Thursday, July 26, 2018

To treat trauma, stop traumatizing people: Close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility

— This blog is based on an opinion in in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossroads section on Sunday July 15, 2018.

Mark Rice admits he has made mistakes in life — the most serious when he was a teenager. Convicted of burglary, he spent two years in prison and was released on 12 years’ probation.

Rice, now 39 and with a history of mental illness, has worked hard to get his life back on track. Today is he in the doctoral program in urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

His main focus is ending mass incarceration, in particular, closing the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. It is an issue he knows well. In 2007, he was imprisoned for six months at the downtown facility following a disorderly conduct charge that was later dropped. 

Middle-class whites whose interactions with the courts center on speeding tickets might ask, “How can you be sent to prison when you were not convicted of a crime?” 

People familiar with the nightmare of mass incarceration will understand. Rice was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his probation, which state you cannot get arrested. It made no difference that the disorderly conduct case was dismissed.

“For me, the most difficult part was being incarcerated again without being convicted of anything, and that created a lot of anger in me,” Rice says. “It took me a while to calm down.” 

CLOSEmsdf activists at the May Day march in Waukesha.
Rice challenged his return to prison and after six months he got a hearing before a judge, who released him from jail and from probation. His story has a “happy ending” — happy, that is, if you ignore that he lost his job, his housing, his health insurance, and his full-tuition UWM scholarship.

At the same time, Rice found a passionate calling. In addition to his studies, he now works with JustLeadershipUSA, which is dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. In Milwaukee, the group is focusing on the campaign to close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF).

The state-run MSDF was built in 2001, primarily to imprison people on parole/probation violations. It is located just off 10th and State, overlooking the freeway, and was designed as a “building within a building.” Passers-by can be forgiven if they mistake the facility as just another drab-looking office tower. 

But the medium-security MSDF has garnered a national reputation as an inhumane facility on par with New York City’s infamous Rikers Island. 

There is no direct sunlight for people incarcerated at the MSDF, no fresh air, poor ventilation, no outdoor exercise, and no in-person visits from family or friends. Those incarcerated are kept in their cells for 20 hours a day or more, and overcrowding is rampant. Only a few small sections are air-conditioned. 

For those working to shut down the prison — a year-old campaign best known by the hashtag #CloseMSDF — the facility is a brutal, merciless solution to a problem that, under more enlightened policies, wouldn’t exist. 

Imprisoned for 'crimeless crimes'
Most of those detained at the MSDF are there because of “revocation” — a seemingly benign term that, in practice, means people can be sent back to prison even if they have not committed a new crime but have merely violated one of the “Rules of Supervision” for people on parole, probation or extended supervision. 

It’s doubtful that even George Orwell could have come up with the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that masks the realities of the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) “Rules of Supervision.”  

The first of the almost 30 rules sets the tone: “Avoid all conduct which is in violation of federal or state statute, municipal or country ordinances, tribal law or which is not in the best interest of the public welfare or your rehabilitation” (emphasis added).

Other rules are equally broad and subject to capricious enforcement. For instance, your home, computer or cell phone can be searched at any time. You have to inform your probation/parole agent of your whereabouts or activities “as he/she directs.” You need written approval before buying, selling or even operating a motor vehicle. You need permission to travel out of state. You may not possess or consume any alcohol or have any contact with a drug user, even if it may be a brother or uncle, mother or father.

Due to the state’s emphasis on imprisoning people for “crimeless crimes,” the MSDF suffers from chronic overcrowding and averaged 1,077 incarcerated people a day last year. The annual operating budget was almost $40 million. About 65% of those at the facility are African American, and 62% have mental health problems. 

When Rice was at MSDF, he was the third person in a cell originally designed for one person. He slept on the floor, his head a few feet from the toilet. Diagnosed as a person with paranoid schizophrenia, he was in a special unit for people with mental health problems. The overcrowding, poor conditions and inadequate medical services only exacerbated the trauma of incarcerated people. Fights were common.

According to #CloseMSDF, 17 people have died while at the facility. This January, the state paid $1 million to settle a case involving Jeremy Cunningham, who died at the MSDF in 2011 after a guard ignored cellmates who pressed an emergency alarm and said Cunningham was having a seizure. The guard said Cunningham was merely “snoring,” and hung up on the emergency call.

Alternatives to incarceration
“People often ask us, ‘What are you going to do with the people in MSDF if you close it down?’” Rice notes. “And our answer is, ‘People shouldn’t be in jail for crimeless rule violations. You are imprisoning people already struggling with poverty, mental health and addiction.’”

His time at MSDF, Rice says, “was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.” 

Launched a little over a year ago, #CLOSEmsdf has garnered support from religious and community groups and legislators, with most of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates supporting the facility’s closure. #CLOSEmsdf is calling for the money saved to be invested in community-based programs, in particular, job training and mental health services.

