President Donald Trump’s victory in November – and inauguration as our 45th president last month – was a transformative event for Latinos, the United States’ largest minority group. And not in a good way.

In the last couple of months, many Latinos throughout the United States have been coming to grips with the fact that the election meant that a significant portion of American citizens do not want them in the United States. Furthermore, as Trump’s campaign rhetoric becomes reality and as checkpoints, searches and raids ramp up nationwide, it means that a very rough immigrant life just got even rougher.

“We’re in a time of crisis here at Centro. We’re all pretty broken up. Some staff members more than others,” Centro Hispano Executive Director Dr. Karen Menendez Coller tells Madison365 in an interview at the south side agency’s headquarters on Badger Road. “It affects our staff. It’s affected me in ways that I never thought it would. I really take to everything that has been going on. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my story, too.”

Centro Hispano is a nonprofit organization that provides social services, job training, educational opportunities and a cultural home to Madison-area Latinos as well as other immigrant populations. Menendez Coller became the executive director of Centro in August of 2013, having spent a great deal of time studying and working with the huge Latino population in Los Angeles prior to that. Her own family immigrated to Los Angeles from war-torn El Salvador when she was 14.

Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller
Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller

“It’s hard not to be upset with the current attack on immigrants when it’s also your story,” she says. “And it’s also an attack on everything we do here. It’s hard to digest.”

Centro Hispano sees many families come through its agency every day.

“Whenever I hear families speaking about this, they are all like, ‘Well, you know … I’ve been through this and that and this barrier already. This is just one more thing and we have to keep going. This is just one more thing to get through,’” Menendez Coller says. “When I see them naming off all the challenges that they’ve had, I can’t help feel bad about this other wave of issues that are coming their way and barriers that, honestly, we can’t even predict.

“We come together, but there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. There’s a lot of urgency … a lot of trying to do anything to make sure that you are protected,” she adds. “That’s the crazy part that feels really uncomfortable about this Trump Administration – we don’t know where anything is going.”

The one thing that they do know is that actions by the Trump Administration on immigration has made everybody’s jobs at Centro that much more challenging.

For Menendez Coller, it’s much more work – policy work, legal work, attorneys, work with law enforcement, outreach, creating spaces of safety – with funds that are, unfortunately, basically the same as they were before Trump. “All of this is outside of what we are already doing,” she says. “It just adds to our work.”

“We can’t seem to move fast enough”

Gloria Reyes, deputy mayor to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, is very familiar with what goes on at Centro Hispano and Madison’s Latino community, in general. The daughter of migrant farm workers and East High graduate who has been a Madison police officer, lieutenant, and founder of Amigos en Azul, an outreach program to Madison’s Latino community, Reyes was once a Centro scholarship winner in the ‘90s. Centro played an important part at a crucial time in her young life. Reyes is also a recent president of Centro’s board of directors and is still very much in tune with the Latino community. She also can see the level of trepidation and concern in the community that the Trump era has brought.

Gloria Reyes (Photo by Kate Kostsina)
Gloria Reyes
(Photo by Kate Kostsina)

“We’re getting a lot of calls and e-mails from residents with questions and concerns, not only from the community standpoint but also from our city leaders who are trying to convene and mobilize and prepare themselves for a response on what comes out of the Trump Administration,” Reyes tells Madison365. “We can’t seem to move fast enough because we’re seeing things happen every day. Just today, we got information that the administration is already moving on identifying actionable steps to achieve Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

“It’s becoming real each step of the way. The great thing is the mobilization we are seeing around this issue and other issues that Trump is putting out there, but I see us trying to play catch up in responding,” she adds. “It’s just not a good way to work. We are focusing so much of our efforts in response and pushing back. We will never move our country forward if we’re going to continue the next four years pushing back on every executive order.”

Reyes says they are happy that on the federal level there have been concrete legal barriers to a lot of the things that have been coming from the Trump Administration. “But we also have to worry about on the state level how our governor is going to achieve some of the things that the Trump Administration wants,” she says. “We see that process moving through the state with the immigration bill that’s moving through [on Sanctuary Cities].”

