Monday, July 27, 2009

A brief introduction to this blog...

Dear Readers,

This blog is arranged a little unconventionally since my main impetus for creating it was to make available a series of thirteen articles on local immigration that I wrote in 2007-2008 for the Ripon Commonwealth Press. Other than the first and most recent item, "Is Spanish the New German?" which I wrote for another venue, the rest of the articles are arranged from first to last chronologically rather than the other way around. While any of them can be read alone, I recommend reading them in the order in which they are presented as the themes build on each other.

While the articles no longer represent "breaking news" locally, I welcome your comments and expect to add occasional items.

My best to you,

Is Spanish the New German?

The following is the text of my presentation at a panel discussion entitled "Is Spanish the New German?" at the Fond du Lac Public Library as part of the "Hola!" series. (January 2009)

We hear a lot of talk about unprecedented influx of immigrants, along with unprecedented challenges of assimilation and linguistic adaptation. I want to start by challenging the idea that our challenges are in fact new or unprecedented.

Having a lot of immigrants is not new.

In fact, in absolute numbers our foreign-born population today is about half what it was around 1890, when it peaked at over half a million residents. In percentage terms, in 1850, the foreign-born were 36% of the population. Currently there are about 250,000 foreign-born in Wisconsin -- less than 5% of the population. (Population Notes, vol. 2, issue 4)

Having a lot of immigrants from one country or ethnic group is not new.

In 1900, German-born residents constituted about half of all foreign-born residents of WI. About 34% of WI’s population was either German-born or of German descent. The percentage was much higher in some eastern parts of the state. (B. Peterson, pers. comm.)

That many of these immigrants do not speak English well or at all is not new.

In 1850, Minnesota’s sample ballot was printed in eight languages. (League of Women Voters, Immigration Study Packet, 2007)

There was a time, well into the 20th century, when a salesperson for a farm implement dealer or input supplier in much of Eastern WI needed to speak German to be successful.

That the private and public sectors both have reasons to accommodate non-English speakers is not new.

Just as farm input suppliers offered service in German, so did government agencies. There are people alive today whose deed to their Wisconsin farm is in German. (L. Heimerl, pers. comm.)

The Union forces in the Civil War had entire regiments that were commanded largely in German! (B. Peterson, pers. comm..)

That some immigrants resist learning or speaking English continue to work and learn in their native language is not new.

As late as the 1950s there were German speaking schools in Wisconsin supported by parents who did not want their children to lose their language or their culture.

In the late 1800s (?) there were at least 4 daily papers in German published in Milwaukee alone! There were other German papers throughout the state.

For Wisconsin and Missouri Synod German Lutherans, speaking the language of Martin Luther was a matter of faith as well as culture, and many parishes had their own schools to make sure their children were learning German. Milwaukee had many “ethnic” Catholic parishes, not just German, each with its own language and favorite saints. Many public schools taught German, by popular demand. (B. Peterson, pers. comm.)

An 1870 article in the New York Times reported that “The German General School Association, which, about a year since, was formed with a view of agitating for the introduction of the German language in the public schools as a branch of instruction, held a meeting, last evening at Liederkranz Hall…” (NYT, Oct. 20, 1870)

That immigrants seeking to hold on to their language and culture face social and political obstacles to doing so is not new.

Those meeting in Liederkranz Hall evidently had a rather testy discussion of why they weren’t getting further in their efforts and how they might meet with a better reception. One suggestion was to branch out and welcome other ethnic and linguistic groups to join them to create a larger constituency for school reforms. Multicultural education a la 1870!

That many people are alarmed by what they see as the likelihood of linguistic and cultural erosion and the possible failure of new immigrants to is not new.

In 1900, there was considerable alarm among some native-born residents that our culture and language would be eroded by all the Germans who had come.

Back in the 1920s when a daily paper in Milwaukee tried to publish a weekly supplement in Norwegian, it received so many threatening letters and subscription cancellations that the newspaper abandoned the supplement.

That some people question the political, cultural and linguistic loyalties of immigrants is not new.

German immigrants got lumped into the general category of “foreign agitators and anarchists” during the political turmoil of the late 1800s, and were largely blamed for the Haymarket murders in Chicago in 1886. Our post-9/11 “Freedom Fries” find their echo in WWI’s “Liberty Cabbage” (ie. sauerkraut).

Germans, like Hispanics more recently, have also sought to prove their loyalty. They too translated the American national anthem into German in the mid-1800s in a version with strong folk roots that continued to be sung for decades. In 1917, during World War I, novelist Booth Tarkington and other prominent citizens of Indianapolis brought a petition protesting the fact that, in the bilingual public schools of their city, the Star Spangled Banner was being sung in German translation. (Frances Ellis, "German Instruction in the Public Schools of Indianapolis, 1869-1919. Indiana Magazine of History 50 (1954): 372, cited by B. Peterson).

The point I want to make here is, today’s immigration realities and linguistic challenges are in no way unprecedented, and neither are people’s fears about them.

It seems laughable today to think of Norwegians and Germans as a worrisome cultural threat, but to many they seemed so at the time. Now Old World Wisconsin and Setende Mai and brat fries celebrate the very cultures that were often viewed with suspicion and hostility when they first arrived.

Let’s look at some of those fears, and let’s see what the data says about today’s crop of immigrants.

“They don’t want to learn English”
By an overwhelming margin (92%), Latinos say it is very important that English be taught to children of immigrant families. In fact, their commitment to this idea is greater than that of non-Hispanic whites --87% of whom agree that it is very important that English be taught to children of immigrant families.

As telling, perhaps, is a look at how many people said teaching English to immigrant children is not important. Among Latinos, only 2% held this view compared to 27% of non-Latinos.
(Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation National Survey of Latinos: Education.)

“Everywhere I go I see signs in Spanish, labels in Spanish, forms in Spanish – they won’t learn English that way!

A Pew Hispanic Center survey of Hispanic adults revealed that about 47% spoke primarily Spanish, about a fourth were bilingual, and about one fourth were English dominant. (Pew Hispanic Center, March 2004) The perception of many English speakers that Hispanic immigrants are not learning English arises to a significant degree because the continuing influx of immigrants means that there is always a new cohort that speaks virtually no English. A population of immigrants that does not speak English may persist indefinitely mainly because it is being continually replenished by new arrivals. It is less a reflection of older arrivals failing to learn English, though many immigrants who arrive as adults will never become fluent in their new language.

Because Fond du Lac County lacks the long-term Hispanic presence that many larger cities have, it is likely that the Pew statistics understate the Spanish-dominance of our local Hispanic population. Most came within the last decade and many have not been in the U.S. long enough to achieve competence in English.

In general today’s Hispanic immigrants are following the pattern of earlier waves of immigrants. Typically, a high percentage of the members of the first generation who work outside the home become functional in English within about a decade. Those who stay in the home, typically women, may attain a lower level of competence. Their children, however, typically speak English better than their native language by the time they finish high school, and their children – the third generation, are almost always English dominant and may not speak their grandparents’ and parents’ first language at all. (There are local exceptions to this, such as in parts of Texas, California and Florida where Spanish speakers may be the dominant linguistic group, but these conditions do not pertain to Fond du Lac County.)

Studies show that it takes most ELL students 7-10 years to achieve roughly grade level proficiency in academic English. Most ELL children sound conversationally proficient within a couple of years, but this masks shallow vocabularies. (Suarez-Orozco, Learning a New Land).

Nationwide, Mexicans have among the lowest levels of high school graduation and college attendance of any group. However, this may understate their academic attainments if parental education and income are taken into account. Second generation Mexican children, about one third of whom grow up living below the federal poverty level, usually exceed their parents’ level of education, frequently by a large margin.

What are some ways in which today’s Hispanic immigrants and the circumstances they face differ from earlier waves of immigration, and how might this affect assimilation, linguistic and otherwise?

Today’s Hispanic immigrants are mostly less educated than the average German immigrant was. A significant minority is highly educated, possessing advanced degrees or special skills. They may or may not find their credentials recognized by employers, however.

If Hispanic immigrants express great commitment to learning English and ensuring that their children learn it in school, nevertheless many parents are challenged to support their children’s linguistic development given their own limited education. On average, Hispanic children suffer a significant “achievement gap” in school compared with their white, native-born counterparts.

Today’s Hispanic immigrants face a far more restrictive immigration policy than was historically applied to Germans. Because the US in recent years has annually offered only 5000 visas for unskilled workers when the economy has generated roughly half a million low-skill jobs per year, many Hispanic workers have chosen to come illegally to get the jobs they know exist. Their undocumented status impedes assimilation on many levels, and in my experience correlates significantly with a failure to invest in learning English.

Today’s Hispanic immigrants – like all immigrants and native born Americans – face a very different economy than that found by earlier waves of immigrants. Gone are the opportunities to claim a homestead and farm with little start-up capital. Gone are many of the high-paying, low-skill factory jobs that propelled many European immigrants into the middle class. Today’s immigrants, as well as low-skill, less educated native-born, mainly have access to jobs that will not lead to economic security or social advancement in the short to medium term.

Getting to Know the Neighbors: The Faces of Immigration

Shortly after I moved to Ripon in 1998, a trickle of Hispanic immigrants started to arrive in town. As one of the relatively few bilingual Riponites around, I started getting phone calls from Hispanic acquaintances requesting help interpreting at medical appointments, at work, and in many other settings. I came to know a number of Hispanic families and those who worked with them when I volunteered for a collaborative ESL/tutoring project run by several local agencies. I met more working with the Ripon Public Library on a project to create a series of bilingual cultural exchange events at the library.