In 1990, Wisconsin imprisoned 7,332 people. Today the figure is about 23,500, a factor in the 2010 Census findings that Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of African Americans than any other state. The “lock-em-up” mentality also means that the state now spends more tax dollars on corrections than on the University of Wisconsin System. 

Perhaps most devastating, policies of mass incarceration rip apart the lives of not only individuals but also families and communities.

There’s been a lot of talk in Milwaukee about addressing our city’s trauma crisis. But in addition to treating traumatized individuals, it’s imperative to promote policies that prevent trauma in the first place.

Shutting down the MSDF is a good place to start.

Note: The changes from the MJS opinion primarily reflect language preferred by those active in the struggle against mass incarceration — replacing words such as inmates and prisoners to people-centered language such as formerly incarcerated people or people with conviction records. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018


Published in the Sunday May 13, 2018 Crossroads opinion section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

By Barbara Miner

Budget cuts in the Milwaukee Public Schools have become a rite of spring, seemingly as inevitable as the dandelions in our lawns. 

But the cuts have nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with political decisions that have perpetuated the system of separate and unequal schools in the Milwaukee region.

Like so much else, the fundamental sticking point — it pokes us in the eye even as we try to ignore it — centers on race.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the open housing marches in Milwaukee, it is worth remembering that Father James Groppi understood the inherent link between housing and school segregation. In fact, Father’s Groppi’s first arrest was in 1965 during civil disobedience against Milwaukee Public School (MPS) policies promoting segregation.

Ald. Vel Phillips (left) and Father James E. Groppi (center) confer after the Common Council passed an open housing ordinance on April 30, 1968. Listening in were several NAACP Youth Council Commandos, including Lawrence Friend (right) president of the council. This photo was published in the May 1, 1968, in the Milwaukee Journal.MILWAUKEE JOURNAL
Martin Luther King Jr., in a 1964 visit to Milwaukee, also spoke to the two sides of the city’s segregation. While he agreed that residential segregation should not be used “as an excuse” for segregated schools, he also noted that “honesty impels me to admit that the school problem cannot be solved permanently until the housing problem is solved.”

Today, Milwaukee is one of the most hypersegregated metropolitan areas in the country. At the same time, the gap between black and white academic achievement in Wisconsin is among the worst in the country, numbers driven by Milwaukee. And we act surprised.

This is not to say that black kids must sit near white kids in order to learn. Asking blacks to assimilate into white culture and power structures is itself a form of racism. At the same time, it bears repeating that segregation — whether Jim Crow policies or contemporary reincarnations —is a foundational pillar of white supremacy, making it easier both to control and to neglect communities of color. (Control, Wisconsin style, also means locking up African-American men at a higher rate than any other state in the country.) During the school desegregation struggles of the 1970s, activists advocated metropolitan-area solutions, including redistricting that combined city and suburban schools. They knew that Wisconsin had a long history of modifying districts. In the 1930s, for instance, Wisconsin had 7,777 school districts. Today there are 424.

One modest proposal called for merging a few Milwaukee schools with Shorewood and Whitefish Bay. You can imagine the outcry. At a public meeting, state Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican, received thunderous applause when he attacked the plan for “using children as pawns for some social technician’s wild-eyed scheme.”

Nor have housing policies significantly improved in the last half-century. The big difference is that segregation today is regional, maintained by suburban zoning regulations, lack of public transportation, policing policies and deep-seated prejudices.

The most prominent example erupted in New Berlin in 2010. A proposal for an apartment complex included “workforce housing” priced for people earning $35,000 a year or less. 
Opponents feared that “undesirable elements” would move in from Milwaukee. Mayor Jack Chiovatero, who supported the complex and complained about bigoted and prejudiced opposition, received threatening phone calls. A sign that read “Nigger Lover” was put in his yard and talk erupted of a recall. When he ran for re-election in 2013, he lost.

Power shifts to the state
While today’s school controversies in MPS often seem a rehashing of decades- old struggles, there have been important changes. Perhaps most significant, Milwaukee is no longer the center of economic and political power in Wisconsin. Today, the state Legislature is calling the shots on education.

It’s impossible to ignore the racial politics: A legislative body controlled by conservative white men is dictating policies for a school district populated primarily by low-income students of color. If that smacks of colonialism, well, there’s a reason.

In recent decades, state policies have exacerbated education inequality in the Milwaukee region. There are so many examples it’s hard to keep track.

In 2015, for instance, the state phased out the metropolitan desegregation program known as Chapter 220, which promoted the enrollment of blacks and other non-whites in suburban schools. Today, the emphasis is on “open enrollment,” a nominally colorblind policy that has facilitated the “white flight” of Milwaukee students to suburban schools.

