United Migrant Opportunity Services, Inc. was founded in Milwaukee in 1965 as an organization with a singular mission to improve the lives of migrant and seasonal farm workers. The organization, now known simply as UMOS, has evolved to provide programs and services that improve the employment, educational, health and housing opportunities of under-served populations in Milwaukee. UMOS’s half-century history has coincided with the sizable growth of Milwaukee’s Latino community. Today, approximately 40 percent of Wisconsin’s Latino population calls Milwaukee home.
In 2017, community residents, students, and local artists created an oral history and mural project to document and honor the people who are part of this history. Spearheaded by artist Raoul Deal and funded in part with a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the project involved historians and UW-Milwaukee art students who mentored high school interns from ArtWorks for Milwaukee. The project resulted in a 90-foot mural that features cornfields, migrant workers, organizers such as Jesus Salas and Father James Groppi, breweries, foundries and other images that connect this history to ongoing struggles for equality.
The term “DREAMer” refers to those who would be protected under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), a bill in Congress that has been proposed in order to provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children. It has been proposed numerous times over sixteen years but has never passed to become law. The first version was introduced in 2001 and young undocumented immigrants have since been called DREAMers.
That demographic, the DREAMers, gained protection under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order in 2012. The program to protect youth from deportation was ended by President Trump in 2017. Several lawsuits have been filed and it is unclear what future court rulings will mean for DACA.
Currently, anyone who has ever had DACA status can apply to renew, though the U.S. government is not accepting any new applications. Additionally, those who currently have DACA are not guaranteed reentry if they leave the country.
Recipients may become eligible for a work permit, social security number and driver’s license. However, the program does not provide permanent lawful status or a path to citizenship, nor does it provide eligibility for federal welfare or student aid.
Most of the people protected by DACA were born in Mexico (558,050), El Salvador (26,520), Guatemala (18,140) or Honduras (16,660). There are 7,070 active DACA recipients residing in Wisconsin as of August 2018.
Latino communities have called Wisconsin home for over a century.
The earliest known Mexican resident of Wisconsin was Raphael Baez from Puebla, Mexico. Baez settled in Milwaukee in 1814, where he taught music at Marquette University and served as the organist and music director for numerous churches and synagogues.
Throughout the early twentieth century, Mexican-descent workers traveled from Mexico and the U.S. Southwest to Wisconsin in search of work in industrial and agricultural fields. These seasonal migrants began arriving in the Great Lakes Region in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Throughout the 1950s, more than 15,000 Tejanos (Texas-born Mexican Americans) migrated to Wisconsin every year, propelling Wisconsin to become a leading producer of cherries, canned peas, sweet corn, cucumbers, and sugar beets.
In addition to Tejano workers who migrated with the seasons, millions of Mexicans came to the United States to work on short-term agricultural labor contracts during World War II. About 4,800 workers from Mexico (as well as the Caribbean and Central America) came to Wisconsin as part of the Bracero Program.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Wisconsin’s Latino community continued to grow and become increasingly more diverse. Following World War II, thousands of Puerto Rican migrants traveled to Wisconsin every year, eventually creating a vibrant community in Milwaukee. In the 1960s and 1980s, Cuban refugees found safe harbor in cities like Milwaukee and Madison, while Central and South Americans also made their way to the state in the final decades of the century.
Today most Latinos in Wisconsin, and in the United States, were born in the United States. The most recent national census, completed in 2010, found that 336,000 Hispanic/Latino people lived in Wisconsin (5.9% of the population). When compared with the populations of all 50 states, Wisconsin’s proportion of Latino residents ranks near the middle.