One day I would find myself interpreting during a medical emergency at the Ripon Medical Center, another day I would be smashing piñatas with 40 American and Mexican kids at the library. One day I’d be helping a family register their son for the new four year old kindergarten, another day I’d be teaching the American national anthem and learning the Mexican national anthem while we celebrated both Independence Days at the library. One day I interpreted for an arrest, another day I attended a Hispanic child’s birthday party. I found myself inside factories, inside the labyrinthine bureaucracy of our immigration system, and inside the intimate lives of people who would otherwise have been strangers to me.

It’s fair to say that I obtained a richer, more multi-layered view of this community than I could probably have obtained in any other way. Our experience of the place we live in has a great deal to do with our race, our class, our ethnicity, our education level, and the nature of our work. Until I started interpreting for immigrants, I had not experienced Ripon as a person with brown skin, or a 6th grade education -- or a college degree and specialized skills that employers paid no attention to. I had not experienced Ripon from the inside of an ambulance, or as a third shift factory worker, or as an individual living in dire poverty.

What I have seen over the last nine years has provided me with many of my most cherished Proud American moments. I have witnessed deep compassion and respect for our newcomers. I have seen individuals who exemplify the vision of hospitality offered in both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles -- and Islam, for that matter. I have seen everything from cheerful acceptance of cultural differences to enthusiastic celebration and exploration of them. I have witnessed professionalism, neighborliness, and just about every public virtue you can name.

I’ve also seen racism and hatred: a white woman spitting profanities at a group of Hispanics, kids calling immigrants “dirty”, a protester handing out “litter box liners” with an image of the Mexican flag on them. I’ve seen exploitation: workers treated with casual contempt, threatened and intimidated into accepting wages and working conditions no one should have to endure. I’ve also seen native-born Americans experiencing these same things. Working with immigrants has provided me with many of my most painful Ashamed American moments, too, and has been a humbling reminder of just how partial and limited my understanding of my own society has been.

I’ve seen first-hand just how complicated the whole issue of immigration is. I’ve met some legal immigrants who I wish our immigration procedures had weeded out, and illegal immigrants whose courage, work ethic and family values would put most of us to shame – and who face no prospect of legalization despite the obvious gifts they bring. I’ve seen places where our immigration laws have functioned, and others where the system is clearly broken -- punishing the behaviors we say we want, rewarding the behaviors we say we don’t want, failing to protect legitimate national interests, causing widespread, unnecessary suffering -- and costing immense resources to achieve these unfortunate results.

The goal of this series, “Getting to Know the Neighbors: The Faces of Immigration” is to explore Ripon’s immigrant community and its relationship to the broader community. It is to tell the stories of these new neighbors – from Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Canada – in their own words: why they came, how they got here, and what they have found. They will include professors, migrant workers, entrepreneurs, factory workers and students. We will explore how our national immigration policies have shaped their choices, and ours. I will interview legal and undocumented immigrants, those who have achieved citizenship, those who have sought it, and those who have no chance for it under our current laws.

In-depth profiles of a number of local immigrant households will alternate with articles addressing broader issues: the economics of immigration, current immigration policy, immigrants in Ripon’s schools, and how local institutions are responding to the reality of immigration. Ripon’s experience will be put in a national context, but the focus will be on the immigrants themselves, and on the perspectives of those who work with, hire, serve, teach, and otherwise deal in various ways with our new neighbors.

In the end, I have come to believe that the experience of immigrants in Ripon offers an extraordinarily rich lens through which to view our community in all its beauty, strengths, and failings. How we welcome immigrants – or don’t – says a lot about who we are. This series – “Getting to Know the Neighbors” – is thus also about Getting to Know Us. Sometimes it is through the eyes of strangers that we see ourselves most clearly. It is my hope that this series will spark a rich dialogue in Ripon about not only the “strangers” among us, but also about who we are and who we aspire to be.

Restaurateur Finds Peace, Opportunity in America

Mefail “Mike” Ibraimi is a well-known face in Ripon. First at Kristina’s Café, which he bought in 1999, and more recently at the Red Apple Family Restaurant, Mike has been feeding Riponites some of their favorite food for years. Mike’s immigration odyssey started in 1972 in Macedonia (part of the former Yugoslavia), and took him through numerous European countries, to the US, and eventually to Ripon.

Mike and his family found life very hard in Macedonia back in the 1970s. Cultural and political prejudice against ethnic Albanians, and communist government intolerance of religion and political dissent were his primary reasons for leaving his country of birth. “They treated Albanians very badly. We had no rights, not even to study at the university. Only Serbo-Croations could go to university. From second grade on, they made us speak their language. They discriminated against our religion [Muslim.] The communists were against both churches and mosques, and if you criticized the communist government, they would put you in jail. I had a cousin who cooperated with the communist government. They gave him schooling – he was an excellent student. When he was done with his studies he was fluent in Serbo-Croation and Albanian, and he was a good translator – that was his job. Then in 1982 when they found out he was Albanian and that he had been in Pristina (Kosovo) when there was a revolution for more rights and freedom, they killed him. He was 25, with a wife and two kids, and they killed him.”

Mike, who lived and worked on his family’s small farm in Macedonia as a young man, had decided to leave his country before something like that happened to him. “I left on December 20, 1972. I went all over – to France, Italy, Germany, Austria.” When he arrived in Austria, he made contact with a Christian church that had a ministry of helping immigrants. Within a few months, all the arrangements were made for Mike to emigrate to the United States. “At that time I didn’t even have one dollar. They [the church] paid most of the fees to apply for a visa to travel to the U.S., and they did the paperwork and paid for my airfare. I paid only $70, three months after I arrived in Chicago.”

“July 11, 1973 – I call it my second birthday. It was a very special day in my life – I took a plane from Vienna to New York.” From there, Mike traveled to Chicago, where his youngest brother and a cousin were waiting for him.

Mike found work quickly. “I got a night job in a factory, and a day shift in a Denny’s restaurant. I worked at the factory for nine years. I learned a lot at Denny’s. I worked in the kitchen, I learned everything. Then I worked at a McDonalds. I learned everything there, too. For the first day, they have you do nothing but cook French fries, then they have you cook quarter pounders, then they put you on the line. After three weeks I surprised everybody. That McDonalds had eight cash registers. It was very busy, but I learned how to set up, how to cook, how to serve. If you want to learn, you learn a lot. But I learned more at Denny’s – we’re similar here at the Red Apple, except we do more from scratch.”

In 1981, eight years after Mike arrived in Chicago, his immediate family was able to join him. They would have liked to come sooner, but getting passports from their native Yugoslavia took years. “They [the government] gave you a hard time. They treated Albanians bad, and they made you wait years to leave.” Mike’s family did not experience significant delays or difficulties at that time getting visas for the United States.

In 1982 Mike moved his family to Monroe, WI, and later to Janesville, Lake Mills, and finally Ripon in 1999, owning restaurants in each location. Mike’s son, Nick, left Ripon and Kristina’s last spring to help another relative with a restaurant in Lodi.

Mike found his passion in the restaurant business. “My family loves the kitchen – my father, my brother, me, my son – people know they’re going to eat good when they see him! And last week, I was in St. Louis where a nephew just bought a restaurant – he asked me to help him set it up.”

Besides his successful restaurants, Mike appreciates other things about living in the U.S.: political freedom, entrepreneurial freedom, friendly people. “I had never been free in my life before I came here. In my country, you can’t say things. Life here is good – I have good friends. They come in here, they’re happy to see me. You have to be friendly – business is not just for one day! If you’re friendly, you make friends!”

“I am very pro-US. Every Albanian is. The US saved our lives – almost two million of us in Kosovo [during the recent war in the Balkans]. Thank God for Bill Clinton! He decided smart and fast what to do, and he saved a lot of people. If you go there, you will see that every Albanian has two flags: an Albanian flag and an American flag.”

“I got my US citizenship in 1994. All my family has citizenship now, and for me, it’s been more than good. Here we have more freedom, you can find jobs everywhere, you can move around, and you’re treated the same. Jobs are number one. In Europe it’s not so easy – you can’t just go to another city and find a job like you can here.”

Mike’s entrepreneurial spirit is typical of many immigrants, who start businesses at two and three times the rate of native born Americans.

Mike’s experience of the U.S. immigration service was good. Being a refugee from a communist country during the height of the Cold War undoubtedly helped, as did the energetic efforts on his behalf by a church experienced in immigration work. The financial assistance, too, was important in his successful application for a visa. “Immigration [now called the US Citizenship and Immigration Service] worked out for us. We did it by the rules. I waited seven months – I could have come illegally but we did it right. Now it’s harder though. The immigration service is so busy – overdone busy. You can see the papers in their offices, big stacks like this [indicates 5 feet high]. You can wait for years now. It helps if you are in a war, if you are in danger. A lot of people in our situation got permission right away to come.”

Mike’s experience was that the system worked for political asylum cases (though currently only a small percentage of asylum seekers are granted this status.) He suspects that those coming for economic reasons will not have as easy a time, and government statistics bear this out. For example, according to the State Department, even those economic immigrants with an employer sponsor and firm job offer could easily wait 5 years or more for permission to enter the country legally.

Mike emphasizes the importance of patience, of having personal contacts in Immigration, and the necessity of keeping up with changes in immigration law. “If you are coming for economic reasons, the US isn’t going to let you all in – people need to be patient. We had nothing – we were hungry. I understand that people who are hungry don’t want to wait, but you have to be patient. It also helps to have personal contacts with people in Immigration – just sending a letter doesn’t help. Some people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to follow the rules, and they don’t follow the news in the papers. You have to pay attention and know the system and play by the rules.”

