The New Land: A Look at Milwaukee’s Changing Immigration Landscape

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

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.

Ubah Abdi at her Kids Land Learning Center; photo by Lacy Landre

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.

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.

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.”

What’s an Immigrant?

The term immigrant is broadly defined to include all residents who were not U.S. citizens at birth and is used interchangeably with “foreign born.” It encompasses those with legal documents, such as naturalized citizens, permanent residents and refugees, and those without legal documents. Data on ethnic groups refer both to immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants.

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.”

Eduardo Martinez at home with his wife, Lisbeth Sanchez, and son, Aiden; photo by Lacy Landre

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.

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.”

‘The New Land’ appears in the April 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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