Watch and wait.
There’s not much more Fox Cities Hispanic community members can do in response to tightening immigration policies that could potentially affect them, their friends and their families.
In his first month in office, President Donald Trump signed executive orders restricting immigration and stepping up immigration enforcement.
But how that will affect undocumented immigrants and their families here is unknown.
“We want the people to know that the community is living in fear here,” said Norys Pina, an Appleton resident who volunteers with Latino advocacy groups.
She estimates that 30 percent of the local Hispanic population is undocumented, or lacking paperwork for legal immigration or residence.
Being undocumented, even if one has not committed a crime, puts immigrants in a precarious place. Many have children who were born here and are legal U.S. citizens.
“They don’t want to go out to eat. They’re afraid ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will pick them up and that will leave their children by themselves,” said Yadira Guillen, manager at The Chicken Palace in Grand Chute.
“Most everyone knows someone who is not documented. Being undocumented doesn’t make them bad people,” said Ana Reyes, a manager/hostess at Antojitos Mexicanos, a downtown Appleton restaurant. “It’s something that doesn’t affect only one person. It affects families, friends.”
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The most visible manifestation of the unease right now played out in rallies, protests and candlelight vigils around the country in recent days to shed light on policies affecting immigrants and to emphasize immigrants’ importance to the economy.
About 100 Fox Cities residents rode two buses to Milwaukee last Monday for the “Day Without Latinos” rally, and countless more drove in cars, said Pina. She is the volunteer leader of Unidos Por Un Futuro Mejor (United for a Better Future), a local Latino group allied with Esther, a faith-based advocacy group. Unidos coordinated the Fox Cites march participants.
She was not aware of any Fox Cities businesses that closed because employees were at the rally.
At least one business, Mi Hacienda Real in Grand Chute, closed Thursday for separate “Day without Immigrants” rallies.
Milwaukee’s rally voiced opposition to Section 287g of the Immigration and Nationality Act. If implemented locally or statewide, it would deputize police offers as immigration officers.
Pina said that isn’t necessary in Appleton.
“Here in Appleton, we have a very good relationship with our police department. We’ve been working to establish that relationship and trust,” Pina said. “We’ve communicated with (Appleton) police chief Todd Thomas, who is very good at it.”
Appleton had one arrest in a national ICE operation from Feb. 4 to 10 to remove criminal aliens, illegal re-entrants and immigration fugitives.
Agents arrested 680 individuals around the country during that period, including 11 in Wisconsin.
Those 11 were “all male, all convicted criminals, all Mexican nationals (and include) four previously deported and illegally re-entered the U.S.,” said Gail Montenegro, ICE public affairs officer.
Besides Appleton, the Wisconsin arrests were made in Hubertus, Jefferson, Kewaunee, Milwaukee, Racine, Sheboygan and Sussex.
Arrests are part of routine targeted enforcement actions, the agency said in a news release.
“ICE does not conduct sweeps, checkpoint or raids that target aliens indiscriminately,” it read.
The enforcement, nonetheless, was unsettling for those in the Fox Valley who say it’s unclear what level of crimes will trigger such arrests.
“Crossing the border without authorization is a civil crime. Not paying a parking ticket is a civil crime. Driving without a license can be considered a civil crime as well,” said Pina.
She said Trump’s campaign statements about Mexicans amped up the fear of immigrants.
“The fear was always there,” she said. “But now with this political campaign of hate and calling names — Mexicans are drug dealers and Mexicans are criminals — it’s worse. It is allowed now to say it.”
Hispanics in Fox Valley
Hispanic people work in a variety of industries in the greater Fox Valley, including agriculture, dairy, food service, maintenance, cleaning and manufacturing. In Appleton, Hispanics make up 5 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census.
The most visible way Hispanics interact with the community at large is through Mexican restaurants, which hire a high percentage of immigrants. These eateries are plentiful in the Fox Cities, and have given many immigrants their first U.S. jobs.
Restaurant owners ask for proof that potential new employees can legally work in the US. Typically, that means a green card and Social Security number.
“If you ask a company if they hire undocumented workers, they’re going to say no because there can be consequences,” said Pina.
The National Restaurant Association is pushing for an easier federal verification system and supports a clear path to legalization for “more than 11 million undocumented individuals living and working in the United States.”
A number of Fox Cities restaurant owners were hesitant to speak publicly on immigration policies or government actions, partly to keep from alienating customers.