"Immigrants Not Draining Ripon's Resources"

Nationwide, foreign-born individuals make up about 12% of the population, and of these, nearly one-third are Mexican. While there are no definitive numbers available for Ripon, most observers agree that the number of Hispanic immigrants rose sharply starting in 1998-99. From being virtually invisible locally in 1997 to comprising nearly 6% of school age children today, they are sufficiently numerous to justify special school programs, new products on the shelves of local retailers, new employment patterns in area businesses, bilingual materials in some area institutions, and new cultural offerings. While there are other, non-Hispanic immigrants as well, including Asians, Africans, Canadians and Eastern Europeans, they are far fewer in number locally than the Hispanic immigrants.

How have Ripon’s public institutions been affected by immigration? In this article, we’ll look at three: the Ripon Police Department, the Ripon Medical Center, and the Ripon Public Library. In a future article, we will explore the Ripon Area School District’s experience with immigrant children and families.

Law Enforcement

Nationwide, statistics show that first generation immigrants commit fewer crimes on average than native-born Americans. In Ripon as elsewhere, however, certain patterns emerge. Chris Stieber, Captain of Ripon’s police force, notices that “Since the Hispanic population has gone up, we’ve had more traffic violations. A number of immigrants haven’t gone through the process of getting a license – maybe they don’t know how. English may be a barrier. Especially in the summer, we have an unusually high number of cases involving immigrants who are operating without a license, or after their license was revoked.” The higher rate of violations in the summer suggests that many of these workers may be seasonal construction, food processing or agricultural workers who are not in the area year-round.

Stieber does not notice any other correlations between immigrant status and crime. “As the Hispanic population has gone up, we’ve had an increase in the number of crimes involving Hispanics [both as victims and perpetrators], but you’d expect that. I couldn’t say that it’s disproportionate.” He does note that the department has faced occasional linguistic challenges. “We do try to be sensitive to language and cultural needs. Any time we have a victim or a perpetrator who is an immigrant we try to get an interpreter – often a family member. Other times we get community members. Some of the younger members of our department know some Spanish. The language is an issue, but it’s not a big problem for us.”

The Department of Homeland Security has recently been trying to obtain the voluntary cooperation of local police forces in immigration enforcement, and is offering special training for cooperating departments. In the past, only immigration police were charged with enforcement of immigration laws, not regular police departments. Supporters of the DHS effort say that illegal immigration is a crime and all law enforcement personnel ought to be working to enforce immigration laws. Critics of the new DHS efforts to involve local police forces say that it will create a climate of fear that will make immigrants less willing to come forward as witnesses in crimes, lead to widespread racial profiling, reduce trust and goodwill in the community towards police officers, and take already-scarce law enforcement resources away from more important crime-fighting activities.

Stieber’s view is that “We haven’t been influenced by Federal edicts. We treat people the same. We’re not going to put special emphasis on any one group of people. I’m all for cracking down on immigrants who are here to break the law. They ought to be accountable like everyone else, and I don’t want them in this country if they came here to commit crimes. My personal feeling about people who are here illegally but not causing trouble, I’m not so sure I see that as a crime. I don’t see using the policing resources of a small department like us to crack down on illegal immigrants – we don’t have the manpower for that.”

Health Care

Ripon’s hospital is another community institution that has experienced the impact of immigration in recent years. Many observers fear that an influx of immigrants -- who may not speak English, whose health may be poor, who may lack health insurance and/or the funds to pay for the care they need -- will put a strain on the system, particularly emergency departments which are required by law to treat all comers regardless of ability to pay. Certainly there have been widely publicized cases, particularly in Texas border towns, where poor and undocumented immigrants have disproportionately burdened emergency services, sometimes shutting hospitals down entirely.

On the other hand, according to extensive nationwide studies, immigrants (both documented and not) are actually more healthy and less likely to seek emergency services than their American counterparts. Overall, these studies suggest they are unlikely to greatly affect emergency service departments in the interior of the country. How about in Ripon? Should we be worried?

Certainly, immigrants are a felt presence at the RMC. Tami Keenlance, Director of Acute Care Services at RMC says she has seen a significant increase in the Hispanic population coming into the hospital. She considers that the language and cultural barriers can be a challenge, but notes that “All staff are now trained in cultural diversity; we are better equipped to handle it.” She also notes that during the summer, with an increase in tourism, the hospital serves immigrants and visitors from a wide range of countries.

In the past the hospital made use of Spanish-speaking community volunteers to interpret. Over time, as the job grew, this approach became increasingly unworkable. “Now we have Language Line,” Keenlance says – a phone-based interpreting service that can handle a wide variety of languages pretty much instantly on a pay-per-minute basis. Many patients also bring other family members and friends to interpret for them, often making Language Line unnecessary.

Michelle Fuerch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Ripon College and long-time volunteer interpreter for immigrants, says that in her experience, most of Ripon’s year-round Hispanic residents, both documented and not, have health insurance through their employers. She has never interpreted for one who didn’t.

Does the Medical Center experience a financial loss from its immigrant patients? By law the hospital is prohibited from asking patients about their legal or immigrant status, making precise numbers hard to come by. However, Marcia Baenen-Goplin of the RMC business office suggests an answer. “Immigration affects us,” she says, “but not to the extent that it does in states like California, Texas and Florida. The whole problem of uninsured patients affects us, and that problem is growing nationwide. Immigrants are a part of that, but they’re not a huge part of it. The majority of our uninsured patients are Americans.”

She says the problem for RMC tends to be seasonal. During the summer and fall, larger numbers of temporary and migrant workers, who typically lack a primary health care provider, show up at the hospital – usually the Emergency Room – for services. “Usually when they come in, they need the treatment. They don’t abuse the system. But our Community Care [reduced price charity care] and bad debt always go up while they’re here.”

She notes that many immigrants find the form they must fill out for Community Care to be daunting, and even those who may qualify for financial assistance in some form are afraid to ask for it. There are Medicare funds for catastrophic care available to some immigrants, but the paperwork to obtain this assistance, and the vulnerability that many migrant workers feel, means that few seek help. Baenen-Goplin says, “I feel bad for these people. You don’t want to scare them away, so you beat around the bush a lot trying to find out if they are eligible for assistance. It’s hard to help them – so many of them don’t even have a telephone!”

It appears that where immigrants have been a burden for RMC, the problem is poverty and lack of insurance more than immigration status per se. Native-born Americans without insurance similarly burden the system, and on a larger scale than immigrants. Overall, Baenen-Goplin concludes, “Immigration affects us. Does it affect us a lot? No.”

Library Services

Linda DeCramer, the Children’s Librarian, has long been an advocate of enhanced services for Hispanic immigrants. In 2001 she wrote a grant to jump-start the development of a Spanish language collection, and to offer a series of bi-cultural, bilingual family events to welcome Hispanic newcomers to the library. She visited local factories to recruit (mainly Mexican) collaborators, and involved these volunteers in defining the shape of the collection. As it turned out, their needs and interests were very specific, including such items as a bilingual dictionary of construction terms, video-based ESL materials, popular magazines, and bilingual children’s materials and picture dictionaries. Over time, the library also developed a Spanish-language library card application and informational brochure.

Have these outreach efforts been successful? According to Chris Smieja, another library staffer, “There are more immigrants coming in now than in the past… It’s good to see people using the library! They don’t always need our Spanish application, but I’m glad we have it.” The library staff also notices that Americans hoping to teach their children some Spanish are also frequent users of the bilingual children’s materials.

Ben Sprague, Circulation Supervisor, notices that the Spanish language collection has been circulating more lately, and that like the rest of the community, the immigrant community appears to be making good use of the computer resources the library offers.

“I would hope,” says DeCramer, “that we can become more of a community resource for the immigrant population. I would hope that people can feel comfortable here, and that they would know of the many resources that we have. I want us to be on their radar!” She points out that many larger businesses now have their job applications on-line. “We want people to know they have a place to come and use the computers.” USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Service) also has its materials on-line, and the only way to make USCIS appointments is on the internet. The library sometimes links Hispanic computer users with bilingual community volunteers who can help with their immigration or job-related computer work.

Currently, DeCramer is facilitating an informal committee that is meeting to address the recent loss of local ESL and family literacy services. The committee, composed of a diverse group of Advocap and Ripon Area School District personnel, Ripon College and UW-Oshkosh students and faculty, community activists and immigrants, is an illustration of the kinds of synergies DeCramer hopes to encourage – and is part of her vision of what a public library should be. “You never know who you reach, but in hindsight, those interludes [like the bilingual, bi-cultural programs, and the current committee meetings] create bonds. It’s important to try to lift everyone up. That was Carnegie’s goal: to give everyone free access to the same level of services and information.”

Migrant Worker Endures Long Hours to Better the Life of Her Family

Ernestina Cataneo has been coming to Ripon to work as a migrant for half of her 30 years. She was born in Texas, lived most of her childhood in Mexico, and came to Ripon for the first time with her father when she was sixteen years old. She spent the summer working in the Green Giant factory, and then in the fall her father left her in the care of acquaintances so she could attend school for a year.

“It was bad,” she says of that lonely, difficult year away from her close-knit family. “I didn’t know any English, and they didn’t teach me much at the school. Now it’s different, but then everyone spoke pure English and nothing else.” She never stayed through the year again, but has continued to return each year for the canning season.

“Each summer we came – it used to sometimes be May, or as early as April, and we stayed until November. My dad started work first. Now it’s later – we start in June and they let us go in October.”

When Ernestina was 18, she met the man who became her husband working at Green Giant. She and Guillermo have continued the same lifestyle together, working for as long as they have jobs at what is now the Seneca plant in Ripon, and returning to Del Rio, Texas for the winter. “We work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, as long as there’s product. If they don’t have any product [green beans, potatoes, carrots or beets] then there isn’t any work, but we often go a whole month without a day off.” She works a day shift and her husband works a night shift so there is always someone to take care of one and a half year old Marianne, and nine-year-old Giselle.

