Social Issues

Local officials, advocates seek help for Whitewater migrants

An influx of immigrants to a small southern Wisconsin city over the past two years is straining resources, motivating community members to pursue more public funding and provide direct assistance.

By Nathan Denzin | Here & Now

February 8, 2024 • Southeast Region

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“It’s another generation of families coming here, trying to get jobs, feed their children, get their children through school,” said Kristine Zaballos, a resident of Whitewater in southern Wisconsin.

Conservative estimates assume about 800-1,000 migrants from Central and South America have come to Whitewater since 2022, straining local resources. Some of the most vulnerable in that population are children.

“We’re trying our best, how can we advocate for these children?” said Miguel Aranda, a member of the Whitewater school board and a second generation immigrant from Mexico.

“If we can advocate for funding for resources to make it a smooth transition for a lot of these families and their children, that’s what I’m going to continue advocating for,” he said.

With this new influx of students, Aranda says the school district needs more funding. Wisconsin currently sits on a $3 billion budget surplus.

“I would understand if there’s no money,” said Aranda. “We have to make hard decisions. But to know that there’s a surplus, it almost looks like the money is being dwindled right in front of our faces.”

But there are places in Whitewater that have acted as a stopgap to help the new arrivals.

“Our mission is to meet the needs of the community, whatever they are,” said Zaballos, who along with Kay Robers co-founded The Community Space in Whitewater. Their mission is to provide everything a person might need — from bedding to furniture to food — all for free.

“We know that they’re here because if they’ve never been here before, and they come in and see all these things, and we tell them that they can just have it, they don’t understand,” Robers said.

“I’ve had the privilege of witnessing somebody coming in, maybe having their worst day, and coming in and just needing some support, some food … and seeing them slowly relax and realize we’re not going to ask them for any papers,” Zaballos shared.

“They were really happy to be able to let us know what their life was like,” added Robers.

The Community Space has been accepting donations since 2019, but has ramped up its efforts in the last two years.

“I certainly like to say that there has been no crisis. Have we had to stretch and adjust? Absolutely. But there is no crisis,” said Zaballos.

“We’ve gotten so we can communicate pretty well. We use our translate on our phones, and they will also reach for their phone,” Robers explained.

They are open Tuesdays, Wednesday nights and Saturdays as a complement to the local food pantry.

“I can stand up in the middle of the room and say, ‘Is there anyone here that’s bilingual?’ And inevitably, I’ll get a nine-year-old child, which is awesome, you know? And I always say to the child, ‘Isn’t your mother proud of you? Tell her you did a really good job and we’re proud of you,'” Robers explained.

“We like to think that half of what we do is what we share and give away, and half of what we do is how we make people feel,” said Zaballos.

City officials are also looking to get help for the newcomers.

“I think the underlying theory here is that we know we need resources,” said Dan Meyer, who is the chief of police in Whitewater.

“For us in law enforcement, this is apolitical,” he said. “We simply need more staffing.”

Meyer said over the last two years, the police department’s work has gotten much more difficult and time-consuming.

“One of the things that has been difficult for us as law enforcement is just working with a population that, generally speaking, is not trusting of the government,” he explained. “Because they come from a place where they don’t trust their government.”

To try and get some help for the city, Meyer and city officials sent a letter to state and federal officials in December.

“We need more officers so that we can get out and patrol at the level that the community is used to having us out there,” said Meyer.

But the letter requested more than just a boost in law enforcement funding.

“This is a situation where we are a poor town that has limited resources and not enough shared revenue from the state. And we would like to help people make sure that they’re getting jobs, shelter, food, all those things, said Brienne Brown, a member of the Whitewater Common Council.

“We need the larger picture to be focused on,” she said.”The real problem is not that there are people here, it’s just that the city’s not prepared.”

Meyer and Brown said they have heard from local officials who seem willing to help. Plus, Wisconsin U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin plans to visit the city soon to see what she can do to help.

Wisconsin’s other U.S. Senator, Ron Johnson, visited with city officials in November. During a press conference, Johnson blamed what he called a “flood” of migrants in Whitewater on the Biden administration.

“Obviously the Biden administration, Democrats, do not want a secure border,” Johnson said.

But while city officials look wherever they can for resources, immigrant advocates say the new arrivals should not become political scapegoats.

“There’s a reason why we are here. I have my own family here,” Aranda said. “I don’t have any plans of leaving Wisconsin.”

“It’s really contributing to the vitality of our community,” Zaballos said. “It is where we see the future.”

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