By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Eduardo Perea has lived in Milwaukee for over 30 years. He has a wife and four children, a job in construction and a house. He’s an upstanding member of society, but he’s facing an ongoing uphill battle.
Perea lives in fear that one day he could be deported. Because despite living like an American citizen – including paying his taxes and contributing to the city and state’s infrastructure – Perea’s undocumented status defines him in the eyes of the law.
“After 33 years of living here, I consider myself an American,” Perea said. “I need that piece of document.”
Perea, along with several others, shared their story with U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, who visited Milwaukee on Wednesday, May 26. Walsh was in town to talk about the Biden-Harris Administration’s American Jobs Plan, which would invest $100 billion in support of workforce development.
During his visit, Walsh met with members from the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, Voces de la Frontera and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council. After meeting with Mayor Tom Barrett and Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Walsh attended a roundtable discussion at the new Voces de la Frontera offices, 733 W. Historic Mitchell St.
When it comes to workforce development, immigrant workers and labor leaders are hoping that their voices and concerns are taken into consideration.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of Voces de la Frontera, pointed out that many of those gathered at the Voces de la Frontera offices are essential workers and immigrants. Immigration rights are fundamentally part of workers rights, she said.
“If we’re going to have a change and respond to the pandemic crisis that it really has to include citizenship for immigrant workers and their families,” Neumann-Ortiz said.
“Citizenship for all.”
The immigrants have always been at the front lines, she added, and experienced high levels of injury and death. They’re unsung heroes, she said.
Alondra Garcia and Gabby Benavente are both teachers.
“Teaching during the pandemic has definitely been very difficult,” Benavente said. “It has exasperated a lot of inequalities that have already existed.”
Garcia has only been a teacher for the past two years. The majority of her career has taken place during the pandemic. In addition to teaching virtually and in-person, Garcia is teaching bilingual students, many who come from low-income families. Garcia’s journey to becoming a teacher wasn’t easy.
As a DACA recipient, Garcia wasn’t eligible for government aid.
“We are labeled as temporary residents, not U.S. Citizens or permanent residents,” she said. “We literally have to work our way through college and that’s tiring.”
Javier Vasquez, whose family came here from El Salvador, said that his family owns homes and businesses. His father is in the floor covering business, his mother cleans houses, his stepfather is a general contractor and Vasquez himself is a carpenter.
Vasquez and his mother are here on temporary protected status.
“We’re typical TPS holders,” he said. “We still stress about deportation, due to the fact that every 16 months we have to reregister ourselves…My family and I have built this country through the pandemic and deserve to be honored by pathway to citizenship.”
Walsh is the son of Irish immigrants. His parents immigrated in the 1950s. Like the immigrant workers he spoke with, Walsh’s parents worked hard to provide for their families.
“My family is no stranger to hard work,” he said. “My family is no stranger to family members that were undocumented in our house that didn’t have a pathway to citizenship.”
His experience helped shaped his politics, he said. During his time as mayor, which coincided with the Trump Administration, Walsh made Boston City Hall a sanctuary for immigrants.
Neumann-Ortiz said she hopes that Walsh takes what he heard back to the Washington D.C. She asked that Biden Administration and Democrats consider pathways to citizenship when working on the second COVID-19 relief package. Immigrants are disproportionately frontline workers and for economic, public health and moral reasons, they deserve to be protected, she said.
She also asked that the administration do more to protect immigrants who come forward to have their rights asserted. There is fear to come forward, she said, even if someone’s labor rights have been violated. She asked that the administration makes it clear a person’s status can’t be taken advantage of.
“I give you my commitment and my support to do everything I can as the secretary of labor to push labor protections in the bill, to push pathways to citizenship,” Walsh said.
He stressed that the bill is a fluid piece of legislation and nothing is set in stone yet. He added that the president has made it clear that he is a strong advocate for immigration reform. Walsh said it is an issue that is within everybody’s cabinet from homeland security to education to commerce.
“We’ve gone too fair in this country without having immigration reform; there needs to be pathways,” Walsh said. “I heard you, I heard your stories. We shouldn’t be the government that pulls families apart.”
Many felt that the roundtable meeting went well and as work continues on the American Jobs Plan and the second COVID-19 relief package, the hope is that immigrants aren’t left behind.
“When you think of immigration it always becomes this big debate between different people when at the end of it all, a lot of us are just actual human beings trying to live our everyday lives,” Benavente said. “We have the same worries and concerns as everybody else we just have this other extra layer of stuff. So, I hope he takes that away with him, the humanity that we all have.”