“I have worked outside, in inspection, in the warehouse, and putting tops in the canning machine. This year I checked salt and temperature and weight of the cans. My husband works in the warehouse, stacking crates on pallets twelve hours a day. The first few weeks, he gets very tired, but after a while he gets used to it. In Texas he works at whatever he can find – construction, cutting lawns, whatever. We never know if he’ll get work or not, so what we earn here is sometimes all we have for the year. We have to save a lot.”

Ernestina ears $7.20 an hour with no benefits, although she would get Workman’s Comp if she were injured on the job. She and her family return to Texas every year despite the hardship, because that is where her family is. “My mother was sick for a long time, and I’m from there – all my family is there. That’s why we go back.”

Ernestina considers how life has both changed and stayed the same during her years of coming to Ripon. “Well, I’m a woman now, not a young girl, and I have my own family. I’m not alone!” She notes a big difference between her experience of school in Ripon and her daughter’s recent years here. “Before, there was a little communication with the families, but not much. Now they pay a lot more attention to the Hispanic kids, and try to help them learn more English. That helps a lot. Giselle loves it here, she doesn’t want to leave. She’s cried a lot about it. In Texas, the students and teachers are mostly Mexican. I think they have a different character in the schools there. The teachers here have a really good character. Giselle feels comfortable asking for help, she’s not afraid. There, they scare her.”

In part because of Giselle’s experience at the Murray Park Elementary School, Ernestina would consider staying here year-round. Her mother has died, reducing the pull of Del Rio. But her husband, Guillermo, disagrees. “I like it here, but he hates the cold!”

Thinking about her life as a migrant, Ernestina says, “Well, it has its advantages and disadvantages.” She looks around her at her spare apartment, without table, chairs, couch, normal beds, bureaus, or carpets. “I don’t have any furniture,” she says. “It’s hard not to have things, but when you have to move so much it’s hard to have them too.” The family of four sleeps on one double and one single air mattress, and has a folding cot and playpen in the living room – the only additional furniture in the house.

“I can’t make a lot of friends either, because I leave them. And I never know what’s going to happen the following year.”

At least, she notes, she doesn’t have the added insecurity of illegal status. Ernestina is a citizen, and her husband is a legal resident. “He’s whiter than I am, and everyone looks to him to speak English, but I, the brown one, speak more English and I’m the American citizen!” Her husband obtained legal residency status through a 15 year wait that began when he was three years old.

Ernestina wishes that more Americans understood what drives Mexicans to come here. “A lot of people here don’t understand our lives. We come to better the lives of our families. A lot of people seem to think we want to leave our families behind. It’s not that we want to, it’s that we have to.”

“I don’t have much education, and the only work I know is this. This has been my whole life. It’s all I know, and I like it, and that’s why I do it. What I would like is that Giselle study so she can have a different life than I have. I want her to have something to live by, a way to take care of herself, when I’m not around.”

This interview was conducted in Spanish and the quotes translated into English by the author.

Ripon’s Immigrants and Ripon’s Schools: Learning Together

One day in 1998, Michelle Fuerch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Ripon College, received an unexpected phone call in her office. Roosevelt Elementary School needed a Spanish interpreter, now. A young Mexican boy had pulled the fire alarm, not knowing what it was, and no one was able to explain to him what he had done, or the seriousness of it.

Fuerch laughs as she remembers that first flustered call. “Luckily I was available!” Nine years and countless parent-teacher conferences, committee meetings, federal mandates and immigrant arrivals later, Fuerch can speak to the evolution of Ripon’s schools in their response to immigration. “The schools have gotten a lot more effective at providing what these families need,” says Fuerch. “From the get-go – from the first call I got in my office – there has been tremendous support in the schools. Luckily, we have a superintendent with vision who takes this issue very seriously.”

Initially, the District was blindsided by the sudden arrival of significant numbers of children who did not speak English. In 1999, the sudden, unexpected registration of fourteen small Spanish speakers in Barlow Park Elementary School (BPES) – the day before classes started – jolted the system. Myra Misles-Krhin, Principal of the school, responded in several ways over the next few years, including hiring for each grade a classroom teacher who spoke some Spanish, and a native Spanish speaker aide for one of the kindergarten classrooms.

“It was apparent,” she says, “that hiring bilingual personnel would help our ELL students transition more effectively and would help our students be successful.”

The District, in collaboration with Moraine Park Technical College and Ripon College, also got involved in providing an ELL (English Language Learner) class for adults, with simultaneous children’s enrichment activities, though this program ended after less than two years. Guidance counselor Jocelyn Hoeper successfully applied for a grant for translation services, allowing the Parent Handbook, BRAVE registration information, Title I documents and a variety of individual letters to be translated professionally.

The BRAVE program was also conceived in part as a response to the special needs of Ripon’s ELL population. This program – which obtained substantial start-up funds to serve an at-risk and high-need population (including native English speakers as well as ELL students) -- has from its start six years ago also benefited hundreds of children who are not “at risk” but who take advantage of the varied educational opportunities available. Says Jolene Meyer, the District’s BRAVE Coordinator, “Immigrant participation in BRAVE has steadily grown. Students who aren't native English speakers find particular assistance through the homework help offered. The adults in their households may find it challenging to help their students with their school work.” This year also saw the registration of some Hispanic children in a BRAVE French class – which some see as evidence of a positive language learning experience and a heightened interest in and awareness of the importance of learning languages.

Like the BRAVE program, the District’s new four-year-old Kindergarten serves both native English speakers and ELL children. There were many reasons for its creation; one of them was that it would be a way to expose immigrant children to English earlier so that they would enter regular Kindergarten more ready to learn with their English-speaking peers.

Most recently, the School District in partnership with Ripon College produced a DVD in both Spanish and English to welcome and orient newcomers to Ripon and its school system, with basic information on everything from registering children for school to shopping at the thrift store to setting up a bank account.

Many critics of immigration worry that the costs of educating immigrant children will bust the bank. Certainly, immigrant children who do not speak English at home may require years of special instructional services before they are able to function at the same level as their native-born peers. There is no question that providing these services can be costly – and that these costs are borne primarily locally. While numerous studies show that immigrants (including illegal immigrants) are overwhelmingly a net gain for the economy at the national level, [see upcoming article on the economics of immigration, RCP January 10, 2008] they can still be, under some circumstances, a net economic loss locally. That is because a high percentage of the taxes they pay go to the federal government, and a high percentage of the services they consume (education is by far the biggest) are paid for locally with little federal support.

How do the numbers work out in Ripon?

There are currently 109 immigrant children enrolled in Ripon’s schools; just under 6% of the student body. (For the purposes of this article, this figure includes foreign-born children who came here within the last ten years, and children who were born here to immigrant parents and who are thus citizens.)

Public schools are required by federal law to enroll children regardless of their legal status. State and federal laws also mandate the provision of special language services in Districts with a sufficient population of ELL (English Language Learner) students – which Ripon has. Last year an ELL teacher was hired for the Middle School. This year Murray Park added an ELL teacher, and the District also has two ELL aides.

According to Superintendent Zimman, fulfilling this ELL mandate costs the District nearly $200,000, of which 97% comes from the District’s budget; less than $6,000 comes from the federal government. On the other hand, this is by no means the District’s most costly special program, nor its largest group of students with special needs. “State and federal laws require special education services that are considerably more expensive than ELL services” points out Zimman.

In total, the District spends on average about $9,600 in instruction and support per student per year, and receives about $6,600 of that in state aids. While determining state aid, property taxes and expenditures per student in the District is complex and almost invariably involves some apples-to-oranges comparisons, it is not at all obvious that the taxpayers or the School District would be better off financially without the ELL students. The extra $2000 per student for ELL services is much less than the $6600 state aid that follows them to Ripon.

Zimman asserts, in any case, that the District would have worked to meet the needs of its immigrant students with or without the federal mandate. "In addition to the economic benefits that our community gains from having educated ELL students and families, we have an ethical obligation to help children of immigrant families since many of our own ancestors were non-English-speaking immigrants who relied on tax-supported public schools to assist them in becoming productive members of our American society."

That said, the District is working to reduce the cost of providing necessary services by having more of them, like interpreting, provided “in house.” While the District currently pays an hourly fee for some interpreting services, as a longer term strategy for handling this need, the schools are trying to hire more regular staff who are bilingual. Randy Hatlen, principal of Murray Park Elementary School, says, “I feel strongly that we need to have someone on staff that speaks Spanish.”

Don Hones, father of three Ripon schoolchildren, professor of Education at UW-Oshkosh and regional leader in ELL/bilingual teacher licensure, suggests that to be really effective, the Ripon Area School District should make it a high priority when hiring teachers at all levels to seek out candidates who have ELL certification, and/or who are bilingual, and preferably at least some of whom have the same ethnicity as the students they will be serving. “Our schools need to represent our community, and our community is changing. It makes an enormous difference for a kid to see someone of their own background working in the school – and not just as an aide or assistant, but as a teacher or administrator” says Hones.

In fact, Ripon has tried to do this, but with limited success. According to Zimman, the ELL plan adopted by the School Board requires that each staff vacancy be posted with a stated preference for ESL certification. Unfortunately, he says, “We've been advertising that way for two years and haven't had any qualified candidate for any position with those credentials apply to our district.” As an additional strategy, the Board approved a measure that helps pay the tuition costs for any current staff member who enrolls in the UW-Oshkosh ESL teacher certification program. One teacher has completed that program and another is currently enrolled.

As for bilingual teachers and administrators, he says “we've had only one applicant.” The candidate withdrew her application when she learned that she would have to live in the school district and become part of the community as an administrator. “It's just really hard to find Spanish-speaking teachers and administrators,” concludes Zimman.

