Illegal immigrants live on edge of society, fearing deportation
Click here to read the transcript of our chat with reporter Anna Marie Lux about The Gazette's three-day series "Changing Face of America."
Changing Face of America
Hispanics are changing the face of local communities. Rock County's Hispanic population more than doubled from 2000 to 2010. Walworth County's Hispanic population jumped 72 percent. Who are some of the new neighbors and what issues do they face? The Gazette looks at those questions and other topics in a three-day series. View section
Sunday: Immigration stories offer insight into why Mexicans left their homes.
Today: For new immigrants, life is not always what they expect: American Dream or American nightmare?
Tuesday: A new generation of Americans talks about navigating the porous border between two cultures.
Hispanics are changing the face of local communities. Who are some of the new neighbors and what issues do they face?
Ana shudders at what could have happened.
She has heard about people who walk and die in the desert, who freeze in the mountains and who drown in canals.
She knows that some suffocate in semitrailers or boxcars, where they are crammed so tightly they cannot turn.
She knows that others are beaten and raped by smugglers, who leave them to die.
Every year, migrants risk their lives to illegally cross the 2,100-mile border that separates Mexico and the United States, two neighboring nations that have one of the largest income gaps on Earth.
"I was lucky," said Ana, who lives in Rock County. "I've heard terrible stories about what can happen."
More than a decade ago, Ana left behind her mother and nine siblings in Puebla, south of Mexico City, to join her husband in the United States. He had crossed the border illegally to work and had planned to return after two years.
"It was hard to stay separated from each other," Ana recalled. "I told him that I can come and make money, too."
Ana's husband sent her cash to join him.
The 20-year-old woman traveled to the border town of Tijuana, where she stayed with cousins. She paid $2,000 to a coyote—the term for someone who smuggles people without legal papers across the border. The coyote gave Ana food and water for two days and showed her where to crawl under a border fence. On the other side, another smuggler drove her to Los Angeles.
"In my mind, I always thought I would go back," Ana said. "But now I'm a working mom. My children were born here."
Ana, who is separated from her husband, did not want to be identified. Nor did she want people to know where she works. Ana lives in the shadows because she fears deportation and separation from her three children, who are United States citizens.
"As soon as you see the police, everything comes to a standstill," she said, tears in her eyes. "The kids are scared, too. They see how their mother lives. I do not want someone else to raise my children."
Ana is not alone. She was one of 11.2 million illegal immigrants living in the United States as of March 2010, the Pew Hispanic Center reports.
No one knows how many illegal immigrants live in Rock and Walworth counties.
"I don't have any clue about the number," said Rene Bue of the Latino Service Providers Coalition. "But it is huge."
The local coalition works to connect Latinos with information and services to improve their lives.
Nationally, more than 60 percent of immigrants without legal papers have been in the United States 10 years or more. Ana has been living in the United States since the late 1990s. She has no intention of returning to Mexico and lives with her family in a small trailer.
"Sometimes, when I drive to the store and pass nice homes, my kids say, 'Mom, someday you will have a house like that because we will work and buy you one.' I tell them, 'Keep learning because education is the door.'"
Ana's oldest daughter wants to be a lawyer.
"I tell her, 'Honey, you can be anything you want,'" Ana said. "'Just study hard.' I tell her, 'You don't need the best notebook. You just need your brain.'"
At work, Ana uses a Social Security number she bought on the black market. She did not explain other details about how she navigates a world of illegal residency.
In general, an immigrant without papers can sign up for an identification card, known as a "matricula consular," at the nearest Mexican consulate. More than half of the applicants are immigrants without papers, the Pew Hispanic Center reports.
Scores of financial institutions now accept the matricula consular for bank accounts, credit cards and car loans. People also can apply to the Internal Revenue Service for individual tax identification numbers, allowing them to pay taxes like a U.S. citizen and get tax returns.
"I really, really enjoy my job," Ana said. "Some people complain, but every day when I go in, I am excited to do the best I can."
"White people say we come here to steal their jobs," Ana said. "They say we are criminals. But we are people, and we have feelings. Sometimes, other kids tell my kids to 'go back to Mexico.' My daughter says: 'If you don't want Mexicans in this country, then don't buy fruit or milk.'"
Ana is proud that she attended classes to learn English.
She remembers when she could not go to parent-teacher conferences because she didn't know English and when she could not help her daughter with homework. She will never forget her daughter saying: "Why can't you be like the other mothers?"
"The most important thing to me is education," Ana said. "A person without education is nothing. People say, 'When are you going to stop going to school?'
"I say, 'Never.'"
Ana looks to her children for strength.
"My kids are going to have a better future," she said. "They are the reason I keep going."
Gary Meinert gave his 98th talk about U.S.-Mexican border issues to the Golden Kiwanis Club in Janesville last summer. A couple of months later, he made his 99th presentation, complete with slideshow, to another Janesville audience.
"I want people to know the unvarnished truth," he said in an interview later. "I want them to know the good, the bad and the ugly. The facts that I present come from the Border Patrol, Homeland Security and immigration-study groups."
The Rock County Voter Education Forum invited Meinert to speak in Janesville in September. As a follow-up, the group invited Art Thompson, chief executive officer of the John Birch Society.
Meinert, 71, is a Janesville native. He lives three months of the year in a cabin in northern Wisconsin and the other nine in Arizona's Green Valley, 36 miles from the border.
