When Juan Samuel Torres graduated from Berlin High School in central Wisconsin his dad gave him a fake Social Security card and ID so he could get a job.
“That’s when it hit me,” Torres said. “I’m truly not from here. I grew up thinking that I was from here.”
Torres came to the United States from Mexico City in 1999 when he was 7 years old and has not gone back to Mexico.
“It was very comforting once I arrived here,” Torres said. “I just remember Mexico City being huge, a lot of people, very dirty, and it’s kind of disorganized. And I didn’t really know what kind of life was like down there because I was so young. So coming to the Milwaukee, Chicago area was really cool. It was really eye-opening.”
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Torres and his family flew from Mexico to Chicago. On the drive up to Milwaukee, Torres fell asleep and woke up in a new home very different than the one his family left behind.
“Coming to an apartment that had carpeting instead of cement walls and a tarp over the building,” Torres remembers.
Growing up in the greater Milwaukee area, Torres felt like a normal kid in America. But the reality of his situation, his immigration status, was difficult to realize once he became an adult.
“Obviously, I wasn’t legal, so the only places that accepted, I guess illegal people, were restaurants,” Torres said.
When Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was put into effect in 2012, Torres was able to get some relief knowing he wouldn’t get deported because he came to the U.S. when he was a child.
But life as a DACA recipient is always uncertain.
On Oct. 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that the policy violated federal law, but it did not rule on a new regulation created by the Biden administration that codified it into regulatory law.
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Trump administration could not dismantle DACA.
A move from restaurants to welding
But after working in the restaurant industry for 12 years, he wanted a change and knew it would not be cheap. He decided to enroll in the welding program at Milwaukee Area Technical College and was expecting to pay several thousand dollars to finish the program.
That’s when he heard about the DACA Plus Scholarship at MATC which offers DACA recipients $500 per semester for eligible students taking 6-8 credits, $750 for 9-11 credits and $1,000 for 12 or more credits.
“It was a relief,” Torres said when he applied for and was granted a scholarship for $1,000.
Two businesses come together for one scholarship
The DACA Plus scholarship has been around for the last few years but the account was almost dry until Van Horn Latino donated $100,000 and the El Rey grocery store chain donated $12,000.
The DACA fund at MATC has about $121,000 to give to students. This year 56 students received scholarships up from 29 the year before. And 12 DACA students have graduated so far.
Although DACA recipients can’t be deported, they are not allowed to receive taxpayer money for higher education, unless the money is raised through private donations.
Antonio Diaz, general manager of Van Horn Latino and MATC board member, pushed for the dealership to get involved in helping the most vulnerable members of the immigrant community in Milwaukee.
Diaz said the dealership served roughly 150 people per month, most of their customers are Latino, and roughly 35% of them had good credit.
“When you’re coming from Latin America or in a different place, (credit) doesn’t exist,” Diaz said. “People don’t have access to credit.”
Diaz wondered about the best way to improve financial literacy within the immigrant community.
“I started looking at the metrics and said ‘Ok, what’s needed for my community? Why are we so behind?’” Diaz said. “The immigrant generation they came from Mexico or other places, you can figure out they might not have high levels of education but that is being passed along to their kids and families.”
Diaz sees education as a pathway to closing the financial and educational gap.
“If you really want to create wealth, if you really want to have a better life and if you really want to have a shot at the American dream, you need an education,” Diaz said. “And we cannot deny an education to anyone who lives in the United States. I’m not trying to make this political, whoever is here and they’re already contributing to the community, they need to have an opportunity to go to college, to get a higher education.”
Without Van Horn Latino or El Rey donating to the DACA Plus Scholarship, Diaz is doubtful any other private parties would have donated.
“We need to do something different because whatever we’ve been doing is not working,” Diaz said. “This trend has been the same for many years.”
Allows MATC to help more students
Eva Martinez, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for MATC, said the donation from Van Horn Latino and El Rey can increase the number of students they can help.