Hones counters that the District needs to meet people halfway if it is serious about diversifying its staff. “Other teachers and administrators don’t live in the District – why impose this requirement on a position with so few qualified candidates to begin with?” he asks. He suggests that the District’s best way forward may be to groom one of its own immigrant graduates to work in the system rather than chase after the limited number of currently qualified people from elsewhere.

There is no question that Ripon has been challenged to meet the needs of some of its newest students, and that meeting these needs has cost the District money. However, there is also fiscal good news: 70% of immigrants arrive during prime working age. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan points out, we thus haven’t spent a penny on their education, but we are reaping the benefits of their productivity.

In Ripon, there are a number of businesses that would be hard pressed to function without substantial immigrant labor. These companies make up a significant portion of Ripon’s industrial tax base. The cost of ELL services for immigrant children thus must be measured against the economic benefits generated by immigrant workers who are keeping the doors open for several local businesses. The Seneca plant, for example, employs about 90 seasonal workers – most of whom are immigrants who come without families and cost the School District nothing.

And what do Ripon’s classroom teachers themselves have to say? Dana Scott, who has been involved in serving local ELL adults and children for nearly a decade, says “I got into education solely to work with this population. Living in Ripon – small and homogeneous – I enjoy the diversity immigrants bring.” She also remembers her own experience abroad – just how bewildering and often frightening it was – and hopes to help ease the transition for Ripon’s immigrant children as an ELL instructor at MPES. Finally, she wants her children to be prepared for life in a changing world. “There’s a whole wide world out there! We’re moving towards a global society whether we like it or not. Having immigrants in our schools fosters an interest in other cultures, other languages, other countries. They enrich us all.”

Kathryn McMillan, a third grade teacher at MPES with ten ELL students, shares Scott’s enthusiasm. She doesn’t see her immigrant children as a problem, as a cost center, or as empty linguistic and cultural vessels waiting to be filled. She finds delight and fascination in who they are. “Their ethnic background so helps them build community! Their ways are different – having the ELL kids in my classroom is so rich! Without them, my American kids wouldn’t come to understand their own culture. We experience Hispanic culture in our classroom: they talk about their beliefs, their parents bring in Mexican treats, and they’re really different than ours! We study festivals of lights around the world, and the Mexican kids talk about theirs. They bring their culture, we bring ours, and in my classroom we try to tie it all together. We have a community here!”

"The Day I Became a Citizen, I Cried for Hours"

Eugenia Michels was born in Guatemala City. After graduating from high school and attending college for several years, she became an executive secretary for a non-profit agency in Guatemala. At her job, she made many American friends who invited her to visit them in the U.S.. Her first two trips to the United States were as a tourist.

Even with a stable, professional job in Guatemala, she faced hurdles in obtaining tourist visas. The first time she applied, the U.S. official threw her passport at her. Once they denied her a visa because they mixed her up with another applicant with the same first name. Only an intervention by a friend in the U.S. Embassy straightened out the muddle.

On her second trip to the U.S., she lived with an academic couple in Montana, visited friends all over the country, and eventually wound up in Nashville. “I went to a party one night, and I met a priest there, and a couple of days later another priest called me to offer me a job.” Eugenia told them she had a tourist visa, and the priest said he’d apply for a work permit for her; they needed a bilingual administrative assistant. “They got me a religious visa, but it wasn’t easy. As an employer, you have to show that no one else can do that job. They had advertised that position for four months without finding anyone.”

“I was there for five years, until I got married. I had met Ron [formerly a Catholic priest, now a pastoral counselor] in Guatemala before. We were good friends, and had stayed in touch for years. We were married in 1998, and then I moved to Ripon.”

With her change in status from a religious worker to the spouse of a citizen, Eugenia had to go through a whole new visa process. It took two years to get a green card, which she finally obtained in 2001. She became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

Since living in Ripon, she has worked as an interpreter at the Green Lake Court, as a Family Services Coordinator for UMOS (United Migrant Opportunity Services), and as an administrative assistant at the Family Resource Center in Fond du Lac. She is currently considering returning to college in January.

She has found Ripon to be quieter and less friendly than Nashville, but on the whole a good place to live. “My neighbors in Nashville were mostly professionals and professors – I loved the neighborhood! Here I looked for a neighborhood association like we had there, but it doesn’t exist here.”

“I come from a big city and I’m so happy to have the College here. I love to look out the window and see the students walking by. And Dickens of a Christmas made me so happy! I was like a little girl! ‘There are people in this town!’”

While Eugenia achieved what many immigrants only dream of – U.S. citizenship – her decision was not an easy one. “The day I became a citizen, I cried for hours.” The Judge who oversaw her swearing-in spoke to the new citizens about the importance of not forgetting their heritage, and enriching their new country by sharing their culture with others. But Eugenia has found this to be a painful as well as a rich experience. “Changing cultures creates conflicts in you. Who am I? What am I doing here?”

She maintains a keen interest in the hurdles other immigrants face: the cultural adjustments of being newcomers, and frequent travails with ICE [Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement – since 9/11 part of the Department of Homeland Security.]

“When I have dealt with immigration officials, sometimes I have thought it must be a requirement to be bitter -- to have no manners, to be hostile -- to work for Immigration. I have seen officials scream at people, throw passports… As a U.S. citizen, they embarrass me.” When Guatemalan friends have trouble getting tourist visas to come to the U.S., she advises them to take their vacations in Europe instead where they’ll be treated with more respect.

She tells numerous stories of her own hassles – of having to provide the same mountain of documentation to different offices that did not communicate with each other; of lost paperwork; of capricious decisions; of differential treatment to individuals with the same qualifications; of a lack of coordination between U.S. and home country consular officials; of her fate sometimes hanging on a random official’s mood; and of the times when her personal connections with embassy officials were the only way she was able to move forward. She also tells of occasional officials who treated her with respect and who apologized for the system, or who presented a welcoming face to newcomers.

“The U.S. doesn’t know how it looks to the rest of the world. Now that I am a citizen, I have more ownership, and it affects me to see the U.S. in such trouble in the world.” She believes that the U.S. is harming its own interests by treating people so arrogantly, and creating so many hurdles for would-be immigrants. “Microsoft is moving to Vancouver [Canada] to get out of having to deal with the U.S. immigration system.” How is this helping our economy, she wonders? She points out that in 2006, the US authorized only 55,000 work visas, a fraction of those requested by employers and workers, and an even smaller fraction of those than the economy could have absorbed.

Once Eugenia attended a listening session hosted by Senator Feingold at which much dissatisfaction was expressed over the immigration situation. She reports that Senator Feingold responded “Our system is lousy.”

“But why? Who makes the law?” she asks. “Sometimes I hear congressmen talking about immigration, and terrorists coming from the South, but the ones that did 9/11 came legally, by plane, and two dead ones were granted legal residency six months later!” She feels that the system misplaces its effort in making life so hard for those who try to come here to work or study.

“The law gives full authority to individual officials to make decisions. We play by the rules, and it doesn’t count. The individual official has a mood and makes a decision, and there is nothing we can do” says Eugenia resignedly. “Hopefully now that I’m a citizen I won’t have to depend on the moods of officials.”

Eugenia remembers when she went to get fingerprinted. “The office had a picture of an open window on the wall, and something about this being a window of opportunity. I’d say yes and no. When everything goes fine, the system works. But other people in the same situation as me, their petition is denied.”

Contemplating the future, Eugenia thinks back on the richness of her time in the university community in Montana, and wonders if she could recreate some of that here. “I’d like to get to know more people at the College. I’d like to invite the Hispanic students to come here once a month. The Spanish professor I stayed with in Montana had foreign students to his house once a week – every week was a different country. We were from all over! It was so enriching to share our experiences and cultures!”

“I think of these foreign students and their adjustment. I’m not much of a cook, but I could have them over. It is very nice to see the diversity, and we are happy being here.”

Through the Gate or Over the Fence? Ripon's Undocumented Immigrants

Through the gate or over the fence?
Ripon’s Undocumented Immigrants

Raimundo , a middle-aged Mexican man, entered the U.S. legally back in the late 90s after a year-long wait for a tourist visa. He didn’t even try to obtain a work visa, given the likely wait of a decade or more, and the probability of finding a job without one. He found his way to a home and a job in the Ripon area, enjoyed the quiet lifestyle, and a year later brought his wife and daughter to join him.

For the first few years, they traveled back and forth to Mexico periodically, sometimes together, sometimes separately. A seasonal lay-off might send one of them back to Mexico where they would visit relatives and live on savings, and a cash shortage would bring them north again.

Their casual migrations ended in the post 9/11 political climate, with its heightened border security and increased workplace enforcement of immigration laws. Now Raimundo and his family stay here year-round.

Raimundo’s story is a common one. Some evidence suggests that tighter border security actually may be keeping more undocumented workers in the country than out. One study found that 47% of undocumented Mexican immigrants returned to Mexico either temporarily or permanently between 1979 and 1984. Between 1997 and 2003, the number fell to 27%, and it is thought to have fallen substantially since then. What used to be a round trip for many workers has become a one-way migration.

When Enrique decided to come to the U.S., he tried to play by the rules. He applied from his Central American home country for a visa, and entered the U.S. legally several times to visit a brother who had naturalized. He was granted a couple of visa extensions with no difficulty.

After some months in the U.S. he decided to apply for a student visa, and was approved by the university. However, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) kept his papers for so long that the start date of the program in which he intended to enroll passed. The next month, he got a letter from the agency saying that they were denying his request because it was too late for him to start the program. In addition to denying his student visa, they revoked his tourist visa, making him immediately illegal and subject to deportation.