It was also the state legislature that began the voucher program providing public tax dollars to private schools. Since 1990, more than $2 billion in public money has been funneled to the Milwaukee voucher schools, money that could have been used to strengthen and improve MPS.

Not to be forgotten — revenue limits set in 1993 that cap how much a district can bring in, not including so-called categorical aid for students with disabilities, in poverty, or English language learners. Looked at philosophically, the revenue limit summarizes how much the state values a child. Not surprisingly, children in overwhelmingly white suburbs tend to have a higher value.

For instance, the revenue limit for a child in Shorewood is $11,623 in fiscal 2018. If you’re born a few blocks away, in Milwaukee, the figure is $10,122.

One more example. (Yes, school funding is mind-numbing and complicated. But it’s important.) Milwaukee has a disproportionately high percentage of students with special educational needs, almost 19%. When the federal government first passed protections for special-ed students in the 1970s, it promised to pick up 40% of the costs. That has never happened.

The state also promised to defray costs. Not only has state aid never reached the levels needed, but the percentage reimbursement has steadily decreased over the years.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported this January on the shortfalls in state and federal reimbursement for special ed in 2015-16, the most recent year with audited data. The shortfalls left MPS responsible for $139 million in additional funds — dwarfing the $38.7 million MPS budget gap this year.

If Father Groppi were alive today, I have little doubt he would take the fight to the state Legislature. He certainly didn’t hesitate to march into what was perceived as foreign territory in 1967, when open housing marchers crossed to the south side and were greeted by thousands of whites who jeered and threw bottles, stones and chunks of wood.

It’s important to commemorate the open housing struggles of 50 years ago. But a reinvigorated mass movement against segregated housing and schools might be a more fitting tribute.

— Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee journalist, and author of “Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.”

Photography Website:

Monday, April 2, 2018

The New Land: Milwaukee's Changing Immigration Landscape

They came to Milwaukee to flee strife and persecution, and to seize opportunity. Despite the rhetoric from Washington, they’re here to stay.

Shaukhat Kyaw Soe Aung Ali, center in blue shirt and black jacket, stands with other Rohingya immigrants at the Rohingya American Society; photo by Lacy Landre