However, Fernando Almanza, co-owner of Antojitos Mexicanos in downtown Appleton, said he was supportive of Trump’s policy that deports criminals. “Mexico does the same thing with people from South America,” he said.
But after criminals have been deported, he hopes Trump will offer amnesty to undocumented immigrants who are working and meet government requirements. His own father was an example of that. He came to the U.S. illegally in the 1980s, but was able to get a green card during the Reagan era.
“He got his green card because he proved he was working and paying taxes. He became a citizen in the 1990s,” said Almanza.
The government’s tightening immigration policies have not affected his employees so far. Of his 25 employees, at least 18 were born in Mexico.
At Solea Mexican Grill, Eduardo Sanchez says about half of his 52 employees are from Mexico. He has three restaurants, in Menasha, Neenah and Grand Chute, and is looking to open a fourth in Oshkosh.
Finding and keeping good employees is tough, he said, because the work is hard and pay is modest. The tight labor market makes it even more of a challenge.
“It’s hard to find people to do those jobs. Nobody wants to work for $10 an hour, and I cannot afford $15 for a dishwasher,” he said. “We have all the Mexicans doing those jobs.”
He knows firsthand, however, that these jobs are good opportunities for entry level workers, especially immigrants.
Sanchez arrived here in 1994 from Mexico and didn’t speak a word of English. He got his first job as a dishwasher at a Grand Chute restaurant, and rose to kitchen manager in two years. He opened his first Solea in 2006, and it was an instant hit.
His Grand Chute Solea is in the same building where he started as a dishwasher all those years ago.
At Antojitos Mexicanos, Almanza said one big employee concern is the possibility of being prevented from returning to the U.S. if they go to Mexico to visit family and friends.
“It happened to people from those other seven countries, including people who had green cards. We saw that a bunch of people got stuck in the airport,” he said of Trump’s executive order that restricted entry for travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries. That order was put on hold, is currently being rewritten and is expected to be reintroduced soon.
“I’m a U.S. citizen and the rest (of the employees) have green cards,” Almanza said. “Trump has not mentioned Mexico, but what it if really happens? If we go back to our hometowns, what if Trump signs something overnight? I don’t want to be stuck down there forever.”
“I have heard some people are moving back to Mexico and Guatamala. They are moving to Canada too,” said Chicken Palace manager Yadira Guillen. “I have heard of two or three from my company who went back to Mexico. They are afraid of the laws.”
Ana Reyes, the Antojitos Mexcianos manager, said while she personally didn’t know anyone who was moving out of the U.S., some have mentioned it out of frustration.
“It’s a waiting game,” she said. “Some people say, ‘Let’s go back. We’re going to be sent back anyway.’”
Appleton chef arrested
Chef Fortino Solano was the sole Appleton person arrested by ICE during a targeted operation between Feb. 4 and 10.
Solano confirmed his arrest and deportation in a phone call to his employer, Shirley Vazquez, co-owner of Mojitos Modern Latin Cuisine.
Solano was not named in ICE documents, but ICE public affairs officer Montenegro gave details that matched Solano’s public court records.
“The individual arrested in Appleton was previously deported from the United States and illegally re-entered, which is a felony. He has prior criminal convictions for marijuana possession, drunk driving, battery (domestic abuse) and causing injury while OWI.”
Solano had recently taken the job at Mojitos but was well known in the Appleton restaurant community. He was a former chef and founding partner of Il Angolo, and later chef/owner of his self-named Fortino’s restaurant in 2013.
When he returned to Appleton, Vazquez said she had asked for proof of his eligibility to work in the U.S.
“We had just hired him and he told me he was getting his papers,” Vazquez said.
She said she thought immigration allowed a grace period to complete paperwork.
She confirmed that Solano was the only one arrested at the restaurant and that it was not part of a sweep.
“We were told that someone called and reported him,” said Vazquez.”They did not just come into the restaurant and herd up people.”
But she said the arrest was still a shock.
“As employers, we’re shaken up, too,” she said. “We don’t want to do anything but follow the letter of the law. I don’t want to harbor a bitter environment either. I don’t want to alert ICE to come back.
“I don’t like the direction immigration is going, although I really do support the fact that we have illegal immigrants in the country and need to deal with that,” she said. “We need a better solution.”
Maureen Wallenfang: 920-993-7116, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @wallenfang