Social Issues

Migrants from Nicaragua, Venezuela make a home in Whitewater

Upwards of a thousand migrants from two countries in Latin America have made their way to a southern Wisconsin college town, drawn by hopes of safety and facing legal limbo in their search for work.

By Nathan Denzin | Here & Now

February 2, 2024 • Southeast Region

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“Our case here in Whitewater is very unique,” said Whitewater Police Chief Dan Meyer.

“I started noticing the wave of migrants — probably it was during the pandemic,” said Whitewater Common Council member Brienne Brown.

“Why immigrants immigrate to a place is because as humans, we are looking for a better life,” said Jorge Islas-Martinez, an advocate for immigrants.

Whitewater has seen a wave of migration from the southern border with Mexico over the past two years. But this case is not like recent headlines where immigrants are being chartered to cities like Chicago.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask, ‘OK, where are the buses dropping people off?’ That’s not happening here,” Meyer said.

“It wasn’t a ton. It was like 50 at first, and then it was like another 50. And so it wasn’t like a massive rush,” Brown said.

But now city officials suspect there are about 800-1,000 migrants from Nicaragua and Venezuela in Whitewater, which is not a large city.

The 2020 Census indicated that about 15,000 people live there. Nearly 8-10,000 of those residents are students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“The earliest we really noticed it was, I would say, early 2022,” noted Meyer.

“We had a family that was found in a 10 by 10 shed — and that was during the wintertime,” he recalled. “So, January of ’22 — very cold temperatures, 10 below.”

Meyer said before they got to Wisconsin, many of the migrants likely had contact with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“The way the border policies work currently is that when someone crosses, Customs identifies them and asks them if there is a sponsor family that that they know of that can take them in,” he explained. “So, if somebody is able to identify that sponsor family and they can confirm that, they’re essentially provided transportation to that sponsor family.”

When these migrants enter the United States, they’re technically in deportation proceedings. But with a sponsor family, they’re released until their first court date. That court date is usually several years in the future due to a huge backlog of cases.

Upon arrival in Whitewater, these migrants can then sponsor other families that they know. The result is a pyramid effect where many families from small areas in Central and South America have come to Whitewater.

“They’re trying to get out of really unsafe situations,” Brown said. “There’s work to be had there — spice factories or egg farms there, sod farms or chicken farms.”

Nicaragua and Venezuela are both in violent political upheaval, driving people out of those countries and into America.

“What they were most concerned about was if they walked down the street, they had to have a stack of cash in their pockets, because they were always having to pay somebody off to stay safe,” Brown said.

Upon arriving in Whitewater, their legal limbo makes life extremely difficult.

“Most of them are really concerned about the fact that they’re not allowed to work,” Brown added.

She has talked to many migrants, who are not allowed to work for what is often an average of the first 100 days they are in the U.S.

“There are a lot of people who are following the rules, and only one person is working and everybody else is not,” said Brown.

“We are going to work to make money and to help our families,” said Islas-Martinez, who is a first-generation immigrant from Mexico. He has lived in Whitewater for nearly 30 years.

“I like to promote education,” Islas-Martinez said. “I like to help others to learn how to speak English.”

He said migrants face numerous challenges when they first get to Wisconsin. Getting a job, speaking a new language, and having transportation are all top of mind.

“I know how it feels to be in this country not knowing the language. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, it is hard,” said Islas-Martinez.

“Every single human has a right to succeed — whatever you are. You have that right,” he added.

But finding a job in rural Wisconsin requires a car, and in Wisconsin undocumented migrants are not allowed to obtain a drivers license.

“We don’t have public transportation. The only transportation that we have is the taxi. The taxi only is available here in Whitewater from 7:30 in the morning until 5:00,” Islas-Martinez said.

“I see it as a huge safety issue. I mean, if we’re having people, especially driving in snow for the first time, that is not a good situation,” said Meyer.

“It’s safer for people to have driver’s licenses. They have to take driver’s classes. They have to take a test to make sure they can drive. They have to have insurance,” Brown said.

“I drove a taxi for a lot of years. But to be honest with you, I learned how to drive when I came here to the United States. I learned what the yellow line means. I learned what the white line means. I know what the broken line means. I learned how I can pass a car. I did not know that in my country.,” said Islas-Martinez.

“If somebody is able to come here and take all of the testing, the written test, physically do the driving test so that they are safer as a driver, I’m all for that,” Meyer added.

Nearly 20 states already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a drivers license, including Illinois.

“I think that it’s something that they really need to look harder at in our Legislature is just giving those rights back so that everybody’s safer,” said Brown.

Along with driver licenses, city officials say more needs to be done to help Whitewater’s newest immigrant population.

“I think we have to learn that we are humans,” urged Islas-Martinez. “We’re immigrants, but we have feelings.”

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