A scene from the nine-day march to Wisconsin’s Capitol, earlier this year. Marchers, organized by Voces de la Frontera, demanded immigration reform from the federal government. (Photo | Joe Brusky)
“When we fight for immigration reform we are fighting for democracy itself,” said Christine Nuemann-Ortiz, executive director of the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera, standing outside the organization’s Waukesha office. Voces and allied organizations were three days into a nine-day march from Milwaukee to Madison.
Many of the marchers are immigrant essential workers, who labored to keep the Wisconsin economy going during the pandemic. Backed by their allies and family members they’re marching to remind the administration of President Joe Biden to make good on Biden’s promises to protect immigrants.
Specifically, they want the federal government to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrant essential workers and their families. Additionally, the marchers are calling on the state Legislature to restore access to drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, which it eliminated in 2007. Voces de la Frontera was joined in Waukesha by elected officials, Stewards of Prophetic Hopeful Intentional Action (SOPHIA), a Latina-focused domestic violence prevention organization Casa de Esperanza and other groups.
Nuemann-Ortiz said Wisconsin’s gerrymandered political maps hold back reforms, which is why federal action is so important. “We don’t have fair maps in Wisconsin,” she said. “And at the federal-level Democrats are in a position to protect democracy, and to deliver.”
Milwaukee Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, met the group in Waukesha to show her support. “We are with you,” Dimitrijevic, who’s father is a Serbian immigrant, assured the marchers. “We have your back. You always have been essential, you are essential, and you will be essential. Like Christine said, we’re getting tired of waiting. We’re going to keep walking until we get what we deserve. It’s not a favor, it’s not a gift, it’s a promise that we deserve.”
Jose Flores, an immigrant essential worker and small business owner, spoke about the challenges undocumented residents face daily, particularly in municipalities where local police act as immigration cops. He called the fear immigrant families live with “something personal,” explaining how hard it is to do worry that a simple shopping trip can end in deportation. Flores, standing beside his wife and children, said “immigration reform is what me and my family, we’re fighting for …We need drivers licenses for all and immigration reform.”
Tom Coyne, President of the Waukesha County Labor Council came to stand in solidarity with the marchers. Coyne noted that the union he heads, which represents painting and drywall workers, has a large number of Latin American members. On a wider scale, however, “the non-union drywall trade is made up of about 90% Hispanic males, and they get paid about one quarter of what we pay our union,” said Coyne. “And the reason is because of legal citizenship. We have a historical opportunity for our community to put pressure on the new Biden administration and the Democratic members of the Congress to use a simple majority to pass citizenship with permanent protection for millions of immigrants. This is a call to action.” Coyne added that, “the people deserve the right to not have to live in fear.”
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Activist and advocate groups were determined to hold the Biden administration accountable on immigration issues from Day One. In January, Voces de la Frontera joined the Brown Berets, a community organization which focuses on Milwaukee’s South Side, and other groups in calling for a reversal of Trump-era immigration policies. The action was done just an hour after President Joe Biden was sworn in at his inauguration.
In March, immigrant rights advocates and their allies held a rally outside of Milwaukee’s federal building calling for COVID relief for immigrant workers. Again, Democrats at the federal level were the main focus. Rally-goers conducted a mass phone blast of Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office to make sure their voices were heard.
Voces de la Frontera kept up the pressure on during its annual May Day march for immigrant rights. The current nine-day march kicked off on Sunday, with hundreds gathered outside Milwaukee’s Voces de la Frontera office to mark Father’s Day and honor immigrant fathers who have been working in the shadows to support their own families as well as whole sectors of the Wisconsin economy. There was food, music and free COVID vaccines. Guadalupe Romero, an immigrant essential worker in the food service industry, was among those who spoke.
“I’ve been contributing to this economy for 21 years as an essential worker,” she said. “And for those 31 years I’ve been living in fear. As the mother of six children, I feel afraid every time I drive them to school or to the doctor, all because I don’t have access to a driver’s license. I’m an essential worker and necessary to this nation. Immigrant essential workers have been fighting for our dignity for decades, and our time is now.”
Paul Vang, civic engagement director for the Hmong American Women’s Association joined Voces at the kickoff celebration for the march to show support. “Immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and other parts of the world make up the majority of workers who bravely labored throughout this pandemic and lost their lives to make sure we all had food to eat and that our hospitals and essential businesses were staffed and well-sanitized,” he said.
“On this Father’s Day,” he added, “the families who are still grieving the loss of their essential worker fathers and mothers to this pandemic are the same families who are still living in fear of deportation. It’s a moral imperative that Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration move quickly on citizenship for essential workers.”
On the third day of the march, the message remained the same. From Waukesha, the group will head to Wales, Wis. Bernie Gonzalez, a member of SOPHIA, echoed the sense of need after years of pushing. “We’ve been fighting for immigration reform way too long,” said Gonzalez. “It’s time we get it done. We need to get it done. No more lip service from politicians. We need to get it done, or there’s going to be consequences. It’s not a threat, it’s a promise. We need to get it done.”
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