Reaching Across the Divide to Discuss 'New Realities for Immigrants' in Wisconsin

May 30, 2017

WUWM and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel hosted Across the Divide: New Realities for Immigrants, an event at Carroll University in Waukesha. On Monday, May 22, panelists shared their thoughts and experiences with community members about an issue that is as complicated as ever.

Meet the panelists:

DREAMer Valeria Navarro-Villegas

Valeria Navarro-Villegas immigrated to the United States 17 years ago to the day of her appearance at Across the Divide. Her story began in León, Mexico where she says her father left her family for better opportunities in the United States. After years of living in a family divided by borders, Navarro-Villegas was brought to the United States by her mother in 2000. She said her immigration experience terrified her younger sister and forced her family from all they knew in Mexico. 

“I only have flashbacks,” Navarro-Villegas said. “I remember it was bright and early, like 8 o’clock in the morning. We ran under a fence. The coyotaje had dug a fence out and he took all of our belongings and threw them to a ditch and I remember in that moment it hit me that I’m leaving everything behind.”

After settling in Milwaukee, Navarro-Villegas excelled in school. She attended Marquette University on a full-ride scholarship and recently graduated.

“My parents’ sacrifices and dreams became a reality as I crossed the stage last night,” she said.

Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling

Sheriff Christopher Schmaling is currently serving his second term. He began as a correctional officer in Waukegan, Illinois at 22 years old, and from there moved into undercover narcotics work in Racine. In an effort to connect more with the community, Schmaling worked for 10 years in the investigations unit where he focused on crimes against children. He said his campaign for sheriff came from the heart, where he ran on the issues that matter to him and affect our community.

“Domestic Violence Taskforce - I’m a strong member of that. NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, I’m a Wisconsin board member. Those are very important things to me,” Schmaling said.

Attorney Jose Olivieri

José Olivieri, founder and co-chair of Michael Best’s immigration law practice in Waukesha and Milwaukee, is from Puerto Rico and relocated to Milwaukee after graduating high school. Olivieri went to school at Carroll University and later graduated from law school.

Olivieri accepted a position with a law firm that did not do any immigration work, so he began to take on isolated cases. The need for immigration help became so pressing, he said, that he founded an Immigration Law branch within Michael Best’s practice.

“That sort of flow of people from one country to the other is what I do on a regular basis,” Olivieri said. “I think our immigration system is a mess at this point. It doesn’t meet the needs of our employers, and that is the full range of employers.”

Moderators Mitch Teich and Mary Spicuzza talk with panelists Valeria Navarro-Villegas, Christopher Schmaling and José Olivieri.
Credit David Haynes, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

New Realities for Immigrants Conversation

Questions at the event ranged from inquiries about Navarro-Villegas’ college experience to protocol when police officers perform traffic stops.

“I think a lot of folks in our community, and perhaps here as well, feel that there’s this magic immigration button in our squad cars,” Schmaling said. “That we can hit that button and immediately tell whether or not you’re here legally… that is not the case.”

The notion of a “magic immigration button” may stem from the knowledge of the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to enter a partnership with ICE, or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sheriff Schmaling discussed the need for staffing in his office, sharing that the Racine County Sheriff’s Office has not signed an agreement with the federal government to participate in the 287(g) program. No sheriff’s office in Wisconsin currently participates in this program, though Milwaukee County Sheriff Clarke did apply.

The three candidates were unified in their search for answers in immigration policy. Sheriff Schmaling said he's looking toward elected officials to empower local law enforcement, and Olivieri said he's noticing how deportations affect communities.

“When you think about the immigration status, sort of like the death penalty of immigration is deportation,” Olivieri said. “So I think you can act consistent as a country with the rule of law, but you don’t have to have the rule of law mean that anybody who is in here illegally gets deported no matter what.”

In addition to looking forward for answers, Navarro-Villegas said she's looking forward to her own future as a Marquette University graduate. She highlighted the importance of her generation of DREAMers and her own contributions.

“I studied in Washington D.C., I walked through the buildings of the House of Representatives, rubbing shoulders with all the Senators, and I couldn’t believe that I was undocumented, living a life that people didn’t want me to have,” Navarro-Villegas said.

The panelists represented three different perspectives on an issue that divides Americans. Throughout the evening, they reached across the divide to discuss what really matters - their personal experiences and the search for answers.