Recently, Rep. Janel Brandtjen, a Republican from Menomonee Falls, reintroduced the proposal to penalize communities that fail to enforce federal immigration laws. Those sanctuary cities are communities – like the City of Madison that passed a resolution in 2010 – that have passed rules barring local officials from asking people their immigration status or reporting people in the country illegally to the federal government.

War on two fronts

Already battling the attack on immigrants of the Trump Administration, having to battle at the state level, too, doesn’t sit well with Brandtjen’s colleague Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, who represents the largest Latino community in the state of Wisconsin on the near south side of Milwaukee. “My district has always been an immigrant community, which I am so proud of,” Zamarripa tells Madison365 in an interview at her office at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. “We used to be very Polish and we still have some Polish grandmas and grandpas who haven’t left. Now, we have a lot of young, hard-working Latino families in my district.

There are a lot of what Zamarripa calls “mixed families” – some documented, some undocumented, some DREAMers.

“’Trabajamos duro,’ I always say. We work hard. We contribute hugely to the community,” Zamarripa says. “Our immigrant constituencies have brought tremendous work ethic to Wisconsin. I think it’s why so many dairy farmers, even though they themselves may identify as conservative or Republican, are very pragmatic on immigration policy and have stood with me on many efforts like driver’s cards for undocumented immigrants. It’s because they recognize that these communities are the future of our state … just like our German and Polish immigrants before us. We are the future of Wisconsin, this growing Latino constituency, and that’s a beautiful thing. I want Wisconsinites to embrace immigrants and Latino Wisconsinites.

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, who represents the largest Latino community in the state of Wisconsin, at her office at the state Capitol Building.
Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, who represents the largest Latino community in the state of Wisconsin, at her office at the state Capitol Building.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to have to contend with some anti-immigration bills coming out of here in the State Legislature in Wisconsin,” Zamarripa adds. “It’s a war on two fronts that we are fighting. It’s very difficult. But I’m not going to stop introducing our pro-immigrant/pro-Latino policies. I think it’s going to be important to continue to be a champion for things like tuition equity for our DREAMers, for symbolic victories like my bill to create a state holiday honoring Cesar Chavez, the great Latino laborer and civil rights leader. I think those efforts are so important … now more than ever.”

Does Zamarripa ever offer to take some of her state Legislature colleagues home to her district so they can see the children and the hard-working families that their proposed legislation would be tearing apart?

“I thought about that when Rep. Branchen put out an anti-Sanctuary City Bill and I spoke to her on the floor after the budget address and I wanted to invite her to my district so we could talk about the bill and she could see how much it would hurt the people of my district as well as her constituents, as well,” Zamarripa says. “She wasn’t very responsive. But she said I could reach out to her office. I plan to do that. But, yeah, I think if they could see the negative impact it would have, they would change their mind. That’s how we changed minds on marriage equality.”

Madison Alder Shiva Bidar has been working so passionately for the Latino community here in Madison for the last 20 years that many in the Latino community have ordained her as an “honorary Latina.” Battling both national and state forces, she recently introduced a measure to codify the City of Madison as a safe haven for immigrants.

Shiva Bidar
Shiva Bidar

“For me, I’ve seen the Trump Administration bring a lot of anxiety. That’s my general sense of what’s going on in the community,” Bidar tells Madison365. “But … I think at the same time there’s some really clear resilience. We’re here. We’re going to fight this through. We’ll manage. We need to keep going. We’ll make it through.

“It’s completely unknown what’s going to happen next and that’s where a lot of that anxiety comes in,” she adds, “and that can be scary for so many.”

Bidar has been bombarded with questions over the last few months. “‘Are they going to come after parents of children who were born in the U.S.?’ is a question that gets asked a lot,” she says. “I have been having to tell them that it’s really unknown at this point because it’s something new every day, for one, and, two, a lot of these policy decisions haven’t been fully implemented yet. So we don’t know what it will look like when it starts to be implemented.”

Children are hit the hardest

Bidar thinks that most people have a very simplified perspective on the American immigration system.

“There are so many misconceptions about this current totally broken immigration system,” Bidar says. “But what this current legislation and action on the federal and state level will do is to drive people underground and make things much more dangerous. It’s going to increase the level of anxiety of the children who live in these communities who will make up the future of our city. The amount of trauma and stress that these children are facing will have terribly negative long-term effects.”

