Esther J. Cepeda


Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.
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(Advance for Sunday, May 24, 2020, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, May 23, 2020, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


MADISON, Wis. - The first time I saw the dome of Wisconsin's Capitol, I was informed that - way at the tippy-top - there was a lady with a badger on her head.

It wasn't a joke. The gilded bronze statue is named "Wisconsin," symbolizing the state motto "Forward." She's 15 feet, 5 inches tall, weighs over 3 tons and holds a globe with an eagle perched on it in her left hand and a badger, the state animal, on top of her helmet.

She's quite beautiful.

Just like the rest of Madison, which is a city I knew only because an Internet acquaintance turned me on to Forward Madison FC, the town's third-division pro soccer league. With its gorgeous uniforms and quirky social-media presence, I got sucked into a fan vortex so strong that soon I was making long weekly trips from the northwestern suburbs of Chicago to Madison, home of the Flamingos.

The promise of a new life in a different place, with new people to love, made this Chicago girl flee suburban Illinois to peek behind Wisconsin's so-called Cheddar Curtain.

It's not that I needed to find out how good cheese curds taste (far better than their cringey name implies) but because my new home was either going to be Chicago, Los Angeles or Madison - and Madison won. Hands-down, no contest.

My youngest graduated from high school last year and, at that time, I leaned in to Chicago. I started trekking in from the 'burbs (where I'd fled 18 years prior so that I'd have a snowball's chance at a home with a backyard and a decent school system for my babies). I loved to go to the concerts, comedy shows, podcast tapings, fan cub meetups, magic classes and other cultural events that make the Windy City so special.

But I found street congestion that was 20 years' worth of worse than it had been when I left for the suburbs in 1999. And neighborhoods that had once been solidly working class (read: affordable) were completely gentrified and unlivable, unless you had tons of money to plow into rent or a sky-high mortgage.

The media business in Chicago was on its knees, as it continues to be, and teaching gigs at Chicago Public Schools promised to be heartbreakers.

In short, Chicago didn't have much to offer someone living a modest life and looking at retirement as the next major passage. Meanwhile, the state of Illinois, just like its biggest city, was losing people like me at an astonishing rate.

In 2019, analysis of census data found that the Prairie State's population fell for the sixth year in a row. The local National Public Radio affiliate, WBEZ, estimated that 1,628,866 people left Illinois for other states from 2014 to 2018 - up 15.6% from the number that left between 2009 and 2013.

Most people who left were in the ultra-desirable age bracket of 20-34, but the greatest increase of people leaving were those 65 and older (almost 50% more between 2014 to 2018), trailed closely by 50- to 64-year-olds. And these people were more often middle- and high-income than low-income.

Reasons cited were job- and housing-related. The state's financial situation surely also had a role to play. recently gave the state an "F" grade after an analysis of the latest available audited financial reports found that every state taxpayer would have to kick in $52,000 to bail Illinois out of a debt burden of $226 billion, mostly due to underfunded pension obligations.

"This report shows that Illinois went into the coronavirus pandemic with bad fiscal health, and it will probably come out of the crisis even worse,"'s analysis said.

The state is well-known for being corrupt - six Illinois governors have been charged with crimes, four were convicted, and Rod Blagojevich was the first to be impeached and removed from office, yet he recently got a pass from President Donald Trump. And the city of Chicago has its own reputation for corruption.

But it was Chicago's celebrated neighborhoods that made me sad every time I went into town.

The march of progress has made old tracts unaffordable and terribly bland, with the same chain pharmacies, coffee shops and fast food places replacing all the spots that had given the city so much character. Oh well.

My move to Madison isn't the only journey I'm on right now. After 10 years of working as a syndicated columnist, I've decided to strike out to new pastures, and am so grateful to all of my readers for your constant interest and support. I'll miss you, but you won't have to look too far to find me online. And: Madison isn't called Mad City for nothing. Come visit me some time; there are plenty of dive bars and gritty restaurants - and a golden lady with a badger on her head will be here to greet you.

- - -

Esther Cepeda's email address is or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Thursday, May 21, 2020, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, May 20, 2020, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


LAKE GENEVA, Wis.- This quaint downtown looked unremarkable on a quiet, rainy Monday morning: Businesses were starting to open, traffic was light. Clusters of teens, elders with dogs, and people carrying bundles of mail for the post office strolled down the street -- almost none wearing protective masks over their nose and mouth.

I broke quarantine to bear witness to Wisconsin's "mixed" status. Many of the state's larger metropolitan areas -- such as Madison and Milwaukee -- are retaining most of the governor's "safer-at-home" measures to combat the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile, the rest of the state is taking advantage of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to strike down the order to stay closed - giving them the option to roam free.

Tiny towns bordering Illinois took a turn in the Chicago media spotlight as refugees from the windy city's far off exurbs crossed the border to sit at bars with others who just needed a cold beer and a cheeseburger amid all this COVID craziness.

Over the weekend, the resort town of Lake Geneva was reportedly hoppin' with visitors from both sides of the border, and many of them were promenading down the main drag, hitting the beach and taking cruises on the lake.

"All for it," Dave Gragnani of close-by McHenry, Illinois, told the Wisconsin State Journal. He added that he planned to visit a coffee shop and a skatepark without a mask or hand sanitizer. "People should have a choice. I'm having a wonderful time."

