Neumann-Ortiz a national voice for immigration issues
By Georgia Pabst, Journal Sentinel, April 25, 2010
Four years ago, Christine Neumann-Ortiz took a leave of absence from her day job to devote her time and passion to Voces de la Frontera, the immigrant advocacy and worker rights organization she had founded in 2001.
Since then, she's organized large marches for comprehensive immigration reform, grown her organization from a few hundred into a 2,000-member force and earned a national reputation for her advocacy.
"It's been a long struggle, but I have to remind myself and others that social justice is not achieved overnight," Neumann-Ortiz said as she prepared for yet another march for immigration reform on May 1. This march also will protest the passage of Arizona's tough new laws against illegal immigrants. "The Arizona law is a logical progression of the failure to enact immigration reform," she said.
While Neumann-Ortiz has become a national leader on immigration reform, it's also made her controversial and the target of fierce opposition.
Former Republican state Sen. Cathy Stepp once called Neumann-Ortiz a terrorist and tried to get her prosecuted when she and three others went to Stepp's Racine County home in 2006 to try to talk to her about her vote on a driver's license bill that would have required proof of U.S. citizenship. The Racine County district attorney refused to prosecute Neumann-Ortiz.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) doesn't personally know Neumann-Ortiz, but he's heard of Voces.
"Horrible," he called it. "The problem with Voces is that it blurs the distinction between legal and illegal immigration and that's a very disturbing position to take."
But longtime Latino activist and organizer Tony Baez, executive director of the Council for the Spanish Speaking, lauds Neumann-Ortiz and Voces for mobilization and collaborative skills. Yes, she may be too aggressive and in your face at times, but that's what it takes, he said.
"When you're dealing with a complicated issue like immigration, you sometimes have to raise your voice, and I respect that, although it has to be done with certain tactfulness," he said.
Neumann-Ortiz, 42, stands just 5 feet tall, with brown eyes and long brown hair, and speaks softly in conversation. But she isn't shy about shouting into a megaphone when she's pumping up the crowds at rallies and marches, chanting the now familiar "Si se puede."
A self-styled organizer, Neumann-Ortiz said she learned her skills while a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she worked on anti-racism and women's rights campaigns while earning a degree in English. She also has a master's degree in Chicano history from the University of Texas at Austin.
"I found that collective effort and political movements empowering," she said. "I felt I got a good education and found my place in that larger movement."
While in Texas, she started Voces as a bilingual newspaper dealing with border issues.
The daughter of immigrants - her father was born in Berlin, Germany, her mother in Mexico - she was born in Los Angeles but lived in Spain, Venezuela, Oregon and Alabama because her father was an engineer for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The family moved here when her father came to teach at UW-Milwaukee. Her mother works for Milwaukee Public Schools.
She lives in Shorewood with her 18-year-old son, who is in college, three dogs and two cats. Neumann-Ortiz's salary at Voces is $52,000.
Since 2006, Voces has tripled its annual budget to $600,000 and built a staff of five full-time and four part-time workers to coordinate the agency's various activities that include the march, national and state legislative efforts, and work to get out the Latino vote.
In 2006, Neumann-Ortiz took a leave from Milwaukee Area Technical College, where she was coordinator of GED programs for migrants, and organized the first local march to push for immigration reform called "A Day Without Latinos."
The marches were fueled by the fear of legislation that U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) had introduced that would have made it a crime, instead of a civil violation, to be in this country illegally.
Thousands of marchers participated that year, and an estimated 200 businesses closed for all or part of the day to let workers attend.
Three other annual marches followed, all with equally large turnouts, that have drawn national media attention for Voces and Neumann-Ortiz.
She now sits on the executive committee of Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a coalition of more than 300 community organizations working on immigration reform that's a project of the older Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C.
She's been interviewed by National Public Radio and debated CNN's Lou Dobbs, who built a reputation for his heated anti-immigrant rhetoric before he left CNN, in part, after protests from Latino organizations.
"Christine's leadership is a natural fit for the coalition because she understands immigrant and worker rights and because of the unique voice she brings," said Marissa Graciosa, the director of FIRM.
"She thinks of immigration reform from the perspective of workers and has taken creative actions to work with youth, teachers, unions and even Republican dairy farmers," Graciosa said.
Now, as Neumann-Ortiz readies for yet another march, she said there are increasing challenges because of Arizona's new law that makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant. And advocates feel let down by the Obama administration.
"There has been tremendous disappointment in terms of what President Obama promised during his presidential campaign" she said. "So much was expected. He had a strong immigration platform and we felt there would be, if not reform, at least relief."
Meanwhile, she said, the Department of Homeland Security also has stepped up its enforcement efforts in pursuing deportations of noncriminal offenders.
And the Arizona law has turned up the heat on the battle over immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform still looms.
"And we will never stop fighting for it until it's achieved," she said.