Looking into the eyes of the many youths that come through for Centro’s programs, camps, and events is what makes Menendez-Coller especially sad. Latino kids already often carry the weight of the whole family on their little backs. Now, it’s even worse.

“There’s resiliency there, but I’m worried about them. They carry a lot as it is. Latino youths in Madison have a lot on their shoulders. They have more than even what I used to see in Los Angeles,” says Menendez Coller, who while faculty at UCLA directed collaborative projects with high-achieving high schools in Los Angeles to understand the impact of family and the educational environment on risk-taking behaviors and aspirations for Latino youth. “This just adds to it and you can’t help but have that weigh you down a bit. I’ve really noticed that in our interactions with some of the kids we serve here.

“Unlike the parents who are a little more guarded about showing the fear and the sadness, I can see it with the kids. It definitely shows,” she adds.

Centro Hispano's annual Tres Reyes Magos celebration is a great day for kids. “There’s resiliency there, but I’m worried about them. They carry a lot as it is,” Menendez Coller says of the children that come into Centro.. “Latino youths in Madison have a lot on their shoulders. They have more than even what I used to see in Los Angeles. This just adds to it and you can’t help but have that way you down a bit. I’ve really noticed that in our interactions with some of the kids we serve here.
Centro Hispano’s annual Tres Reyes Magos celebration is a great day for kids. “There’s resiliency there, but I’m worried about them. They carry a lot as it is,” Menendez Coller says of the children that come into Centro.. “Latino youths in Madison have a lot on their shoulders. They have more than even what I used to see in Los Angeles. This just adds to it and you can’t help but have that way you down a bit. I’ve really noticed that in our interactions with some of the kids we serve here.

“When it comes right down to it, what’s happening at the local level is that we have residents and families who are just scared,” Reyes says. “We need to be talking about an action plan and participating in helping with our families and our residents and how they are going to deal with the situation, if, in fact, it does happen that one of their parents get deported. What is the aftermath?

“And that’s sad. That’s scary that we are actually there today talking about this,” she adds. “What Trump is doing is a violation of all that we stand for in America. Unless you’re Native American in this country, you are an immigrant. That’s what our country is built on.”

It’s correct to say that there’s a general anxiety right now in the local Latino community. The raids going on across the nation are real. More than 50 were detained in immigration raids at Asian restaurants in Mississippi a few days ago, for instance.

“There are always rumors that are flying around all the time. Whether the rumors are founded or not, it’s hard to tell,” Menendez Coller says. “A couple incidents that have happened and have been investigated and it wasn’t anything related to the new administration … it’s just the way things have been done business-as-usual by ICE in Wisconsin.

“In California, we used to see raids and that meant vans and buses coming to take 50 or 100 people away,” Menendez Coller adds. “But here, we’ve had one or two people. I try not to worry people more than they need to because there already is a heightened sense of anxiety and sense of stress.”

So, Menendez Coller has to balance on that thin line of keeping people well-informed without worrying them too much.

“We’re very careful about what we’re doing and making sure that the right information is getting out there,” she says. “And that’s when it gets a little bit tricky because so much is going on, this is the first time it is happening … and we can’t really predict what’s going to be done at the federal level for certain things.”

Zamarripa does that same balancing act with her constituents on Milwaukee’s near south side.

“It’s bad. I struggle with wanting to put out accurate information to the community while not wanting to incite fear. I want to be pragmatic. I want to be informative,” she says. “I know there’s a lot of rumors and untruths about what is going on. It’s hard not to feed that fear, but I admit, personally, that I’m fearful for my community and my constituents on the near-south side of the city of Milwaukee.”

Neverending Battle Against Propaganda and #FakeNews

Where does all of the hate come from for people and families quietly working two or three low-paying jobs to try and give their children a better life? Political propaganda, Zamarripa says. People who live in small mostly white towns or live in segregation from Latinos are limited in their knowledge of what immigrants are all about and have to rely on what they hear from propaganda pushed for a political end. And that, unfortunately, has been Trump’s narrative of Latino immigrants being a bunch of “bad hombres.”