By Barbara Miner
From the April 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine
Ziabur Muhammed, a 31-year-old Rohingya from Myanmar, knows little of Milwaukee’s history. But he is following in the footsteps of Polish immigrants from a century ago, hoping to build a better life for his family. Along with his wife and four sons aged 1 to 9, Muhammed has settled in a wood-frame, 1908 home on Mitchell Street on Milwaukee’s near South Side – once at the center of Polish immigration.
Muhammed and his family spent about a decade as refugees in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar, and were resettled in Chicago two years ago. But living in Chicago was expensive, and his two older kids often missed school because of the long walk. So last fall, with the help of cousins who live on the near South Side, they moved to Mitchell Street.
Today, his children attend Grant School and “it is good,” Muhammed says in halting English. “The bus picks them up.”
As with many new immigrants who lack English skills, Muhammed’s job options are primarily in entry-level, manual labor. He cleaned planes in Chicago and hopes for a similar job in Milwaukee, or perhaps at the box-making factory where a cousin works.
Milwaukee is believed to have more Rohingya than any other city in the United States, but they’re just one immigrant group changing the face of Milwaukee. Our city prides itself on its ethnic heritage – it was the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish who built Milwaukee into an economic powerhouse a century ago. In the 21st century, it is immigrants such as Latinos, Somalis, Eritreans, Burmese, Russians, Hmong, Indians and Saudis who are transforming the city and region.
There are myriad factors in current immigration. One is the increasingly worldwide nature of manufacturing, agriculture and technological innovation, from the dairy industry to high-tech companies such as GE Healthcare and, soon, Foxconn. Another is the global migration and refugee crisis, the most severe since World War II, spawned by war and political upheaval in dozens of countries. Together, these developments are shaping the Milwaukee region, putting students in our schools, workers in our factories and highly skilled professionals in local tech industries.
Given the policies and rhetoric coming from the highest office in the land, questions abound about the future of immigration. But if history is any guide, immigrants will continue to be essential to Milwaukee’s future.
“Milwaukee is changing, that’s just the reality,” says Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a Sikh immigrant active in promoting peace and racial healing. “And I believe that Milwaukee, because of its appreciation of immigrants, will change for the better.
It’s easy to look through rose-colored glasses and forget the conflicts that are at the core of U.S. history, from the enslavement of free Africans to the displacement and disenfranchisement of Native peoples, including the forced removal of the Potawatomi from the Milwaukee area in the 1830s.
While today’s upsurge in anti-immigration sentiment may seem unique, it has lengthy precedent in U.S. history. Most infamously, in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in 1917 it instituted an “Asiatic barred zone” that prohibited immigrants from India, most of Southeast Asia and almost all of the Middle East.
Here in Milwaukee, residents born outside the U.S. and their children made up 86 percent of the population by 1890, leading some to call it the most “foreign” city in America. At the time, there were fewer restrictions on European immigration, and the modern system of passports and immigration quotas had not yet been established.
Amid the global conflicts of the 20th century, the country grew suspicious of even well-established immigrant communities. Not even Milwaukee’s large and powerful German population was immune from the hysteria of World War I. Speaking German became unpatriotic, sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and the German-English Academy dropped “German” from its name en route to becoming Milwaukee University School (now University School of Milwaukee). During the next world war, 117,000 Japanese Americans, mostly citizens, were forced into internment camps on the West Coast.
Over the centuries, the main evolution in Milwaukee immigration centers on where one was born and the color of one’s skin. Immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries were principally white Europeans. Today’s immigrants primarily come from countries considered “non-white.”
At the same time, evolving immigration patterns complicate but do not replace the central transformation in Milwaukee’s demographics – the migration of African Americans from the South in the decades after World War II, providing essential labor for the city’s still-vibrant manufacturing economy. Race and racism, whether toward immigrants or the descendants of enslaved Africans, remain overarching issues.
Shortly after taking office last year, President Donald Trump temporarily halted all refugee admissions and banned travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. The news sent a wave of fear through immigrant communities, including Milwaukee’s.
Behind the headlines are human beings – people such as Ubah Abdi, a 43-year-old Somali businesswoman in Milwaukee. Somalia is included in Trump’s bans, and under the administration’s policies, she might not have been allowed into the U.S.
Thirty years ago, in the middle of the night, Abdi gathered a few small belongings. In a group of six families, she left her home in Somaliland, a region in northern Somalia that was fighting for independence. To evade enemy soldiers, they traveled at night, on foot. Younger children were carried. After 50 miles, they reached Ethiopia. Four years later, via a refugee camp in Ethiopia, then Djibouti, then Cairo, Abdi arrived in Milwaukee.
Ubah Abdi at her Kids Land Learning Center. Photo By Lacy Landre.
A graduate of Washington High School and UW-Milwaukee, today Abdi operates Kids Land Learning Center at North 80th Street and West Capitol Drive. Her family recently moved to Fox Point, and her two children attend Whitefish Bay High School.
Unlike many Somali immigrants in Milwaukee, Abdi was not a refugee, because her deceased father had acquired U.S. citizenship during World War II. Along with her mother and six siblings, she moved to Milwaukee because a distant uncle lived here.
With a background in social work, and skilled in cross-cultural complexities, Abdi notes significant differences within the Somali immigrant community. First, she is from Somaliland, which considers itself an independent state even though most of the world views it as an autonomous region of Somalia. Second, the most recent wave of immigrants is made up largely of Somali Bantu, an ethnic group from southern Somalia who are racially, culturally and linguistically distinct.
The majority of the immigrants to Milwaukee speak varying dialects of Somali and are predominantly Muslim. There are close to 1,000 Somalis from the first wave of refugees, mostly on the South Side, according to Abdi. The Somali Bantu population is significantly higher, and most live on the North Side. About 90 percent of the children at Abdi’s day care are Somali Bantu.
While the current political climate is worrisome, the Somali Bantu she works with are more concerned about issues that affect many North Side residents. “I have kids who say, ‘We didn’t sleep last night because there were gunshots,’” Abdi says. “And it is heartbreaking, because they left Somalia because of gunshots and war.”
Abdi wears the Muslim headdress known as the hijab, and she marks 9/11 as the date when her life changed: “After that, especially for women, your clothes showed that you are Muslim. So you always worried you might be a target.”
Recent refugees are a fraction of Milwaukee’s immigrants, and tend to be the least well-known. Take the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Last August, the Buddhist-dominated government intensified longtime persecution of the Rohingya with a campaign of mass rapes, murders and burning of villages that one United Nations official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In one of the fastest displacements of a people since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, an estimated 655,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar between August and the end of the year.
Shaukhat Ali at the Rohingya American Society; photo by Lacy Landre
It is likely to take years before those Rohingya resettle in other countries or return to Myanmar, but even before the latest crisis, Rohingya refugees had been resettled in Milwaukee. Shaukhat Kyaw Soe Aung Ali, 50, is from the first Rohingya refugee family to settle in Wisconsin, more than 15 years ago. Today he is the founder and executive director of the Rohingya American Society on South 16th Street and West Oklahoma Avenue.
Ali, married with three children, two born in the U.S., is in regular touch with Rohingya groups across the country. He estimates about 2,000 Rohingya live in Milwaukee, more than any other U.S. city, with the next-biggest number in Chicago. Overall, 7,086 Rohingya refugees were settled in the U.S. from 2009 through July 2017, according to figures from the State Department.

