.D. programs across the country; she passed up a $50,000 scholarship package at Columbia University to come to Madison to complete her Ph.D. in a highly competitive graduate program. Shortly thereafter she was selected as a recipient of the 2016 Predoctoral Ford Fellowship. The kindergartner who couldn’t speak English when she arrived in this country has become among its top achievers, and there are stories like hers unfolding across this country.
This spring, Minero helped establish the student organization Dreamers of UW–Madison to advocate for undocumented college students, and she hopes to continue facilitating the youth immigrant support groups with local middle and high schools. Although Minero has deliberately stepped out of the shadows, she says she’s not alone.
“It’s so unfortunate that students here, who are also leaders, who are also agents of change, who are giving so much of themselves to the community, are treated as less than, are told ‘You don’t belong here.’ Which is why I’m open to speaking about these things,” says Minero. “Because if we open the doors and provide opportunity, these students could really do something with that.”
But, she says, if DACA ends in November, so do they.
“If somebody decides that this doesn’t belong here, [then] we don’t belong here. We’re invisible. We don’t deserve to be here. Everything that we’ve worked for is gone.”