In his campaign for governor, Tony Evers said he would support in-state tuition and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, promises Gov. Scott Walker called “special treatment for illegals" in a campaign ad.
Now Evers is governor-elect. And even with a Republican-controlled state Legislature, local Latinos are cautiously optimistic they will see movement on these two issues they’ve pushed for years.
State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, has previously introduced legislation on both fronts, without success. Her office said she plans to introduce the bills again next session.
Undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin were eligible for driver’s licenses until 2007. The 2005 federal REAL ID Act required proof of lawful residence for driver’s licenses for federal purposes, like entering a military base. Wisconsin then passed a law requiring legal status to receive a driver’s license.
Twelve states allow driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status. These licenses are not REAL IDs, however, and don’t grant voting rights or eligibility for public benefits, nor do they change the driver’s undocumented status.
Supporters of the legislation have argued that allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses would improve public safety by allowing them to obtain car insurance and pass a road test.
A recent report from Kids Forward estimated that such a move would allow 32,000 Wisconsin residents to get licenses within three years.
The report described the stakes in stark terms, saying “something as minor as being pulled over for a burned-out headlight can trigger a series of events that results in separation from their families and the loss of their homes and livelihoods.”
Offering licenses to undocumented residents hasn’t been shown to affect traffic accidents or deaths, but it has reduced hit-and-run accidents, which decreased insurance premiums, the report said. In Wisconsin, an estimated $12 million in insurance claims are attributed to accidents with uninsured, undocumented residents.
Licenses would not only allow immigrants — including about 8,000 manufacturing employees — to legally drive to work, but bring benefits like making it easier for kids to participate in afterschool activities, the report said.
Issuing driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status was the first recommendation of the local Immigration and Refugee Task Force, made up of community members and law enforcement. The Dane County Chiefs of Police Association endorsed the report.
Dane County Chief Sheriff Deputy Jeff Hook was co-chair of the task force.
“When you start seeing real people show up with real stories about their lives … and how they are afraid every time they drive down the road … it just reiterated over and over again, on a person a level, that we need to do something in that arena,” Hook said.
But Hook said he’s not very confident that such legislation could be passed, “in our current political environment.”
But for some, hope for the effort was renewed when Evers came on the scene.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization, said that while it will take “a lot of grassroots organization statewide,” there’s a “real window of opportunity,” to pass legislation for licenses.
She’s optimistic for a few reasons: supportive campaign statements, existing support from law enforcement and businesses like Wisconsin farms, and a new urgency for the movement.
With increased hostility and President Donald Trump's administration targeting immigrants, licenses are more important than ever, she said. The need for licenses was a “huge motivation for Latino voters” in the recent midterm elections, she said, and Voces is building off of this momentum and launching a statewide “Driver’s Licenses for All” campaign this Saturday in Milwaukee.
“The Latinx vote was critical to Tony Evers' victory. He pledged to support driver's licenses for all. Join us Saturday to plan the next steps in the fight,” information for the event says.
Jessica Cavazos, president CEO of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, said she hopes a bill would “start removing these roadblocks for the immigration population so they can continue to help the state’s economy.” To that end, she wants Evers’ transition team to include diverse professionals who can understand the issues facing communities of color.
Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano, thinks that messaging from the governor could help change public opinion so Wisconsinites don’t see driver’s license as a “handout to somebody that doesn’t deserve it,” but as “what we need to do to grow as people in Wisconsin.”
Evers also said he would support in-state tuition for undocumented students brought to the U.S. by their parents, another longtime desire of the local Latino community.
Last year, Zamarripa introduced a bill that would have required University of Wisconsin System schools to charge resident tuition rates to the state’s undocumented students who graduate from Wisconsin high schools and sign an affidavit that they will file for permanent residency as soon as they are eligible.
Menendez Coller said roughly a third of Centro kids don’t have access to in-state tuition or financial aid. In response, Centro Hispano has grown its scholarship program significantly. It gave out two $10,000 scholarships just last week.
Menendez Coller hopes that there will be a pathway for in-state tuition in the future, but if not, she wants institutions to “innovate and create a way to fund these students.” Many Centro kids have their hearts set on attending UW-Madison, she said.
“There’s such a commitment to the public schools here from our community, they're giving $40,000 to that school. The least institutions could do is come to the table and think about creative ways to help support (them),” Menendez Coller said.
Cindy I-Fen Cheng, director of the Asian American Studies Program and professor of history at UW-Madison, was the chair of the advisory committee on immigration and international student issues. She strongly advocated for funding that would be available regardless of immigration status, but despite some hopeful signs, it didn’t pan out, she said.
“It’s not always easy to link up with an incredibly passionate community organization (like) Centro,” she said. “They are doing the pipeline work that most schools are desperately trying to foster. And for the university to not respond, I am shocked. I am floored.”
Cheng’s hopeful that with a new governor, legislation could be passed to make college more affordable for undocumented kids. She said “it’s going to take strong leadership,” but she’d love to see Evers try.
“It does warm my heart, because we had a candidate who spent most of his life advocating for public education,” she said.
If nothing else, Menendez Coller hopes new leadership in the Capitol will change the rhetoric surrounding issues that impact the Latino community.
“It gives me hope that the tone will be different, that things will be more accepting, that public opinion will change and that our job won’t be that hard,” Menendez Coller said. “My hope is that that new sense of leadership will create different messages out there about our community.”