Jennifer

Jennifer told of fleeing drugs and violence in Colombia years ago, moving around the U.S. until finding a home in Dane County.

STEVENS POINT — In a tragedy of historic proportion, many immigrants caught in the cruel vice grip of detainment at the southern border undertook arduous journeys, only to encounter that harsh treatment.

Sadly, many of the millions of immigrants already here for years seeking legal residence are forced to take grueling journeys of their own through the maze of the immigrant legal system. These journeys are costly and frightening in their own ways, undertaken even as these people work and pay taxes here.

Consider the case of Jennifer, one of the immigrants who shared their immigration stories in a project sponsored by the Wisconsin Humanities Council and Centro Hispano. My longtime friend and Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Gary Porter and I were blessed with the chance to work on this project. One phase is the "Immigrant Journeys" exhibit currently on display at the Overture Center through Aug. 18, featuring Gary’s beautiful photographs and pieces of the life stories of those who spoke with us.

Jennifer sat with Gary and me at Centro on a cold December day, her daughter clinging to her all the while. Jennifer told of fleeing drugs and violence in Colombia years ago, moving around the U.S. until finding a home in Dane County. Her journey in pursuit of status as a legal resident forced her to return to Colombia, then re-enter the U.S. In what she described as the worst day of her life, she was verbally abused by an immigrant agent in Chicago. Her child was eight months old then and forced to endure the abuse with her mother.

These days, Jennifer works through Centro to provide health services to women in the Latino community who can’t afford the cost of services in a health care system many of us take for granted. She is determined to help her Latino community members succeed.

The journey to legal residence takes a long time and requires the services of an attorney, along with a lot of patience. There are costs at every turn, costs that many immigrants cannot bear. Little wonder some choose to go underground, even if it means living in constant fear.

Most of the others who shared their stories with us encountered their own strife. Even those young immigrants who were brought here as children and who have worked their way toward higher education face cruelty. They are Dreamers — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

It was former Gov. Scott Walker who eliminated in-state tuition at UW-System schools for Dreamers. As a result, they pay three times more than other students who live in Wisconsin. Gilberto, who told us his story, noted that he worked three jobs to pay his tuition.

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Gov. Evers included in-state Dreamer tuition in his budget, but the Republican-controlled Legislature tossed the proposal in the waste basket. Maybe the governor will introduce it as a separate bill, along with allowing immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses so they can get to and from work.

This is not a liberal or conservative issue. But divisive politics continues to drive the debate. Name the hardest, dirtiest jobs in our cities, and immigrants are likely filling them. They milk the cows that make the cheese we brag about. They process the meat we eat. They work in countless other jobs no one else will take. And many of them live in constant fear of the kind of abuse Jennifer endured.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. billnick@charter.net

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