Shaukhat Ali at the Rohingya American Society
Photo by Lacy Landre

Ali fled because his political activism made him a targeted man – originally going to Thailand, in 1990, then to Malaysia. In 2002 his family was
resettled in Hartland, and a few years later they moved to Milwaukee to be closer to the Muslim community.
As with many recent immigrants, Ali initially found work through temp agencies at low-level hospitality and factory jobs. In 2008, he was hired by the Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement program, becoming a key player in Rohingya settlement in Milwaukee. Today, Ali heads his own business as an interpreter.
Ali became a U.S. citizen in 2007, and he has a deep respect for American protections of freedom of religion and expression and what he calls “freedom of opportunity, especially education.” He beams when he mentions his 17-year-old daughter has been accepted at UW-Madison.
Why have the Rohinyga settled in Milwaukee? One reason, Ali says, is its many well-respected refugee resettlement and social service agencies, especially the local Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services organizations. Another is that the Rohingya are primarily a rural people, and Milwaukee is less intimidating and less expensive than many cities.

Ali, echoing comments made by many immigrant leaders, says that language is perhaps the biggest obstacle for new arrivals. Language barriers not only limit job opportunities but also reinforce isolation. This in turn makes it difficult for immigrants to counter stereotypes.
“Because English is new and it is very difficult to communicate, education is the highest necessity,” Ali stresses.
People fleeing conflict or persecution are protected under international law, and the U.S. State Department tracks their numbers. From 2001 to September 2017, nearly 10,000 refugees were resettled in Milwaukee County. The top countries of origin were Myanmar, Somalia, Laos, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
No group in Milwaukee has been more affected by Trump’s anti-immigration policies than the Latino community. And yet in recent decades no group has been more essential to stabilizing Milwaukee’s population and economy.
After years of quiet community-building, Milwaukee’s Latino population burst onto the political scene on March 23, 2006. As part of a national mobilization against a sweeping immigration proposal, thousands of people marched from Milwaukee’s near South Side across the Sixth Street Viaduct. Organized by Voces de la Frontera, it was the first major demonstration by Milwaukee’s Latino community. (The bill, sponsored by longtime Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, failed.)
According to a Greater Milwaukee Foundation report, the city’s Latino population grew from 39,000 in 1990 to more than 108,000 in 2014. Without this surge, the city’s population would have declined significantly. In roughly the same period, the number of Latinos in the metropolitan region tripled to more than 160,000.
With that growth has come increased economic and political clout. Latinos have been elected at the local and state level, organizations such as the United Community Center have expanded their influence, and major business players include Agustin Ramirez of HUSCO International.
Voces de la Frontera remains at the forefront of organizing for immigrant rights. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the group’s executive director, says Trump’s initiatives, especially the repeal of protections for undocumented youth known as “Dreamers,” have generated intense fears. “The announcement was like a shock wave that hit people at their core,” she says. “There was a lot of tears, a lot of fear, an uptick in bullying.”
Neumann-Ortiz also says there has been an increase in raids and deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including arrests at two dairy farms in Washington County this January.
At the same time, Neumann-Ortiz is optimistic – particularly about Milwaukee, where schools, churches and public officials have shown support for immigrants. Perhaps most important, she says, the Milwaukee Police Department has resisted pressure from the federal government and has maintained its policy that police will not routinely profile and question people about their immigration status.
The Latino community has been organizing for so long, with significant victories along the way, “that we have become aware of our own importance,” she says. “It’s like we have been in training, and so we are ready. I feel hopeful.”
After Latinos, Asians – a term applied to dozens of widely distinct nationalities – are the most numerous of Milwaukee’s new immigrants. The Hmong, who have been arriving in Wisconsin for decades, are the largest  of this group, followed by Indians.
The Hmong are an ethnic people in Southeast Asia who allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. After the war’s end, thousands were resettled in the U.S. Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong community in the country, after California and Minnesota. The highest percentage live in the Milwaukee area.
Three decades ago, Milwaukee’s Hmong faced issues common to new immigrants: learning English, finding housing and good jobs, establishing a community. Today, there are new issues. The younger generation, for instance, is increasingly Americanized, not only losing touch with the culture and language of their elders, but resentful of parental expectations that seem out of touch with life in the U.S.
Dawn and Thay Yang, both in their 40s, have made it their life’s passion to address contemporary concerns in the Hmong community. Last September, in the finished basement of their Oak Creek home, they began producing a weekly Hmong news show – “Nyob Zoo,” a traditional Hmong greeting roughly translated as “Hello, how are you?”
Thay, who works by day at Milwaukee Public Television, views “Nyob Zoo” as a way to counter stereotypes in the mainstream news. Dawn, who works in social services, sees it as a way to unite the Hmong community, which traditionally is organized by clans that keep to themselves.
Her experiences as a refugee and mother of a grown daughter also allow her to help bridge generational rifts among the Hmong. Dawn was born in a Thai refugee camp in 1975, and her family was among the first wave of Hmong to the U.S. She has lived in both worlds.
The Yangs estimate that more than 20,000 Hmong, both immigrant and U.S. born, live within “Nyob Zoo’s” viewing area in Southeastern Wisconsin.
While the Hmong are centered primarily in Milwaukee, the second-largest Asian population in the region has gravitated towards the suburbs.