“It’s so damaging when President Trump says that we are murderers and rapists. We know that statistically speaking that immigrants are a very peaceful people and that, frankly, more native-born citizens who are more likely to be violent,” Zamarripa says. “But he continues to push out this narrative that this is a dangerous element of society that we need to do away with. That’s really damaging.”

“It’s net zero migration at the wall. It’s going in reverse at the border.P_Karenmenendez So why are we spending so much money on something that is more of a symbol of hate than anything else? I don’t know how many more times we need to say that before the larger community understand that this is the truth. This wall is useless.”

So, in this era of #fakenews, let’s just state facts: Latinos are huge drivers of economic growth in this country and the mass deportation of immigrants would sink our economy. While Trump and conservative media often portray Latino immigrants as a drain on the U.S. economy, the actual truth is that the growing Latino population injected $1.4 trillion into the U.S. economy in 2016. That’s larger than the GDP of Mexico. Because of their increasing numbers and growing purchasing power, Latinos are expected to contribute over $1.7 trillion to the economy by 2020.

“The biggest thing that people are missing is the huge economic impact that immigrants and Latinos have,” Bidar says. “I think we often talk about this issues from a social justice perspective, but I don’t think people fully understand the economic impact of Latino immigrants. They just don’t know about it.”

And while President Trump may not have paid any federal income taxes on his astronomical wealth for the last 20 years, the undocumented immigrants he rails against most certainly have. They’re also contributing billions of dollars a year to Social Security, but may never reap any retirement benefits from it.

“Some people have this conservative narrative that immigrants just get public benefits,” Bidar says. “I don’t want these people to cost me money.’ Without immigrant workers, everything would cost you much more money. And there are a lot of benefits that immigrants don’t get while living on the margins.”

The stepped-up enforcement of immigration under Trump is also costing American taxpayers a ton of money – estimates say the Trump plan would add $51.2 billion and $66.9 billion in immigration enforcement costs over the next five years. And that is with a low estimate on Trump’s much-talked-about wall, that a new internal report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated would cost $21.6 billion.

“It’s net zero migration at the wall. It’s going in reverse at the border. So why are we spending so much money on something that is more of a symbol of hate than anything else?” asks Menendez Coller. “I don’t know how many more times we need to say that before the larger community understand that this is the truth. This wall is useless.

“There’s such a lack of understanding about the Latino community and now I’m at the point of: Is it because you don’t want to believe it or is it because you really haven’t been informed the right way?” Menendez Coller adds. “You really get tired of correcting false information about our community at some point.”

JoCasta Zamarripa
JoCasta Zamarripa

Unless instilling terror in immigrant communities is the goal, Menendez Coller says, it is really hard to understand what purpose is served by focusing on hard-working immigrants. Of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, most have been in this country for more than 15 years and roughly 8 million of them are in the workforce. Large numbers have children, spouses and other relatives who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. They are an integral part of America’s fabric.

“There’s no framework. There are not enough specifics outlined. It’s very vague. There’s an order that we’re going to pick up these people because of such and such and such but it’s not specific enough so you can bend the rules,” Menendez Coller says. “There are people out there trying to bend the rules, and this gives them an opening: ‘I’ve always wanted to pick these people up and I’m going to now because I can frame it in this way.'”

“It seems to me what Trump is doing is a scare tactic and it is trying to stick with what he had campaigned on … but it doesn’t really make any sense,” Reyes says. “It’s separating our families and destroying our communities. We’re on board with other cities who are going to fight this until the end.”

“If the Trump Administration was really trying to get rid of the violent offenders and people who are a threat to our nation, he would do the same thing that President Obama did,” she adds. “President Obama deported more undocumented immigrants than any other presidents, but he did it in a way where he incorporated some immigration reform – the DACA, the DAPA – so people could understand why he was doing it. There was a process.

What the Trump Administration is doing is an attack on our Latino community, Reyes says, regardless of whether they are documented or undocumented. “It hits all of us. We have family and friends who are affected. We have our immigrant community who feed us and who are part of our business community,” she says. “They’ve opened up so many businesses and work in so many places and are so important to our economy.”

Latinos are 1.5 times more likely than the general population to become entrepreneurs. Their creation of new businesses outpaces the entrepreneurial efforts of everyone else and those businesses contribute almost $500 billion in economic activity each year.

