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Immigrant Rights Group Takes Message from Milwaukee to 12 Cities

Ann-Elise Henzl

Voces de la Frontera continues to demand a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The Milwaukee-based organization began a 12-city tour around Wisconsin late last week. On Monday, it will stop in Pewaukee.

Voces is marking one year since the federal government began allowing undocumented people to stay in the United States, if they arrived as children. The group also is demanding that Congress approve comprehensive immigration reform.

Voces has spent more than a decade promoting rights for immigrants and workers. Christine Neumann-Ortiz started the group and still leads it. She says it formed to lobby for the rights of low-wage workers, but increasingly, worker rights dovetailed with immigration rights.

Voces stepped onto the big stage a few years ago on May Day, kicking off what has become a huge annual march and rally in Milwaukee.

“We are here so that Congress will hear us so that they will pass a just legalization for the 12 million immigrants in this country,” Neumann-Ortiz told the crowd at the 2006 event.

She says one of her goals is to give a voice – and a face -- to undocumented workers. She says they’ve spoken openly at events, to lessen the chance that people will view them as hardened criminals. Neumann-Ortiz perceives that attitudes are changing.

“These are family members, these are friends, these are coworkers, these are folks who are in your church, and I think there’s been that recognition over time,” Neumann-Ortiz says.

Yet, she says many don’t have full rights, even though they’ve become a vital component of the economy. Therefore, Neumann-Ortiz sees her group’s mission as part of the fight for civil rights; so does Enrique Figueroa, director of the Roberto Hernandez center at UW-Milwaukee.

“The fact that you’re under undocumented status, limits a worker’s ability to confront an employer in any kind of workplace violation. Some unscrupulous employers will take advantage of that and treat undocumented workers in a different way than regular workers, simply because they know that an undocumented worker has more limited ability as to how to confront those,” Figueroa says.

Immigrants from many countries have fought for rights for more than a century, according to Pamela Oliver. She’s a sociology professor at UW-Madison. Oliver says sometimes immigrants have found themselves colliding with black groups pushing for equality.

“Historically, many African Americans have actually been kind of hostile to immigrants, on the grounds that it seems like immigrants come in and displace them in the labor market. At the same time, I’m sure that there are people seeking to form alliances and bridge these gaps and finding common ground,” Oliver says.

Voces de la Frontera has at times, stood shoulder to shoulder with other groups. Founder Christine Neumann-Ortiz says it blends its mission, when others face similar challenges.

“The only way that we can make any progress is actually by linking our struggles together, because not one group can do it alone, not one group is powerful enough,” Neumann-Ortiz says.

Even though it appears Congress may be moving toward immigration reform, Neumann-Ortiz predicts Voces will be around for some time. She expects it to continue pushing for decent pay and working conditions for low-wage workers. She also anticipates additional duties. Her organization would likely help undocumented residents file the necessary paperwork to reside here legally.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.