The Indian community’s cultural and religious focal point sits on 40 acres in Pewaukee, across the street from a Costco and Walmart and next to a Lutheran church: the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin, which opened in 2000 and expanded in 2016 to accommodate the growing number of Indians.
Susmita Acharya, president of the temple’s board, and her husband are representative of the region’s Indian population in that they’re professionals who came to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies, a common path in the 1960s and ’70s. Acharya, 70, was a chemistry professor at Cardinal Stritch University from 1985 to 2014, while her husband, Kishore, was an electrical engineer with General Electric.
“Most of the Indians originally came as professionals – doctors, professors,” she says. Today, a growing number of Indians in metro Milwaukee work in information technology and related fields. Acharya does not know any Indians who entered as refugees, or who do not have legal documents.
The Indian population differs from other immigrant groups in a few key respects. Because English and Hindi are the dominant languages in India, most came to the U.S. knowing English. Second, the disproportionately professional profile means the Indian community is generally more affluent, which has led them to prefer the suburbs. “We bought a house in Brookfield because of the school system,” Acharya says. Asian students comprise almost 15 percent of the student body in the Elmbrook district that serves primarily Brookfield and Elm Grove.
The number of Indians more than doubled in metro Milwaukee between 2000 and 2010, to about 12,000, Acharya says, citing census figures and adding that the number today is considerably higher. Nationally, foreign-born Indians are now the second-largest immigrant group, after Mexicans.
A century ago, immigrant communities in Milwaukee were unified by language, culture and national origin. Older Catholics in Milwaukee can readily recall which parishes were identified with the Polish, the Italians or the Irish. But for a key immigrant community in today’s Milwaukee – Muslims – religion is the only reliable common denominator.
Othman Atta, operations manager at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, is well versed in the history of Muslims in Milwaukee – his grandfather came to the city in the early 20th century. Atta, a Palestinian born in the West Bank, arrived in Milwaukee in 1966, attending Rufus King High School and earning a law degree from Marquette University.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Muslim community was dominated by Arabs, he recalls. They were later joined by Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, many of them medical professionals. Today, many are from the more recent points of origin: Somalia, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria. Overall, Atta estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000 Muslims in the metro area. They have no single language or nationality. “At the Islamic Center, the sermon is required to be in English,” he says. “That’s the only common language.”
Atta dates the beginning of Milwaukee’s contemporary Muslim community to 1982-83, when the Islamic Society of Milwaukee formed. Establishing the Salam School in 1991, which provides a religious-based education and is part of the Milwaukee voucher program, was another important step. Families have even relocated to Milwaukee because of the school, Atta says.
Atta views himself as a bridge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. He is committed to his religious identity but not necessarily to an ethnic identity. “I am a Muslim, but I am an American,” he says. “And my kids are American. That’s their culture.”
As both an American and a Muslim, Atta worries about the “normalization” of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. “If a politician running for the highest office in the land is able to say things that sound hateful, discriminatory, inflammatory, that will empower the normal guy who will crawl out from under the rock they have been hiding under,” he says. “That’s my biggest fear.”
It is a fear that, unfortunately, came true for Milwaukee’s Sikh community. In 2012, a white supremacist from Cudahy burst into the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek and fatally shot six people before committing suicide. Among the dead were 65-year-old Satwant Singh Kaleka, a founder of the temple.
The Sikh religion is centered in the Punjab region of what is now northern India and Pakistan, and political tensions in the region have played a role in Sikh immigration to Milwaukee. Pardeep Singh Kaleka, Satwant’s 41-year-old son, explains that his uncle was among the first wave of Sikh immigrants to Milwaukee, in the 1960s and 1970s. Most were well-educated, and Kaleka estimates that today there are about 2,000 Sikhs in greater Milwaukee.
In 1982, Pardeep Kaleka’s uncle, a veterinarian, sponsored the Kaleka family so they could come to Milwaukee. “The long and short of our story is that my family came here with $20 in their pocket, fulfilling that immigrant dream,” Kaleka says. His mom worked at Eagle Knitting Mills making OshKosh B’gosh clothes, and his dad worked at a gas station. Eventually they saved enough money to buy a gas station/market on the South Side. He and his brother were the first two in the family to graduate from college, from Marquette University.
Kaleka first worked as a police officer, then an educator. Since the massacre, he has dedicated his life to healing and now works as a therapist specializing in trauma.
Both his religious beliefs and personal story lead him to value peace, Kaleka explains. But that does not mean ignoring unpleasant realities, and he worries about today’s “toxic, anti-immigrant environment.”
“What are we saying?” he asks. “That we want the world’s resources, but we don’t want the world’s people?”
Kaleka has not lost faith in Milwaukee, but he believes it is at a crossroads. Will it embrace the world’s new realities, or yearn for a past that can never return? “I’ve been around Milwaukee long enough to have seen the exodus of jobs in the 1980s,” he says. “Right now, the immigrants and refugees coming here, we need them to help rebuild Milwaukee.”
Five years ago, Kaleka had a tattoo engraved on his palm: 8-5-12, the date of the killings at the temple. The tattoo is wearing off, but that’s OK with Kaleka: “I see it as a metaphor, to embrace our impermanence.”
And, yes, it could also be a metaphor for Milwaukee. “Change,” he emphasizes, “is the only certainty in life.” 
End of main story.