“To do all of this is going to be very costly, too. We can’t afford it,” Reyes says. “Trump would have to break the bank to make this a reality. And our economy will lose big time without immigrants. So, we’re essentially paying for our economy to suffer.”

Menendez Coller is a little more blunt, summing up the attack on immigrants, the wall, etc. “It’s just a dumb idea. It’s a waste of time and money and just feeds into all of this hate,” she says.

“Don’t sit this one out”

Still, it’s clear that there are some people that are very happy about the Trump Administration’s attack on Latino immigrants. Centro has received their share of hate mail since the presidential administration change. “Some people sent letters saying why they didn’t like us, but on the other hand, we’ve had flowers delivered here saying, ‘We really support you,'” Menendez Coller says.

“From the larger community, we have gotten more requests of ‘how can we help?’ I think in that sense it’s brought us all together more. The faith community is really asking about things they can do and how can they be of service,” Menendez Coller adds.

Latinos are a large population – 52 million people or 17 percent of the national population and growing. In Wisconsin, it is no different. There are over 300,000 Latinos in the state with about two-thirds of the population in Milwaukee, Dane, Racine, Kenosha, and Brown counties. However, this population is rapidly growing in other areas of Wisconsin

“Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in Wisconsin and we are everywhere in this state. You would be surprised at the places where we are laying down roots in Wisconsin,” Zamarripa says. “We’ve got to get to the polls every election day. That’s how we will grow our influence and our power.”

“The big thing is that people are stepping up. The mayor, I’m always amazed at the way he is able to step up in these situations and really be committed to what he’s always been committed to,” Reyes says. “When it comes to this, I know he’s dedicated to wanting to make things better. Our city council members have stepped up to really ensure our residents that they are being supported by them. By what Samba [Baldeh] is doing and the resolution that Shiva [Bidar] did, it just reaffirms who we are as a city.

“Our Latino leaders have been amazing – like Mario Garcia Sierra, Grisel Tapia and Voces de la Frontera. They continue to mobilize our people,” Reyes adds. “Also, our undocumented community continues to step up no matter what is going on. Whether they are living in fear or not, they are continuing to get up every morning, go to work. They are washing our dishes and making our food and cleaning our homes. They are teachers and lawyers. They continue to fight against all odds.”

In a “Day Without Latinos” event, thousands of community members gathered at the Milwaukee County Courthouse recently to rally for immigrant rights.
In a “Day Without Latinos” event, thousands of community members gathered at the Milwaukee County Courthouse recently to rally for immigrant rights.

Bidar admits that things do look bleak right now, but she insists that those fighting for immigrant rights will be on the right side of history when it is all said and done.

“Looking at our families and knowing that we are in this together and how people want to fight … that makes me optimistic,” she says. “Somehow, at some point, history will look back at this time and say that it was not good and the wrong kind of policies. So, I try to set my eyes on the long term and see how we can do our best to survive this awful time.

“The second thing that gives me hope is that more allies and more people have been activated and engaged than ever before and I’m hoping that they will stay engaged,” Bidar adds. “I think the need for comprehensive immigration reform is becoming known to a lot more people and the more people that are involved, the better chances we have to eventually to really get our country back.”

“I hope people understand that even if you are not an immigrant or you don’t have an immigrant in your family, what this administration is doing is going to hurt all of us,” Zamarripa says. “It endangers everybody’s public safety. It’s going to push the immigrant families underground. They’ll be less likely to call their police department to report a crime. They’ll be less likely to report abuse. You’re taking away a sense of community now that we need. In the end, nobody benefits from these kinds of anti-immigrant actions.”

Reyes believes that this is an opportunity for the greater Madison community – and communities throughout the United States – to come together and do something really exceptional.

“Oftentimes, we get so isolated in that if it doesn’t impact us directly, we don’t act on it. I think we all need to come together when things are happening to one of us,” Reyes says. “This administration is an attack on everybody. If you’re an American in this country, you need to see that. I’ve seen all kinds of people from all walks of life come forward wanting to help our community … and that gives me life. That gives me hope. That gives me optimism. There’s a role that everybody can play. Get involved. Don’t sit this one out.”