December 4, 2007

A few of you have asked how my LSAT went. Overall, I think it went fine. I’m not exceptionally confident, but during many practice tests I felt like I was doing poorly and actually scored very well, so I’m not going to stress about it too much. I should get my score within three weeks, and that will give me a good idea of my chances at UW-Madison. I’m not too worried about Marquette, but you never know.

After spending the better part of the last six weekends preparing for this LSAT, it was wonderful to just hang around in hiding from the first “real” Wisconsin snowstorm of the year, cleaning my house, making chicken soup and watching old Harry Potter movies. Future weekend plans involve baking cookies, creating an office in our upstairs random junk room and planning to re-do our kitchen this spring.

Yesterday morning at work I was feeling a little tired, stressed, confused. I’ve been dreading all the craziness of Christmas shopping. I went to the mall for a little while two weekends ago to buy a shower gift for a good friend adopting a child, and I just wanted to get out as soon as possible. I love giving gifts, particularly when I have a great idea for a friend or family member. But consumerism is losing it’s thrill for me as I approach my third decade of life, and I’d rather not buy things for people that I don’t know they will use/enjoy/love. And half the time, that’s what we get people for Christmas anyway — something temporary, that might be fun or cool for a short time, and then just takes up space.

Midday Monday, my mom e-mailed about not doing gifts on her side this year. Fabulous. Certain people in my life have been cutting back on the Christmas gift culture for years, and I’m definitely in the place to want to do that as well. I suppose being married to someone who has very different Christmas traditions, and particularly experiencing those traditions last year, has furthered these feelings. Spending the week before last Christmas in Fermin’s town of Libres, Puebla, Mexico, the nightly activity was taking a walk in the almost-brisk “winter” air around 8:00 or 9:00 pm, wandering the designated street for that night’s posada, accepting a cup of hot fruity ponche (something like a cider) from a random family’s doorway offering, watching people gather in the street between two homes, waiting for a piñata, held from the roofs of two facing homes, dropping down as children batted away, waiting for the pop and burst of dulces to fall to the street.


identity crisis unveiled

November 26, 2007

I stumbled upon this profile of former Milwaukee police officer turned outed undocumented alien Oscar Ayala-Cornejo in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today. Months ago when this story broke, Ayala-Cornejo was reportedly not interested in talking to anyone in the media. I had actually attempted to contact his family, hoping to write a profile that would shed light on the larger situation of someone in his shoes – meaning, brought to the U.S. as a child with few ties to Mexico and few legal options in the U.S., but nothing came of it.

Anyway, I think this is a very good profile, so no complaints. I’m sure the JS will get a bucket of hate mail about it, but I’m glad they ran such a sympathetic story on him:

Ex-officer wants new start
by Bill Glauber

It was a name he put on like a new suit of clothes, a name that gave him a new identity, a chance to succeed as an illegal immigrant in America.

But Oscar Ayala-Cornejo could never have imagined the long-term consequences of taking the name of his dead cousin, Jose Morales, and claiming his birth certificate, Social Security number, even a childhood immunization record.

He was just a teenager when it happened in 1999, a kid taking direction from his a father, a kid who dreamed of being a cop on the beat in his Milwaukee neighborhood.

“Once I became Jose Morales, there was no turning back,” he said.

Now, the ex-patrolman with the Milwaukee Police Department is a felon awaiting sentencing Monday in federal court. In August, he pleaded guilty to falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen. He could be headed to prison or put on probation. But in the end, he’ll be going back to his home country, Mexico.

Wednesday, at his mother’s home in Milwaukee, Ayala-Cornejo sat for a 75-minute interview. The 25-year-old was composed and expressed remorse.

He said he wanted to “tell people my story because there are a lot of people in my shoes” who “don’t know the consequences” of assuming a new identity to remain in the United States.

“If you get caught, you’re not going to be with your family, you’re not going to succeed,” he said. “You’re going to have to go back to Mexico, back to South America.”

His older brother Alex Ayala – born in the United States – is a U.S. citizen. Alex Ayala was fired from the Milwaukee Police Department in September, shortly after Ayala-Cornejo’s guilty plea. He has appealed his dismissal.

His older sister is also an American citizen, and his mother is a legal permanent resident. His father, Salvador, who also had his green card, died in 2004.