Enrique then faced two options. One was to return to his country of origin (where no surviving close relatives lived) and reapply, showing proof of employment security there and ownership of sufficient property. But because he had been in the U.S. under an expired visa (unintentionally), he would not be allowed back into the country legally for ten years, if then. Given the burdensome visa requirements, the ten year wait for another try, and the fact that most reapplications are denied, Enrique chose the second option: to go underground and remain in the country illegally. He has never relied on any government or private charity, and he has never broken any law but our immigration law – and that only because CIS kept his papers past the expiration date of his legally obtained visa.

Many like Raimundo and Enrique who have chosen to enter or remain in the country illegally have done so on the calculation that deportation is considerably less likely than failure to obtain legal entry if that is attempted. (See sidebars “Why Don’t They Just Get a Visa?” and “Till Death or La Migra Do Us Part” for more on immigration policy) However, the percentage of illegal border crossers who are apprehended or who die in the attempt is increasing, and Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (ICE) has been conducting raids across the country to round up and deport undocumented workers (see sidebar “The ICE Man Cometh” for more on the raids.)

As an additional enforcement mechanism, earlier this year Wisconsin joined a number of other states in making licenses unobtainable without proof of legal residency. Supporters of this new law point out that it is hypocritical to give legal ID to those who are here illegally, and suggest that all our laws should work in concert – against illegal immigration. Opponents of the law doubt whether the lack of a license will make many illegal immigrants go home or stop driving – it may only make them less likely to be insured and more dangerous on the road since they won’t have passed a test to be behind the wheel.

How have the prospect of ICE raids, greater workplace enforcement of immigration laws and the withdrawal of legal driving privileges affected Ripon?

No employers contacted for this article think – or are willing to acknowledge -- that they have any illegal workers. No undocumented workers known to this author have lost their jobs so far, but they report that it is much more difficult to obtain employment now than it was a few years ago, and some recent arrivals commute long distances to work.

The one Ripon area employer willing to speak emphasized how hard it would be to fill his labor needs without immigrants. “Without immigrants it’d be pretty hard to keep our doors open.”

He finds immigrants willing to work longer hours and weekends, and to do heavy manual labor that most Americans shun. “If we manage to close the border, people in this country are in for a big surprise. Who do they think is going to do the heavy work? When you hire immigrants, they ask how much work they can do. When you hire Americans, they want to know how little. American kids, they’re terrible. They learn how to work with computers in school, and they all think they should get to work with computers. Nobody thinks they should have to work with their hands any more.”

This employer was also frustrated at how politicized and divorced from reality the national conversation about immigration has become. “I think this whole thing is just politics – politicians are using it to make a splash on TV. Down deep, both parties know we can’t close that border tight – we’d be in big trouble if we did. Immigrants are the only people that are going to do a lot of this work.”

Illegal immigrants worry about raids coming to Ripon: that their children will come home from school one day to discover that the parents have been taken to an unknown detention center out of state to be deported. “If they take me, I just want them to take me with my daughters,” says one anguished father. “The worst would be if they sent me without my daughters.”

Many immigrants fear being caught driving without a license. Chris Stieber of Ripon’s Police Department wonders whether he will see an uptick in unlicensed driving as licenses expire and cannot be renewed. He favors laws being consistent and is uncomfortable with giving a legal nod to illegal immigration. On the other hand, he says, “If not having a license doesn’t make them go home, and it doesn’t keep them off the road, I guess I’d rather see them get a license. If they’re going to be driving anyway, I’d rather know they passed a test, can read road signs, and know what the laws are.” He also wonders if the courts might get bogged down in processing traffic offenses and have fewer resources to devote to more serious crime. “I’ve never known anyone to be deported for a traffic offense, even if they were illegal – so I don’t know how this is going to play out.”

One immigrant mother wonders about her son’s future: “When he can’t renew his license next year, how can he continue his education?” Until recently, she harbored hopes that her son would, though more education, have better opportunities than she has. Now she is not so sure, given that the family’s income is earned in Ripon, the educational opportunities are in Fond du Lac, they cannot afford to maintain separate households – and soon they won’t be able to drive legally.

Sue Jaeke, local administrator for the Salvation Army at St. Catherine of Sienna Catholic Church, has an inside perspective on local families in crisis, some of whom are immigrants. “Until this summer, lots of migrant workers needed a little help to get started – money for a security deposit, for example -- and then they would get a job and they’d be fine, and we wouldn’t see them again. Now it’s different. This last summer, people who’d been coming for years couldn’t get jobs, and there were all these families depending on each other, living together – and none of them had work.”

She sees that the combination of employers afraid to hire undocumented workers, the breakup of families due to immigration problems (often resulting in single mothers with children remaining here), higher gas prices, general economic conditions and excessive indebtedness have pushed some local immigrant families into crisis.

“It breaks my heart,” she says. “These people just want to follow the American dream, and they are willing to work so hard for it without complaining. They don’t take advantage of the system [charity] like a lot of Americans I see. We wouldn’t see them in here if we let them work.”

Paradoxically, those who work most closely with undocumented immigrants suggest that our efforts to crack down on illegal immigration are ending up increasing, not decreasing, the number of immigrants relying on local charity. Every measure that makes their life harder without making them go home drives a few more into the arms of the Thrift Store or the Salvation Army. The cumulative impact of the various enforcement measures does send some immigrants home. Many, however, face such bleak prospects where they came from that they try to tough it out.
Jaeke expects to see more and more of them coming through Saint Catherine’s doors during the coming months. “I’m just worried we’re going to start seeing people living in their cars by spring,” she says.

One undocumented immigrant sums up why he stays despite all the hardships. “When we came here,” he says, “we sold everything we had to pay for the trip. If they deport us, we’ll arrive in Mexico with nothing at all, worse than when we left. And it’s bad, bad in the villages. No work, nothing. Where would we go?”

Jill Stiemsma, a sociology instructor at Moraine Park Technical College and a local expert on the forces driving illegal immigration, suggests that Americans need to align immigration policy with economic reality—both in the U.S. and in the immigrants’ countries of origin. “NAFTA is driving all these small farmers off their ancestral lands in Mexico so multinational corporations can produce ethanol for U.S. cars. We’re driving up the market price of corn at the same time subsistence farmers are losing land to grow their own. They’re having riots about the price of tortillas in Mexico, and we wonder why they’re coming here. They’re coming because they need the work -- and let’s face it, we need the workers. Until we get real about that, we’re fighting a losing battle trying to close the border.”

Sidebar: Why Don’t They Just Get a Visa?

Since 1965, U.S. immigration policy has focused on family reunification and meeting certain identified national economic needs. Each year, a certain number of visas are apportioned to specific categories of jobs, most go to those requiring high skill levels. However, the total number of work visas made available is very small compared with the number of individuals who want to come, and the number that are able to find work if they do come, legally or not.

Most of those who are here illegally, especially those aiming for lower-skill jobs, face no prospect of obtaining a legal work visa without a 10-25 year wait. The US currently issues only 5000 visas for year-round unskilled workers per year, while the economy generates 400,000-500,000 such jobs each year, and native-born population growth does not keep up with this demand. Given the lack of economic opportunities where they live, and their often extensive cross-border networks of relatives with up-to-the-minute information on local job opportunities, many choose to take their chances as undocumented workers.

Sidebar: Till Death or "La Migra" Do Us Part

Would-be immigrants who seek legal entry via family reunification visas face daunting waits. In 1995, about 650,000 individuals were given residency as family members of citizens or residents. Considering that 12% of the U.S. population of 300 million is foreign-born, this means that for roughly every 55 immigrants in the US, one individual was given a family reunification visa.

The system is so backlogged that at the rate CIS is processing applications and the rate it is receiving them, it could take as long as 20 years for the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents to join their family members in the U.S. For Mexicans the wait is even longer. Furthermore, if a child reaches adulthood while waiting for a minor’s visa, she has to start all over again in an even more backlogged visa category. For siblings of citizens, like Enrique, the wait is currently 16-30 years.

A significant percentage of the estimated 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents who have been approved for visas but who must wait many years to receive them due to the limited number that may be granted each year. Under current law, if they reside illegally in the U.S., they forfeit their ability to obtain legal visas.

The frequency of family break-ups due to immigration problems has yielded grim humor in the Hispanic community: they joke that the new wedding vow is “Till death or “La Migra” [immigration enforcement] do us part.”

Sidebar: The ICE Man Cometh

During this last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) drew up plans to enlist employers in immigration enforcement by informing them of employees with apparently incorrect Social Security numbers and requiring that they take action or face legal proceedings.

Implementation of the rule was soon halted by a federal judge. Expert witnesses testified that about two-thirds of the discrepancies would involve U.S. citizens, and that the ruling would shift the effort and expense of immigration enforcement to employers who were ill equipped to handle the burden. Currently, DHS is drawing up new rules that the agency believes will withstand a legal challenge.

In the meantime, raids by Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (ICE) continue apace, typically targeting employers known to have a high percentage of undocumented workers. Workers are arrested and taken to detention centers where they are processed for deportation or immigration hearings. Their children, roughly two-thirds of whom are U.S. citizens, are left, for somewhere between hours and many months, in the care of their extended families, babysitters, neighbors, churches, local charities, schools and others. Some parents are released to care for their children while awaiting the disposition of their cases, others are not. Some are unable to communicate with their families before deportation; the first their children hear from them may be a call from the Mexican border.

A study by the Urban Institute on the impacts of the raids found that children often experienced severe trauma and prolonged insecurity, and their communities – including economically vulnerable extended families, schools and teachers, and various charitable support networks -- were exhausted by the burden of caring for these young citizens and their disrupted families.