“I think MATC is one of the few colleges and universities in the state that is taking the support that we provide to our DACA students to the next level and we envision that with a donation from Van Horn Latino and El Rey, that we can expand those opportunities by developing more ways to get donors to donate to the scholarship,” Martinez said adding the college plans to recruit other businesses to help in the effort.
“We know that there was a need for us to create not only the scholarship but then also create additional resources and pathways for DACA students to be able to enroll in MATC and be able to succeed.”
With MATC being a majority-minority school, scholarships like DACA Plus and Checota, which pays for short-term career advancement certificates for jobs like dental assistant, pharmacy technician and truck driving, have an impact.
“If we want to move the needle for individuals’ families and communities, we really need to invest in a community and technical college education,” Martinez said. “MATC graduates the highest number of Latino students in the state of Wisconsin.”
DACA recipients are also eligible for the Checota Scholarship.
Ellen and Joe Checota plan to give up to $5 million to the college on the condition that MATC raises $2.5 million on its own. Altogether, the $7.5 million would establish the largest scholarship fund in the school’s 110-year history.
Ellen is an artist and Joe is the chairman and CEO of Landmark Healthcare Facilities LLC, a national developer, owner and manager of outpatient buildings.
‘We left everything’
Felipe Beltran’s journey to America is just as important as Torres’ but it’s more dramatic.
In 2003, Beltran, from Leon, Guanajuato in Mexico, was just 11 years old when he went with his mom and sisters to Juarez to try to cross the border.
They took a bus to the border city hoping to cross.
“We left everything,” Beltran said adding the bus got stopped at a checkpoint in Juarez. “I remember it was the military, the Mexican military, they were checking everybody.”
Beltran said when they did get off the bus they met with the coyotes, the guides meant to help get them across the border and crossed the Rio Grande.
“We were running to cross the river and I remember there were some ranchers in the United States, on the other side of the river, they were shooting shotguns,” Beltran said. “I don’t know if (they were shooting) the birds, I don’t know what it was. I remember seeing a lot of those shell casings all over in the river.”
But they got caught by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
“I remember my mom giving my sisters to one of the coyotes,” Beltran said. “They crossed and stayed in a hotel. My mom and I were sent back, so we were separated for a couple of hours.”
With the help from his uncle, Beltran and his mother were able to board a different bus that got over the border.
They reunited with his sisters in El Paso, then traveled to Kansas City, Kansas and stayed with a different uncle for a few days.
Beltran remembers a friend of his uncle took them to Milwaukee to reunite with his dad who had been in the city for the previous two years.
“It took us one week. I remember it was from one Thursday to one Thursday.” Beltran said.
A day after arriving in Milwaukee, Beltran turned 12. When asked what he remembers about that birthday he says:
“I don’t remember.”
Beltran said he’s only told his story of his journey to Milwaukee only three times.
In 2011, Beltran graduated from Pulaski High School but with no legal status, he felt lost and unsure of what he would do for work.
Like Torres, the only jobs he could find were in the restaurant industry.
When Beltran got DACA, he enrolled in MATC and graduated with a associates degree in business.
“When I got DACA, that’s when the doors started opening,” Beltran said. “It’s taken me 10 years, 10 years exactly, to be where I am now. To rebuild myself and to be able to use these opportunities.”
Moving on to Concordia University
Beltran received a DACA Plus Scholarship to help pay for transfer classes so he can continue his education at Concordia University.
“What people don’t understand is we have talent,” Beltran said of other DACA recipients. “We were raised here. We were raised the American way. We have talent and we should get the same opportunities because we could be a benefit to the community.”
Torres said the business community helping provide scholarships to DACA students is inspiring because it’s giving them a rare chance.
“People actually believe in what me and (Beltran) are actually doing over here. It’s really humbling to realize some people in high society are willing to invest in our education,” Torres said. “Us, as DACA recipients, are going to take full advantage of the opportunity because we don’t have any opportunities.”
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Kelly Meyerhofer of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.