MILWAUKEE — Eduardo Perea grew up in a rural, farming community in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. But at age 15, having just completed the 9th grade, he knew his education and life options would be limited from there.
"I didn't really see no future because we didn't even own a farm, and there was no way for me to continue my education. So I saw no future for myself. If I wanted something better for my life, I knew I had to migrate," Perea said.
So he decided to get on a bus from his hometown to the United States border, eventually ending up in Milwaukee where his brother already was. He said he didn't know if he'd ever be able to return and if he'd ever see his parents again. He also didn't qualify for a work visa and didn't have the means to obtain a tourist visa, so he came without one. But, nonetheless, he was sure migrating was the right choice.
"The moment I made the decision of coming here and when I arrived here, I considered Milwaukee my home," he said.
He didn't attend high school in Milwaukee because he wanted to make money to send home to his parents. He started as a dishwasher, and took English classes at MATC when he wasn't working. He went on to earn his GED through a MATC program.
Perea, now 47, has been living in the Milwaukee area for more than 30 years. He now works in construction and home remodeling. He also got married and is now the proud father of four kids.
As he became more established and built a life in Milwaukee, the fear of being deported at any moment began to set in. In Wisconsin, undocumented folks can't have driver's licenses, so just driving to work and back everyday can cause in anxiety.
In the early 2000s he began the citizenship application process. But because he had been undocumented in the United States for more than a year, he would've had to move back to Mexico for 10 years before being able to potentially gain citizenship. With his family in mind, he didn't go through with the process.
"I had two kids at the time, six and seven, and I wasn't going to leave them behind," Perea said.
So he stayed in Milwaukee trying to put aside the uncertainty of living as an undocumented person, working to support his family, and contributing to the country he now calls home.
"I pay taxes when I purchase a car, when I buy a house I pay my property taxes, I'm paying my income taxes every year. So I have the same responsibilities and obligations of any other citizen. I have to obey the law, I have to respect the traffic laws and everything else. So, I just don't have the same opportunity," Perea said.
But he's ensured his kids do have the opportunities he hasn't. His two youngest are still in school, his two oldest are now college graduates.
"I am very proud of them, very proud of them," Perea said emotionally. "My wife and I did everything that was in our hands to give those kids an opportunity."
When his oldest daughter turned 21, she became her parents' sponsor and Perea and his wife began applying for citizenship again. He said it's been a four-year process.
"Which is a very long time, very expensive, very uncertain. But I think we're in the final stretch and we're waiting for an interview appointment in Juarez," he said.
And as he waits to hear about his own fight for citizenship, he's also helping others as they work to gain citizenship.
Perea is heading to D.C. with Voces de la Frontera on Monday night. There he and others will advocate for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers who helped during the pandemic.
Christine Newman-Ortiz, Executive Director of Voces de la Frontera, said the pathway to citizenship they're pushing for could impact five to eight million people.
"That's absolutely necessary because they have been working through this pandemic. And even through they're taxes, because even if you're undocumented you're still required to pay and report you taxes, but yet you don't qualify for many of the benefits that have been very helpful for families here in the United States," Newman-Ortiz said.