In 2006, as part of “Operation Return to Sender,” ICE arrested 20,000 undocumented workers in workplace raids, and deported a total of 185,000 individuals. This represents less than 2% of all undocumented individuals in the country. ICE’s budget for FY 2007 was $4.7 billion.

Opportunity Lured Undocumented Couple to U.S.

“Erika” (not her real name), her husband and their two children moved to Ripon in the summer of 2001. In 2005 they had a third child.

Erika and “Jose” have worked at two area businesses and have also had occasional housekeeping and other jobs on the side. With frequent pauses to attend to her third child, Erika described their life in Mexico — a series of insecure, low-paying jobs that could not support a family — and their decision to come to the United States. She described their travels to get here, and life as undocumented workers in the Ripon area.

The couple agreed to be interviewed on the condition that their names and other identifying details be changed to protect their anonymity. The interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.

“In Mexico, Jose and I worked for quite a while plucking chickens, and then making ice cream cones….,” Erika said. “Then the man Jose worked for making cones bought a new, more modern machine and he no longer needed Jose, so then Jose started to sell ice cream cones. But he couldn’t support us that way. Then he worked in carpentry for a while, but when the kids started school, their expenses were high, and business was slow. Jose was laid off a lot. We were living in a one-room house, and often all we had to eat was tortillas.”

Erika’s brothers in Wisconsin had been able to improve their futures by moving to the states. There was only one problem: “Jose didn’t want to come at all.”

But they came. The family crossed the Rio Grande River with a “coyote” (an individual who guides and transports people across the border illegally for a fee). The river was dry, with water barely reaching their knees.

Once the family arrived in Texas, they spent several days in hiding before being transported in trucks and trailers to Dallas. In Dallas, they were left on a street corner with no money, no food, no English, and no idea what to do or where to go next. They sat on a bench hoping that someone who spoke Spanish would appear and help them.

“We got lucky,” Erika said. “A couple came along, and they helped us. Without even knowing us, they bought us food and bus tickets and helped us on our way.”

The bus ride to Wisconsin had new challenges. There were many connections to make, and they were so scared to be left behind or get on the wrong bus that they wouldn’t get off the bus they were on for meal and rest stops. They had one pack of cookies to keep their children from crying. Finally, an American woman on the bus noticed that they hadn’t eaten since the bus left Dallas. At the next rest stop she bought hamburgers and fries for them all. With lots of sign language and a few words in Spanish, they realized that they were all going to Wisconsin.

“The American woman had a lot of luggage – five suitcases – so every time we had to change buses, we helped her carry all her stuff,” Erika said.

They family said goodbye to her in Milwaukee, where they were met by Erika’s family. After four months unemployed, during which time a relative supported them, they found work, enrolled their children in school, and started to settle in.

While life is hard, Erika finds much to appreciate. “Tengo suerte; I am lucky,” she said. “I have some really good American friends and that has been a big help.” Her neighbors greet them and help them remove snow. Jose has occasionally been hired for carpentry work. An elderly woman brings candy to their baby.

“But not everyone is like that.” Erika said. “At work they treat us differently. They always give extra work to the Mexicans and the Hmong – it’s like they can’t stand to see us not working. When we’re waiting [for a machine to complete a task] the American women sit down, arms folded, and just chat with each other. If the supervisors see us doing that, they come over and start sending us to sweep here, sweep there, do this, do that. A few of the American women see this, and they come with us to help because they see it isn’t fair. But most of them don’t.”

And the union isn’t much help, either, she said. “We pay the union to help us, but we never hear from them, and they don’t listen to us or explain anything to us. They don’t support us at all. And our employer, no tiene corazon. They have no heart. You have to be dying to get a day off. We’ve been working there for five years, and we still only get one week of vacation per year. The Americans get two, and they tell us we get two, but we’ve never seen it.”

Erika’s assessment of the schools is more positive. “But I’ve only been to two parent-teacher conferences in five years,” she said. “They won’t let us off from work for things like that, and we’ve always been working during the hours they have them. The last conference I went to, they just told me if my kid was having a problem they would let me know. But I would like to know more – kids don’t tell you everything. The hours are a big problem – lots of us work during the hours they usually have school conferences and events.

“The other thing that’s hard with the schools is that almost nothing comes home in Spanish. Pages and pages come in English. I ask my daughter to read me things, and she says four words, from a whole page of print! I have no idea what most of it is about, but I want to know.”

Although an undocumented immigrant, Erika maintains she wants to work within the system. “We didn’t come here to get anything for free. We came here to work, and we work hard,” she said. “Everything we have, we bought. We pay taxes, we pay Social Security, we pay for health insurance … we’ve only asked for help once – we got WIC for one month for the baby.” WIC is the Women, Infants and Children program that gives free basic food items to pregnant women and small children. It is one of the only federal programs available to undocumented immigrants.

“If we could have come here legally, we would have, but it doesn’t work that way,” Erika said. “For example, we have a friend who married an American citizen, but she was going to have to return to Mexico to apply for a visa there and wait until they called her – years! We also know a guy where we work who married a citizen, and he did all the paperwork just like he was supposed to to get legal residency. Then they told him he had to return to Mexico to do it, even though he was already married and had kids. When he left a day late for Mexico, they gave him a deportation order that made him illegal for the next 10 years. He left a wife, two little kids and a mortgage behind. But he couldn’t bear to be away from them for 10 years, when they would let him apply again for a visa [with uncertain outcome] so he came back under a different name to be with his family. They make it really hard to do the right thing.”

In fact, Erika’s older children do have a chance at legalization. Both were victims of crimes in the last few years, and both of the perpetrators are behind bars after successful prosecutions. There is a new visa category to help victims of certain serious crimes attain legal status, and one or both of Erika’s older children will apply for this “U” visa (which did not exist at the time they filed charges.) One of the things they will need to prove to obtain this status is that they actively cooperated with law enforcement officials. Their parents hope that the fact that they did so will work in their favor. One of the perpetrators was found to have committed the same crime with a number of Ripon youth – Erika’s child was the first to report him, and thus prevent him from continuing the abuse.

There are many days that Erika yearns to return to Mexico. “Every day we are here we think about the same thing: we live in fear that they [Immigration] will separate us. We worry about it all the time.” She also would not encourage other family members to come here because living in fear takes such a severe toll. “The effect is depression,” she acknowledges. “If we were in Mexico, we could be united, free, and without fear.”
But for two reasons she plans to stay. Her children do not want to return – for them this is home. Second, if she returns to Mexico she will have no way to help her aging parents financially. From the U.S., she can send a little money. She acknowledges that while life in the United States is not easy, “Here I eat meat, I drink milk, I have a car. I have what I need.”

What does she hope for for her daughters and son? “I hope my daughter becomes president!” she says, laughing. “Then she could legalize us!”

The Economics of Immigration: More Winners than Losers

“I’d have trouble keeping my doors open without immigrant labor.” – Ripon area factory owner

“Americans would work for [Ripon area factory] if they didn’t treat us like mules.” – former local factory worker, American

“They exploit us, but what else can I do? Where else would I go?” – Undocumented immigrant worker at area factory

“I found out that American workers were being paid more than me to do the same job. I complained to the manager, and he said if I didn’t like it, I could leave. So I did.” – Green card holding immigrant after quitting an area factory

“Americans don’t want to work with their hands any more.” – Local American factory owner

Workers, managers, factory owners and the guy on the street – just about everyone has an opinion about immigration and its impact on the economy. One says illegal immigration is driving down wages and driving up unemployment among native-born workers, another says that the unions have failed to defend workers’ interests. One says the problem is globalization and the pressures it puts on employers to join the “race to the bottom,” while another says it is lazy, over-entitled Americans who don’t want to do manual labor. Some say immigrants are saving our economy, others say they’re ruining it.

Whichever way you see it, economic forces are shaping immigration, and immigration is shaping our economy. The Ripon area, as it turns out, is a revealing microcosm of what is happening nationwide.

Most economists agree that immigration as a whole is important to the U.S. economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2002 and 2012, 56 million new jobs will be created, more than 75 million Americans will retire, and native-born fertility will approach replacement level. In particular, the economy is annually producing hundreds of thousands more low-skill jobs than will be filled by native-born Americans, who are graduating from high school and college in record numbers. Industries such as agriculture, food processing, hospitality, some manufacturing, and construction now rely heavily on an increasingly immigrant labor force.

In the Ripon area, three food processing and two manufacturing plants rely somewhat to heavily on immigrant labor. Neighboring communities have a number of enterprises that employ a growing number of immigrant workers to milk cows, make cheese, package juice, can and freeze vegetables, and do construction and landscaping work .

According to Allen Buechel, Fond du Lac County Executive, “Due to the retirements of a great number of county workers, we will no longer have an adequate home-grown labor force, and our businesses will need to attract people from outside our community. Since we share this problem with everyone, we will need immigrant workers to sustain our businesses.”

Most economists agree that low-skill immigrants are filling jobs that Americans are unwilling to do in sufficient numbers at the wages that are offered.

Paul Schoofs, professor of economics at Ripon College, says, “The evidence shows that immigrants yield a net benefit to the economy, even if we restrict our focus to just illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants help the economy [by] taking jobs that otherwise would not be filled… at wages that allow the companies to compete in national and global markets.”

Schoofs also points out that many Americans worry that immigrants compete with native-born workers for jobs. They fail to recognize the ways immigrants complement rather than compete with American workers, generating more employment for Americans, not less.

For example, various high tech industries nationwide rely heavily on immigrants with engineering, computer and science skills that too few Americans have. (One joke has it that Silicon Valley was built on ICs – not integrated circuits, but Indians and Chinese.) In 2000, more than half of all the engineers in Silicon Valley were foreign-born, and foreign-born entrepreneurs had established companies employing tens of thousands of Americans.

