How the Border Crisis Hit a Small Wisconsin Town

'You have to have blinders on to not see that there have been problems'

(Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons)
February 27, 2024

WHITEWATER, Wis.—The migrants began to trickle into Whitewater, a sleepy town of 15,000 an hour west of Milwaukee, toward the end of 2021.

Prior to their arrival, local news and political debates generally revolved around school fundraisers or the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's D3 athletics. Today, residents are focused on their 1,000 new neighbors, who mostly hail from Nicaragua and Venezuela and largely keep to the shadows because they lack official identification. Locals say the real number of migrants in the town could easily be double the number reflected in the police department's official statistics.

As the migrant crises in big cities like Chicago and New York receive national media attention, Whitewater residents can only laugh.

Greater Whitewater Committee president Jeffrey Knight is quick to point out that migrants have caused New York's population to grow by 2 percent, while Whitewater's population has grown by almost 10 percent in two years, almost entirely due to the southern border crisis. That would translate into more than 1.5 million new arrivals in New York.

"I don't have a problem with immigration," Knight told the Washington Free Beacon. "The concern is about resources."

Like Knight, all Whitewater residents who spoke to the Free Beacon prided themselves on their hospitality and did not express prejudice toward the town's growing foreign population. But those who live here say they feel the strain migration has placed on their town: schools rushing to hire English as a second language (ESL) teachers, emergency services overwhelmed with unintelligible calls reporting domestic violence, and health providers faced with a flurry of uninsured patients.

Responding to the influx of migrants has put the town in a $400,000 budget hole, a town official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Free Beacon.

"I haven't seen anyone who isn't welcoming, but you have to have blinders on to not see that there have been problems," said Michael Smith, who has lived in Whitewater for more than a decade. "Everything is relatively overwhelmed right now."

No one knows what brought the migrants to Whitewater. It is not a sanctuary city, and no red-state governor is shipping busloads of migrants to Whitewater's doorstep. That Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that will likely decide the next president is just happenstance.

Some residents think the migrants were attracted by the progressive city council's pro-immigrant rhetoric. Others think the sleepy midwestern town is just a good place for illegal migrants to hide.

Whatever brought them, Whitewater's migrant population and its subsequent demographic transformation could offer a glimpse into the next stage of America's immigration saga. As lawmakers fight about what to do with the southern border, the rate of illegal border crossings shows no sign of slowing. With roughly 8.5 million illegal border crossings recorded since President Joe Biden took office, it is almost inevitable that more towns like Whitewater will see migrants flocking their way.

Once the migrants arrive, it is on the town to adapt. The hiring of new ESL teachers for Whitewater Public Schools has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars alone, one city official told the Free Beacon. Some students, the official said, have enrolled in Whitewater schools without knowing more than a few English words and phrases.

An official familiar with the issue says that at least 300 English ESL students are now enrolled in Whitewater Public Schools. That official also expressed concern about internal school reports of migrant students suffering from sexual abuse at home, as some live with distant relatives.

"You're setting up a disastrous situation," the individual said. "There's been an uptick in STDs and other sexual health issues."

But no other issue is as contentious as the town's growth in police responses. Two internal Whitewater Police Department slide shows obtained by the Free Beacon describe considerable strain on local law enforcement, with officers responding to calls that sound like something out of a police procedural.

In March, one slide states, law enforcement responded to a "deceased infant … located in a cardboard box." Another individual familiar with the immigration situation described finding a woman living in a shed with her infant during the Wisconsin winter.

"None of the information in this presentation is intended to vilify any group of individuals; it is solely meant to communicate factual information about trends we are seeing in the City of Whitewater," a slide reads.

Neighboring counties have expressed concern about cartel activity among Whitewater's migrants. One slide describes the surge in fentanyl seizures in recent years.

"All states are now affected, just like southern border States," the slide reads. "Narcotics investigations are a substantial investment of an agency's resources including financial, manpower, physical assets, and time."

Law enforcement officials said last November that they had traced nearly $250,000 worth of funds back to drug cartels in just four months. In the words of one law enforcement official, the migrants perform "farm or factory labor during the day and cocaine sales at night."

Whitewater police chief Dan Meyer, who declined to comment for this story, is one of several state and local leaders who have asked the Biden administration to send aid.

"It is a simple fact that we are not currently providing the Whitewater community with the degree of service that our residents are accustomed to," Meyer told local media in January. "That needs to change for the sake of both long-time residents, as well as individuals who have recently moved here from Central America."

In a letter to the White House, Meyer notes that traffic stops have plummeted as officers devote more of their time to more domestic calls.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.) petitioned Biden in January for "immediate assistance for cities and towns across the State of Wisconsin as migration increases demands on existing state and local government resources."

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D.) visited Whitewater earlier this month to hear concerns from the city council and, according to the city, "expressed his commitment to collaborating with Whitewater officials to address the city's concerns."

A spokesman for Evers did not respond to a request for comment.

Amid all the disruption, Whitewater's government celebrates itself as a progressive oasis nudged between two counties that supported former president Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. The top item at a Feb. 10, 2024, city council meeting was "proactive approaches to address potential NeoNazi activities in the city or on campus." Further down the agenda was a discussion of how to "promote a welcoming and educational environment for new immigrants."

Chuck Mills flies the Israeli, American, and "Blue Lives Matter" flags outside his tow shop. He disagrees with many of the city council's more liberal stances. But when it comes to migrants, he's mostly on board.

"Some conservatives want to paint all these immigrants as, you know, rapists and murderers," Mills said. "I did eventually welcome them here, it's still a fluid situation, knock on wood, but I've had nothing but good experiences."

Mills notes that Whitewater has faced a labor shortage since 2020, as the town's University of Wisconsin satellite campus never fully rebounded from COVID lockdowns and remote learning.

"There businesses around here needed to fill this void that a failing university left behind when they sent all the kids home and many just never came back," Mills said. "You got farms out here that need help, and I'd take one of these immigrants over a college student."

It's unclear, however, where all those workers will live: Whitewater faced a housing shortage before the migrants arrived. As of February 2022, "on average, only seven new, single-family homes have been constructed per year in the past decade," a city housing report concluded.

The report also noted that nearly half of Whitewater households "spend greater than 30% of their average income on housing related costs," more so than in neighboring counties.

"This indicates that many residents in Whitewater are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage and are forced to make choices related to other expenses in order to afford their monthly housing costs," the report continued.

According to Rep. Bryan Steil (R., Wis.), whose district includes Whitewater, this local problem has a "simple" national solution.

"You need to actually enforce our immigration laws," Steil told the Free Beacon. "The challenges that Whitewater is facing are ones communities around the country are facing. We can't just address the symptoms, we have to solve it by securing our border."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) made a similar point in November, noting that the arrival of migrants in Whitewater would be "devastating" for the local economy.

But locals understand they are powerless to fix the underlying problems that brought the migrants to Whitewater. Whether federal aid comes or not, they have no choice but to adapt to their new reality.

"We haven't reached our breaking point yet," said Smith. "I don't know where that is, I would love to see Biden take action, but here in Whitewater we're just going to have to figure it out."