But Ayala-Cornejo is not a citizen. He was born in Guadalajara and came to Milwaukee as a 9-year-old, when the family settled in a basement apartment at S. 15th Place and W. Lincoln Ave. The neighborhood was tough, but he was determined to make a difference.

He wanted to be a police officer. In high school he told his father that he wanted to eventually join a police aide program, he said.

“He had this really disappointed look on his face,” Ayala-Cornejo said. “With a sad face he told me . . . I was not a citizen and because of that I cannot become an officer, I can’t continue my education, can’t go to college, can’t get a decent job.”

A solution, or so it seemed, was found. A cousin in Chicago offered to give the family documents of her son, Jose Morales, who had died at the age of 7. The two boys – Jose and Oscar – were born months apart.

“It was the only option we had,” he said. “I didn’t want to be away from my family.”

In 1999, he took on the new name, switched high schools from Pulaski to Hamilton, repeated his junior year and created a new identity. His family didn’t call him Oscar in public. He referred to his parents as his aunt and uncle. He told friends different stories about his name.

He excelled in the police aide program and moved on to the police force in 2004. He slipped through a background check because “I was so young and kind of established the name Jose Morales with going to school, gaining part-time jobs. I seemed like any other kid in high school who wanted to become an aide.”

On May 31, his story unraveled. Ayala-Cornejo was arrested by two plainclothes officers and questioned by immigration officials. He said he recognized two of them from doing Spanish translation for them.

An anonymous tip had led to an investigation of Ayala-Cornejo. His yearbook pictures from two schools, with different names, helped seal the case, he said. He admitted what he had done.

“There is probably a reasonable likelihood that the guy could have followed legal steps and become a citizen or at least gain lawful resident alien status,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Johnson. “I guess it’s an obvious lesson the shortcut may seem like a good idea but maybe really isn’t in the long run.”

Under a plea agreement, Ayala-Cornejo faces six to 12 months in prison, but it’s possible he could also be eligible for probation.

He’s eager to start a new life in Mexico.

“It’s tough but I know I can do it,” he said. “I’m young, I’m bilingual. Mexico has a lot of opportunities down there. I know initially we came over to the United States because those opportunities weren’t available. But I feel confident I’ll find something, and I’m going to make it.”

I have to comment, however, on the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s suggestion that Ayala-Cornejo might have had a chance at LPR status or citizenship had he not taken on the U.S. citizen identity. Those kind of uninformed comments constantly give Americans the idea that there is a reasonable legal path around some of these choices had the person just been a little higher up on the morality scale.

On one hand, a person who falsely claims U.S. citizenship does accrue a lifetime bar with no waiver available to him ever. So at this point, even if Mr. Ayala-Cornejo has an American girlfriend or fiancee, he’s S.O.L. He will never be able to return to the U.S. legally as the laws currently allow.

However, even if Ayala-Cornejo had never falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen, he would have had to marry a U.S. citizen to be able to gain legal status in any sort of expeditious manner. (Not that there is anything wrong with marrying a U.S. citizen, but that’s just not an option for everyone). Even that would have involved the same waiver process and likely wait in Mexico that my husband went through. His other option would have been to have his permanent resident mother or father petition for him, but that would have taken about 16 years considering current processing times. Even if Ayala-Cornejo had entered the U.S. as an infant in the arms of his mother, he would have faced the same situation.

I hope Oscar is able to start a new life in Mexico. He is right – there are more opportunities there now, but I imagine he will still face immense difficulties. Husbands of friends I know from the forum have stated that despite being bilingual and educated, they have been unable to find decent-paying work in various Mexican cities.

a year of writing opportunities

September 18, 2007

My stint as a Journal Sentinel Community Columnist is pretty officially over, as they new group starts next week, and they have enough columns turned in to get through until then. I was admittedly flaky the past few months, but there’s been something really challenging about the post-immigration-journey analysis of our experience. Besides that, summer is the busiest time at work, meaning far fewer solid blocks of writing time during the day. (Of course, I have no absolutely right to complain about that, so enough said).