Truth be told, I, too, had a wonderful time Monday, as the rain fell softly outside of Joni's Diner, a local favorite that bills itself the "Best Breakfast in Lake Geneva." Walking into the 50's themed replica railcar after months of eating at home or while driving in the family minivan was, well, a relief.

The experience was a little weird, though - there was no counter seating, and each set of visitors sat with an empty booth between them and the next diners. There was also only a limited number of items on the table (no creamer, ketchup or mustard sitting out, for instance).

The small, "mom and pop" business relies almost entirely on seasonal tourists to get through the year financially, but the waitress said they were wading back into sit-down service slowly and carefully.

The staff seemed just as relieved to be back to work as I was to have delicious diner coffee and a fresh, crisp golden Belgian waffle with full-sugar syrup.

None of the staff wore masks, and though my husband and I wore masks in, we kept them off during the meal. We also kept our distance, if that's even a sufficient manner of avoiding infection.

Condemn me if you will, but I had an opportunity to venture out of my hiding hole and took it. I relished it, thanking the universe for keeping me from political confrontation.

In some places, like the grocery store, you get the glare or side-eye if you're (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) wearing a mask over your face. In others, like Walmart, the hardware store or the gas station, you might get a weird look if you (BEG ITAL)are(END ITAL) wearing a mask.

Some assume that those who wear a mask are weak willed, easily brainwashed and possess socialist leanings. Instead, the person wearing the mask might instead just be covering their mouth and nose as a courtesy to others, including the elderly and immunocompromised.

Those who do wear masks might look at those without a face covering and think that he or she doesn't believe in science and is a selfish supporter of President Trump. And those who don't wear masks might rebut this with sincere beliefs about individual liberties and choice.

"The war on masks is a way of taking a public health crisis -- a situation that demands political unity and best practices in governance -- and reshaping it into a culture war competition," wrote Zack Beauchamp on "The question is not 'are we doing a good job handling this' so much as 'whose team do you want to be on, the namby-pamby liberals or the strong fearless conservatives?'"

Masks -- and restaurant and bar visits -- have become a point of contention all over the country, fueling violence against innocent frontline food and restaurant employees who are just doing their best to stay healthy while working a high-touch, minimum wage "essential" job.

It's a tough time all around. Just remember, as we start venturing out of quarantine, to be nice and follow the golden rule. It stands up well through times of trauma: Treat others the way you'd want to be treated.

Esther Cepeda's email address is or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Sunday, May 17, 2020, and thereafter. Web release May 16, 2020, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)

In 8th graf, adds missing word "of" so it now reads: "... the government funding of attorneys"


CHICAGO -- Despite the current political climate, people trust the federal courts system more than many other government institutions, according to a 2019 survey from the National Center for State Courts.

But the same survey showed that people also think that courts aren't doing enough to empower regular people to navigate the system without a lawyer.

Most of us -- with our fluent English skills, broadband internet access and smart phone in hand -- can't imagine dealing with anything more complex than a traffic ticket without a legal expert.

So why would anyone expect an immigrant facing deportation to plead their case before an immigration judge on their own?

It turns out that most people don't.

Ninety-three percent of people surveyed online by the Vera Institute of Justice believe access to attorneys is (somewhat or very) important for all people, including people in immigration court. This view is held, overwhelmingly, despite political affiliation (89% Republican, 97% Democrat and 91% undeclared).

In fact, 96% of people who self-identify as Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 87% of undeclared voters said they support government-funded attorneys for people in immigration court.

And even among people who are opposed to immigration to the U.S., more than 70% support the government funding of attorneys for people in immigration court.

"These values of due process and fundamental fairness are deeply ingrained in our society," said Melissa Garlick, senior planner of policy and advocacy for the Vera Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on reforming justice systems. "Immigrants facing deportation don't have the right to a publicly funded defender like we provide in a criminal system [because unauthorized immigration is a civil, not a criminal offense]. It is not balanced, so the immigrant is set up for failure, because the prosecution always has a lawyer, whereas 70% of immigrants in court go unrepresented."

And this is the case regardless of whether the immigrant is an adult, a teenager, a toddler or an infant -- most of them have to go before a judge and represent themselves in immigration court totally alone.

I can hear the skeptics proclaiming that there are about a million advocacy and aid organizations that provide low-cost or pro-bono services for immigrants.

Not so.

"We know of at least 35 programs out there that provide some aid," said Garlick. "Some are privately funded, some are publicly funded. But every program and legal services agency will have their own requirements, whether it's income or residency. What's important about universal programs is that they are merit-blind. Right now, the people who are most vulnerable don't get that help because programs select immigrants to aid based on the likelihood of the success of the case."

You can imagine what obstacles "the most vulnerable" face in being able to find free or low-cost immigration lawyers. There are those who must deal with language, health and age barriers, as well as many who don't have access to phones or the internet to handle complex cases.

What the Vera Institute wants is for our current immigration courts system to be reimagined into a system like what our criminal courts offer, where everyone is provided a paid lawyer regardless of the merits of their case.

Yes, that's a little bit of an odd juxtaposition -- and ironic. So many people who say they are "anti-illegal immigrant" do not (or refuse to) understand that living in the U.S. without proper authorization is a civil, not a criminal, violation. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their U.S.-born peers.

But if we say and truly believe that we are a nation of laws, should we not want all who go before a judge to have a shot at having the laws work justly, impartially, and in their favor, whenever possible?

It only seems fair.

Esther Cepeda's email address is or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.