Locally, Ripon College hired its second Chinese economist recently – a majority of the applicants for the position were foreign.

However, if the U.S. economy as a whole would suffer without immigration, there are both winners and losers in the emerging economic patterns.

Cheaper Labor

Depending on whether you’re a factory worker or a factory owner, immigrant labor is either a boon or a bane. One local employer says he couldn’t keep his doors open without immigrant workers. Native-born workers counter that the problem is his wages and conditions, and that if immigrants didn’t fill those jobs, he’d have to raise wages and then American workers would gladly keep his doors open.

What if the immigration spigot were turned off? Some companies that do not face international competition would probably raise wages and benefits – and the prices of the goods they produce. Others would be unable to compete and would shut down, and still others might be prompted to set up shop overseas.

When Alliance Laundry Systems threatened to do just that a few years ago, it was able to wrest wage and benefit concessions from the union. That the company has some immigrant workers could be seen as something of an economic compromise. Hiring immigrant workers to fill out the (still mostly American) labor force may make it possible to keep the factory here – but not at the wages that workers were accustomed to in the past.

Jill Stiemsma, Moraine Park Technical College sociology instructor points out that as long as international capital is more mobile than labor, businesses can always move – or threaten to move – to another country to reduce their costs.

Ellen Sorensen, formerly of Ripon’s Chamber of Commerce and currently Chief of Staff for Fond du Lac County, said “Ripon’s work force has become more diverse because there aren’t enough people in Ripon to fill the jobs. If the immigration spigot were turned off, Ripon’s economic wellbeing would be compromised. We’d be hurting.”

How much lower are U.S. wages because of the influx of low-skill workers? After reviewing several studies on the subject, The Economist magazine estimates the reduction to be on the order of 2-5% -- mostly at the bottom of the wage scale.

Cheap Goods

If some American workers get a skimpier paycheck because of low-wage immigrants, all American consumers reap the benefits of low prices at the check-out counter. Furthermore, cheap labor lowers the price of many goods, and thus raises the demand for those goods. This in turn generates more jobs.

Mexican drywall and masonry crews, for example, help keep the price of new houses down, thus increasing the demand for them -- and keeping more American electricians and plumbers employed. While some immigrants compete directly with American workers, others complement the skills of native-born workers and increase their employment opportunities.


Immigrants are often highly entrepreneurial. Asians start businesses at two and Mexicans at three times the rate of native born Americans. About half of Ripon’s independent restaurants are owned by immigrants (Kristina’s, The Red Apple, China 1, Republican House and formerly Cortez’s) as well as an additional downtown business (Aneh’s Fine Foods).

Taxes and Services

If immigrants are on the whole a good thing for the economy, how about for taxpayers? Do immigrants consume more in services than they pay in taxes?

On a national level, the news is generally good. One national study found that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, pay on average $80,000 more in taxes than they consume in services over the course of their lifetimes. (See sidebar, “Do Illegal Immigrants Pay Taxes?”)

It is very difficult to get overall data on how many undocumented workers are working under the table (and thus avoiding payroll and income taxes), but the evidence suggests that locally, informal employment is not a major economic activity for most undocumented workers. None known to this author have relied on informal sector work for more than a few months at a time, or for more than a fairly small percentage of total annual household income.

There are a few government programs that may be accessed by non-citizen and/or undocumented immigrants. Several households known to this author have received food stamps, WIC (Women, Infants and Children nutrition program), Headstart, and free or reduced-price school lunches. Sometimes only the citizen children receive these benefits. Many immigrant families do not apply for programs for which they may be eligible, for fear of being identified as undocumented.

Education of immigrant children can be a significant outlay of tax dollars for some communities. In the case of Ripon, the state aid that comes with each child (about $6600) is three times the cost of extra language services (about $2000 per child). It is not clear that either Ripon’s taxpayers or school district would be better off without ELL immigrant children, particularly in this time of declining enrollments.

Also, 70% of immigrants arrive during prime working age and we spend nothing on their education. Furthermore, many, particularly from Mexico, leave as they get older and are unable to work. Only 7% of immigrants in the U.S. are over the age of 50; few of them rely on government health or other benefits claimed by most elderly citizens.

This author knows several Mexican immigrants who have returned to Mexico or who plan to because of advancing age, ill health, and an inability to perform physically demanding jobs. Ripon didn’t educate them, and Ripon won’t care for them in their old age – but our local businesses will have benefited from their prime working years.


The evidence suggests that some local charities are serving a disproportionate number of immigrants. The Salvation Army, various holiday season charities, some churches, area free clinics, and other local groups have helped a number of immigrants in crisis. To some degree, the problem isn’t immigrant status per se, but poverty. However, the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants is more extreme, and more likely to lead to dependence on charity when things go badly.

Immigration Enforcement

What is the cost of keeping out or deporting those who have not received permission to enter the country? Between 1986 and 2002 the number of border enforcement agents tripled, the Border Patrol’s budget increased tenfold -- and the number of undocumented immigrants in the country more than doubled. In 2006, Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (ICE) arrested 20,000 undocumented workers in workplace raids, and deported a total of 185,000 individuals. This represents less than 2% of all undocumented individuals in the country. ICE’s budget for FY 2007 was $4.7 billion.

Thumbs up or down?

The evidence suggests that locally as well as nationally, the overall economic benefits of immigration outweigh the costs. However, the benefits and costs are not evenly distributed. Low wage workers have seen their wages fall somewhat further and faster than they would have without a supply of low-wage immigrants. Consumers have benefited from lower prices, and producers from higher aggregate demand. Many American workers have had their opportunities expand from the presence of immigrant workers with complementary skills. The federal government and Social Security have taken in billions of tax dollars from individuals who do not qualify for many benefits or services. Local charities may be stretched by the needs of economically vulnerable immigrants, particularly the undocumented.

Sidebar: Do Illegal Immigrants Pay Taxes?

All immigrants, undocumented or not, pay sales taxes, all pay property taxes (directly or through rent), and all those with formal sector employment pay Social Security taxes. Depending on their income level, they also pay state and federal income taxes. In fact, because many have taxes withheld from their paychecks and then do not file a tax return, they are paying taxes they do not owe. As Ripon College’s Schoofs points out, “Many of these [undocumented] immigrants would qualify for income tax refunds if they were to file for them, but they don’t for fear of being detected.”

Non-citizen legal residents must pay all the same taxes as citizens, but do not qualify for all the same benefits (such as welfare.) Undocumented workers pay into Social Security, but will never qualify for benefits because they are using made-up Social Security numbers. The Social Security Administration holds tens of billions of dollars paid into the system by such individuals.

Sidebar: One employer tells his story

I started farming 14 years ago. My workers were all white. The turnover rate was very high, people were unreliable – they just wouldn’t show up. Hispanics started showing up at my farm asking for work. One day I had work so I hired the guy. Then I hired his son, then his daughter, and eventually I replaced all but two of my white workers with Hispanic workers.

I have two families now, and I just keep hiring members of their families. I don’t run ads any more. I can put in ad in the paper and get 60, 80 calls from guys who are desperate for work, but they haven’t been working for months, they can’t tell me who their last employer was, and I can tell they won’t be reliable.

I rely on these two families to get me more help if I need it. They take care of the training, they know my expectations, and they never bring anyone who wouldn’t live up to that.

I have 450 cows and 12 workers, including my brother. I pay them all $10-14 an hour, with paid vacation and holidays. I offer health insurance or more money per hour, and the Mexicans always take the money. For health care they go to the Samaritan Free Clinic in Fond du Lac. They work 60 hours a week.

I fill out an I-9 form [saying that the workers are here legally] for all my workers – they can all show me documents for that. But then after they’ve been here a while they tell me their life stories, and I find out they’re illegal.

They don’t want to be. I believe each of them would be legal if the process were made simpler and cheaper. The first guy I hired and his son, they have green cards now – I sponsored them. But it took five years and $5000 each.

[If there were an immigration raid] it would be initially devastating to me. We milk around the clock. Cows can’t wait. But I think the chances of it happening are slim. I fill out the forms, we pay taxes, we treat our Hispanic workers the same as our other workers – we do it right. I think this [talk of cracking down on immigration] is just political hot air.”

Sidebar: Immigrants and Fond du Lac County’s Economic Future

Ironically, while many Americans are concerned with how to reduce the flow of immigration, others, including Fond du Lac County’s government and business community, are trying to figure out how to attract the diverse talent – including immigrants – that they see is the wave of the future. Their effort is the Comprehensive County-wide Diversity Initiative (CCDI).

In November, 140 local business and civic leaders, including representatives from Ripon, convened in Fond du Lac to listen to Heidi Moore, corporate diversity expert, tell them what was coming and how to prepare for it.

Graphs and charts on demography and economic trends made it clear: if Fond du Lac County expects to succeed in the 21st century, it can’t just grudgingly accept a more diverse workforce – it will need to get out there and compete for it. Only 30% of the workers currently entering the labor force are white men – the other 70% are women, minorities and foreign-born. Racial and ethnic minorities are also a rapidly growing share of the consumer population that businesses need to market to.

Attendees at the event talked in small groups about their challenges and successes in competing for talent, developing and marketing products for minority communities, hiring a more diverse workforce, and learning to manage racial and cultural diversity among employees.

Allen Buechel, Fond du Lac County Executive, feels the time is right for this kind of coordinated effort. “People talk about rotten apples spoiling a whole barrel. Well, a ripe apple ripens a whole barrel, too.”

CCDI’s steering committee is continuing to meet to move the Initiative forward; several upcoming events are planned. For more information on CCDI go to the County’s website at