Besides the opportunity to share an unusual perspective on immigration in a well-read public forum, the best thing about being a Community Columnist were the responses. For every few legalistic, fundamentalist or blatantly racist e-mails, I received one genuinely supportive one. I also received a few notes from readers who had no idea how strict our legal immigration system is, and were genuinely surprised that there is no legal way into the U.S. without a relative or an existing job offer (and there can be waits for 5-10 years in many of those situations as well). I got into a few very interesting e-mail exchanges and received a few strange snail mail letters (yes Mom, I know I should unlist my address and phone number) suggesting that I am actually the writer behind all the pro-immigrant staff editorials for the Journal Sentinel, among other things.

But one of the best results came today, when I checked my respondtolaura address, the one I use publicly to protect my regular e-mail account from excessive spam, and found two e-mails from women who had read my last column and were desperately seeking information on how to pursue legalization for their undocumented spouse. I can’t express how happy it makes me to be able to introduce people with little hope for their situations to one of the immigration forums, or help them figure out what they need to do next. There is so much bad information out there, particularly from lawyers and immigration consultants, and I feel endlessly grateful that I found immigrate2us when I did. Had I not, some issues with our case might have done the sort of damage that takes ten years in Mexico to recover from.

I plan to continue reading, writing and especially blogging about immigration, and I hope that once or twice next year Journal Sentinel Editorial Editor Ricardo Pimentel might print something I write on whatever immigration news comes up.

Real people at the heart of immigration debate

August 28, 2007

Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Aug. 28th, 2007

One year ago, my husband, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, left our home in Milwaukee for his visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Today, after 11 months of waiting in Mexico, he is back, with a valid Social Security number and that elusive green card.

I’ve alluded to our situation before, particularly in May, after I left the immigration march on the streets of Milwaukee feeling that the energy and enthusiasm of the millions of undocumented workers in this country would never align with the feelings of hate and fundamentalist legalism that seem to drive our nation’s vocal, anti-immigrant minority.

I also questioned whether the Department of Homeland Security would determine we had proved enough “extreme hardship” to grant my husband a visa. For anyone still wondering, immigrants who marry U.S. citizens do not immediately become U.S. citizens.

A week after my May column was published, I received an unexpected letter, which gave my husband an appointment to pick up his visa – essentially, notice of our approval.

Meanwhile, the so-called grand bargain immigration proposal being discussed in Congress caught fire from all sides, collapsing as those who only want border security and mass deportations clashed with those who want a legalization program for the millions of undocumented residents living within our borders.

As the national debate deflated, my husband returned legally. While we were thrilled with the outcome of our case, I began feeling a dull sense of defeat about the prospects for a fair national reform to our immigration system.

As our lives return to normal, I’ve had a difficult time ignoring countless other families and friends who are stuck, in one way or another, because of both their personal choices and the immigration system that provokes and punishes them.

There is my husband’s distant cousin, Jose, an exceptionally hard-working and responsible individual, who has lived without documentation in the United States for more than eight years. At a party this summer, I heard him comment how much he had hoped for an immigration bill that would have allowed him to remain here legally. But as of now, he has no options.

Then there is Cindy, a young woman I met via an online immigration forum. Cindy’s parents brought her across the Mexican border when she was 4. She grew up in California and Texas and graduated near the top of her high school class. The only thing that kept Cindy from college was a valid Social Security number.

Cindy married her high school sweetheart, a U.S. citizen, two years ago. She is now a lawful permanent resident.

Cindy’s sister, however, just a few months old when their family came to the U.S., has no options. She is engaged to a Honduran immigrant, and although she has resided in the U.S. for all but a few months of her life, she has no opportunity to remain here legally.

These stories, sadly, are a dime a dozen. On a national level, the debate centers on the idea that our country is crawling with lawbreakers who strain the welfare system while evading taxes.

These myths control the debate and distract from the economic, social and cultural questions that belong at the center of the discussion over immigration laws.

Are we going to be a nation that erects walls – both literal and figurative – to keep the world’s poor and needy at a distance? Or could we attempt to embrace our history? Could we be a nation that embodies the principles inscribed on our most iconic statue?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

still living

August 23, 2007

Well, I’ve been pretty quiet for a while, haven’t I?

I may be out of my writing slump, as I finally just finished another, or possibly my last, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel community column. I’ll post it in a few days or as soon as it’s published in the paper.

It’s been one year since my term as a community columnist started, and any week now there will be a new group. I wish I wouldn’t have been so flaky about it the last few months, but I’ve been busy getting back to life with a husband, and summer is a pretty busy time for selling vaccines, so I just haven’t had as much time to read and process and form opinions, particularly on local issues.