For six years, he has photographed and documented the illegal activities of Mexican cartels and their drug and human trafficking. He travels with a friend across hundreds of square miles of unforgiving Sonoran desert, where temperatures can reach 110 degrees during the day. When he speaks in public, he shows photos of people caught in the desert by the Border Patrol, of a sprawling wall with modern surveillance equipment along the border and of millions of dollars of confiscated drugs.
"The situation is getting worse in Mexico," Meinert said. "It is like living next door to Afghanistan. Some 252 corpses were found in the desert last year. That's a travesty, and that's only a portion of them. Some get buried in washes or are carried off by animals. In the last 10 years, 1,755 bodies were found."
He supports a secure border, not a closed one.
"With a secure border, we know who is coming across," he said. "I want to be able to weed out those with criminal records. Last year, people from 73 countries were apprehended, including every country in the Middle East. Security has to be first, or none of the other things work."
He believes the government needs to sort through people who are in the country illegally.
"If they are in the military, ex-military or have caused no problems and have contributed to society, we should come up with a program to allow them to become citizens," Meinert said. "But this is what I am concerned about. If someone is granted citizenship, then they will want to bring their whole family over. We cannot absorb that kind of single nationality."
He called America a melting pot.
"But the Southwest is not a melting pot anymore," Meinert said. "It is Hispanic."
A blanket amnesty is unfair, he said, because it rewards illegal behavior and implicitly forgives other related illegal acts, including using false documents to work. He supports states that pass laws directed at immigrants without documents.
"SB1070 in Arizona has brought this issue to the national front," Meinert said. "We have a crisis on the border, and we have to do something about it. I really believe in states' rights, especially if the federal government is not doing anything about immigration."
He believes people should be aware of what the powerful cartels are doing in Mexico because violence has the potential of overflowing into the United States.
Meinert said people used to come across the border with drugs on their backs. Now, they have ultralight planes, and they smuggle through the sewer systems.
Meinert is passionate about what he does but admits it takes a toll.
"The desert is beautiful country," he said. "But after more than eight hours, the pressure starts to get to you. You don't know what is around the next corner. You definitely don't want to be out there too early or too late."
A few years ago, a migrant in the desert attempted to pull a gun on him and his friend. They escaped over a hill.
"Some people think I am a right-wing racist," Meinert said. "I know a lot of 'illegals' that I would never turn in. I know a lot of Mexicans. I'm just not that type of person. I never met a Mexican I did not like, except the one who tried to kill me."
Marta cannot forget the day in August 2006 when police, sheriff's deputies and federal agents raided Whitewater's Star Packaging plant.
The Walworth County woman was on an assembly line closing boxes so they could be wrapped in plastic. At 10 a.m., she took a break. That's when law enforcement arrived.
"I didn't know what was happening," Marta said. "They took us to a warehouse using speaker phones. They were speaking in English. A friend told me that they were from immigration, but I still did not understand."
Marta, who is here illegally, does not speak English and told her story through an interpreter. Marta is not her real name. She did not want to be identified because she is fighting deportation to Mexico.
"They told us to make two groups—those with documents and those without," Marta said. "An officer came to me and put handcuffs on me. Then he told me to get on the bus. They did not tell me where we were going. No one was speaking Spanish. I was worried because I did not know what was coming."
Their first stop was the Whitewater Police Department.
"An interpreter told me that I would be deported to Mexico and there was nothing I could do about it," said Marta, a grandmother. "They took our fingerprints. They asked how we got into the country. I was very worried because I could not go home and tell my family what was happening. Some of the people were mothers with young children at the babysitter's or in school."
Eventually, Marta was taken to a federal detention center in Wisconsin. She has type II diabetes and had not eaten when she and the others arrived at 9 p.m.
"I was not feeling well," she said. "When I saw the uniform they gave me, I started to cry. I got dizzy. I threw up. I felt like I was going to faint. I had to take my clothes off and put on the uniform, but I couldn't get the uniform on. They gave me a sheet to cover myself. I was alone in the cell. I don't know how long I was there."
A representative of the Mexican consulate helped her apply for a bond to be released. An immigration judge told her she had to leave the country voluntarily in 120 days. Marta appealed the case, which still is being fought in the courts.
"If I had known this would happen, I would have never come to this country," she said. "How can we be treated like this? It is very inhuman. Sometimes, the American dream becomes the American nightmare. In Mexico, we are very poor, but at least we are free. Here, people who do not have their documents live every day with apprehension. When we leave our homes, we do not know if we will return. I never thought there were so many injustices in this country."
Marta, 58, came to the United States in 2002 with false documents. She wanted to see her children, all of whom were in the United States, after being separated from them for more than five years.
When she crossed the border, she decided to stay. Her choice came at a high emotional cost.
"Every day, I worried," she said. "Every day, I wondered if I will get notice to leave."
She called her life in the United States uncertain.
"I live the same way other immigrants live," Marta said. "Every day, it is more insecure for us. Families have to work, but we cannot drive because many of us cannot get driver's licenses. It is all very stressful. We are humans, but the government treats us like we are criminals."
Since she was jailed, she has instructed other Mexican people about their rights. She called herself a quiet woman who is compelled to speak out.
"If we come here without documents, it is because we have a need," she said. "Otherwise, we would be happier in our own country. One day, this will be over, and there will be a solution, maybe for all of us to go back to Mexico or maybe for us to stay here. I don't know."
"I believe in the laws that men create. But I believe more in the laws of God. I know that God has the last word."