MPS: Home Base For Immigrants
Of the institutions serving immigrants, none is more important than the Milwaukee Public Schools.
When a student enrolls, the first questions are the student’s address and whether the family is doubled up with relatives, which makes them eligible for services for homeless students. MPS also asks the student’s primary language. That’s about it. “As a matter of policy, we do not ask for documentation or immigrant status,” notes Lorena Gueny, who oversees the district’s Division of Bilingual/Multicultural Education and was herself born in Chile.
MPS students speak more than 54 different languages and come from more than 70 countries. The district routinely translates documents into six languages: Spanish, Arabic, Hmong, Somali, and Burmese and Karen, two languages spoken in Myanmar. This school year, almost 8,500 MPS students receive English language services in MPS, up from about 7,000 in 2013-14. In October, I met with nine students at South Division High School who are part of a “new arrivals” program for new immigrants. South has about 200 students speaking more than 15 languages in the program. The school, with a total of about 1,100 students, has an additional 350 students in the Spanish bilingual program.
Many students in the new arrivals program suffered significant trauma in fleeing their homelands, followed by years of limbo in refugee camps. But these young people also have undeniable strengths.
Take the issue of language. While many students struggle with English, especially writing, overall their linguistic skills put U.S. students to shame. For example, 19-year-old senior Mona Mohammed moved from Saudi Arabia to the United States in 2015. Her conversational English is strong, and she also speaks Arabic and French, and is learning Spanish and Sudanese Arabic.
The students are also resilient and resourceful. In those first months when everything about the U.S. was new and their English was limited, they used hand gestures, drew pictures, or went to a translation app on their smartphones. They would also use a common language to help each other, whether Arabic, Burmese or Thai.
The most complicated problem, however, is not academics but attitudes from other students. Some of the new arrivals try to ignore hurtful comments, some get angry and some fight prejudice with information.
Farok Rashid, from Myanmar, told how one student complained during a class that “immigrants should not be allowed in this school,” and he decided not to let the comment slide. “I gave her more facts,” he said, “and at the end of class she came up to me and apologized.” 
end of sidebar.

Eduardo Martinez, a Milwaukee Dreamer
Three years ago, Eduardo Martinez thought he had it made.
Although he had illegally crossed the border from Mexico when he was 13, he applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. An Obama-era executive order, DACA allowed young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” to live, work and go to school without fear of deportation. It cost Martinez a lot – almost $500 for the application, plus lawyer’s fees – and it wasn’t a path to citizenship. But DACA was important to Martinez, 29. He had a new son and was thinking of the future.
Perhaps most important, Martinez could get a driver’s license and a Social Security number. No longer having to work low-level jobs that paid under the table, he found a factory job at about twice the pay. In August 2017, he and his girlfriend bought a house in Bay View. A few months later, they married.
In September, however, President Donald Trump repealed DACA, and the fate of Dreamers took center court in a game of political ping-pong.
Martinez’s DACA status expires this August. If DACA ends and he cannot re-apply, he will lose his driver’s license. He’ll take his chances driving without a license and risk serious consequences if caught, including possible deportation. But bicycling or walking to work aren’t feasible, nor is public transportation.
Eduardo Martinez at home with his wife, Lisbeth Sancehz, and son, Aiden. 
Photo by Lacy Landre.