In addition, every day that passes without an update on great blogs like Migra Matters, I become a little more sad about the state, or lack thereof, of any sort of immigration discussion in this country. Despite the amazing writing of activists and commentators like Kyle, Man Eegee and others, much of the discussion remains tainted by the buzz words “border security,” “amnesty,” and “illegal aliens.” Politicians want to do something popular, but the country is so divided on the issue that nothing is really “popular.” What happened to doing what is right? What happened to doing what is best for our nation?

So what is one to do? I’ve been keeping busy on I’ve noticed a glut of people in the same situation as Fermin and I, landing on the site after being let down when no immigration bill passed. Now they will begin the long, tedious journey of petitioning their spouse, filing a waiver, etc. I think it’s good karma to give back, so I try to give advice based on my experience and what I’ve read.

That’s about all that’s going on in my world right now. On a completely unrelated note, I found this cool quiz – for the Milwaukeeans in my readership – you might enjoy this.

Milwaukee police get it right

July 20, 2007

Police reach out to pushcart vendors

by Diane Sroka

Fidel Bustos has been selling fruit, chips and other treats from his pushcart on the south side for the past two years.

He knows what tastes good and which route to walk every day. But when he was robbed last year, he didn’t know what to do.

“No, I didn’t report it,” he said in Spanish. He said he figured the police wouldn’t be able to do anything and the amount was too small – $30 to $40.

However, the Milwaukee Police Department hopes to reach out to vendors such as Bustos – who had been robbed once before without reporting it – and encourage them to report armed robberies and assaults of which they are victims.

“We had gotten wind that they were being victimized,” said Sgt. Luis Gonzales. “You have to report this.”

Gonzales and several other members of the Police Department met with the heads of five south side pushcart companies Tuesday to encourage them to report when their employees are victims of crimes.

Some vendors don’t turn to the police because they may be illegal immigrants, Gonzales said, but he hopes that fear will dissolve as their relationship develops.

“We aren’t concerned about their immigration status,” Gonzales said. “We’re concerned about when they are the victim of a crime.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the first of its kind, according to police, and the department already considers the outreach effort successful. Two armed robbery suspects are already in custody as a result of Tuesday’s meeting, police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz said.

Antonio Castillo, 71, a vendor who sometimes sits outside the original El Rey grocery store on S. Chavez Drive, said someone tried to rob him near S. 27th St. and W. Oklahoma Ave. last year, but he reported it right away.

That’s the kind of action Gonzales hopes this effort will cultivate.

“This is a good example of building community-police relations, building trust and working together with the department,” he said.

While it’s really sad that these vendors are getting robbed — many walk by my house each day — I was so happy to see this news story. With the number of local and state-level enforcement measures increasing each day, it’s good to see a few places are actually concerned about people, and crime, rather than reacting to all the ridiculous rhetoric about stealing jobs and immigrants weighing down the state budget.

Wisconsin State Fair gets wise

July 17, 2007

For the last few years I have marveled at the fact that Summerfest, one of the world’s largest music festivals, and  Milwaukee’s signature summer event, has completely ignored the area’s burgeoning Latino population.

To be fair, various ethnically-themed festivals run almost every summer weekend at the lakeside Henry W. Maier festival park where Summerfest takes place. For example, we have Polish Fest, Festa Italiana, African World Festival and Fiesta Mexicana. Certainly Summerfest itself is not meant to be an ethnic festival, just a big, 10-day music party, but considering the array of music available, it’s surprising that there has been almost no effort to bring groups that would draw Latinos.

Once primarily a haven for remnants of 70s and 80s rock bands, Summerfest has continued to evolve with the culture. The shows on the main stage have appealed to a more diverse audience and you can find a wide variety of country, R&B, rock and pop on the side stages.

But I’ve wondered why the fair’s planners have ignored the entire culture that has evolved on Milwaukee’s south side, the Mexicans, the Puerto Ricans and the Guatemalans who love music, beer and parties – the staples of Summerfest culture. With Chicago, Madison and Green Bay able to supply a seemingly large enough of an audience to draw some great Latino acts, why haven’t they reached out? Have they not noticed the growing Latino population? Well, it’s really only their loss, of dollars.

It does appear, however, that the State Fair, probably the second-largest event of a good Milwaukee summer, has wised up to this growing consumer base.