There are other worries. Will he lose his factory job? His credit rating, home ownership or Social Security? His wife is a U.S. citizen, but it’s unclear how that will affect his status because, contrary to popular thinking, marrying a citizen does not automatically protect one from deportation.
A lawyer might have answers, but lawyers are expensive. And even if Congress finds a way to temporarily protect Dreamers, what if the Trump administration – or Congress – changes the rules again?
Martinez tries not to dwell on questions he cannot answer. But he knows one thing. “Without DACA, I am going backwards, to a worse life,” he says. “I don’t want to go back to Mexico. It’s been 15 years already, and this is my home now. My life is here.”
Just under 800,000 people signed up for DACA after it began; this includes about 7,500 in Wisconsin, with the highest percentage in the Milwaukee area. Multiply Martinez’s story by the thousands and you get a glimpse of the human impact of DACA.
For now, Martinez is taking it day by day, trying not to obsess or get angry. When I ask if he’s worried about giving me his name and address, he shrugs. “They have that information anyway, because when you apply for DACA, you give it to them,” he says. “They know where they can find me.” n
End of sidebars.

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based writer. Her feature in Milwaukee Magazine on the 53206 Zipcode, “A Dream Deferred,” was the statewide winner of Best Long Feature Story of 2015, awarded by the Milwaukee Press Club.
Photography website:
Instagram: @barbarajminer

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Unequal at Birth: The joy of a new grandson, tempered by a Milwaukee child's eviction

From Milwaukee Magazine, January 2018

By Barbara Miner
I arrived in Brooklyn last July to experience a miracle. I held my first grandchild, 10-day-old Cashel Alexander. Overwhelmed by how small and fragile and precious he was, I sometimes joked with my daughter, “Keep him alive, all else is commentary.”

Two days later, that off-hand joke sickened my stomach.

I was skimming through JSOnline, and a headline caught my eye: “How 6 Milwaukee kids died in 5 days.” The first death — I had difficulty reading further — involved Miguel Henderson, a preterm baby with an ailing heart. Miguel died the day after he, his mother and three siblings were evicted from their North Side home. Miguel was 27 days old.

While in Brooklyn, I would look at Cashel, think of Miguel and be tempted to say, “There but for the grace of God.” But I knew that grace had nothing to do with it. Cashel is white, of middle-class parents. Miguel was Black, evicted from a home in Milwaukee’s central city.

Months later, I still can’t wrap my head around Miguel’s death. One question, above all, lingers: How could anyone — especially landlords, judges, sheriff’s deputies — allow the eviction of a premature newborn in delicate health? Do we, as a society, believe that is acceptable public policy?

Miguel’s story received 139 words in the newspaper. Based on Google searches, there was no television or radio coverage that mentioned his name.

According to state data, roughly 15,000 people were evicted in Milwaukee County in 2016 — slightly more than the population of Whitefish Bay. A disproportionate number of those evicted were women and children. Less than 1% had an attorney.

I wonder: If everyone in Whitefish Bay had been evicted last year, wouldn’t officials have put a stop to such madness? If nothing else, the media would have gone crazy.

In 2016, Matthew Desmond wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book based on Milwaukee, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond documents how Milwaukee’s housing market systematically helps landlords make substantial money off poor people — that the problem isn’t just that poor people have trouble paying rent, but that the housing and eviction market is structured to increase profits for central city landlords.

The book received extensive local publicity, almost as if there were reason to be proud that a book about Milwaukee won the Pulitzer Prize, even though the book reflected horribly on the city. But there were no outcries for change.

At some point in our state’s history, we had the compassion to pass a law preventing utilities from being shut off in winter, apparently believing we should not allow people to freeze to death. I asked Raphael Ramos, head of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project, if there were a similar statute preventing evictions of people with serious medical conditions. He couldn’t think of one. Nor is there a moratorium on wintertime evictions.

Miguel lived in a single-family bungalow near 47th Street and Meinecke Avenue. The family had planned to sleep in their van after the eviction June 5, but snuck back inside when it got chilly. In the morning, the baby was unresponsive.

The Medical Examiner’s autopsy report lists the cause and manner of death as “undetermined.” It notes a history of co-sleeping, and cites the baby’s prematurity and heart condition. There was no evidence of injury.

As with most tragedies, there are more questions than answers. Ultimately, the heartbreak of Miguel’s death goes beyond his story and speaks to the ongoing epidemic of evictions in Milwaukee.

City of Milwaukee records list the home’s owner as JPMorgan Chase Bank. When I went by in late September, the home was abandoned, with 4-foot weeds, broken windows and unpainted, rickety porch steps. The tragedy of Miguel was compounded by the tragedy of a blighted home on a block of modest but well-maintained bungalows in a neighborhood struggling for respectability.

Miguel Edward Henderson Jr., meanwhile, was buried June 16 at Graceland Cemetery in a section known as “Babyland” — described by one Graceland worker as “the saddest place in the cemetery.”  This fall I visited Miguel’s grave, inexplicably compelled to extend my condolences. I whispered the only thing that seemed appropriate: “May he rest in peace.”