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How to fund K-12 education a major fault line in governor's race (copy)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attacks his Democratic challenger for supporting "special treatment for illegals" in a new ad launched Tuesday. 

Both candidates were asked during a debate last week if they would support offering in-state tuition to so-called Dreamers — undocumented students who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents as young children — and allowing workers who entered the country without legal permission to obtain Wisconsin driver's licenses. 

Walker repeatedly said that federal law would not allow such policies. Evers said he would support both. 

Authorities have estimated there are nearly 8,000 recipients of DACA — the Obama-era policy halting deportation of Dreamers — in Wisconsin. 

"We know Tony Evers wants to raise property and income taxes, but did you know he wants to give in-state tuition to illegal aliens? And drivers’ licenses too?" the ad's narrator says, cutting to clips of Evers during the debate. "Tony Evers: Special treatment for illegals, higher taxes for you."

The ad offers a much more explicit iteration of Walker's position on the issue than the governor gave during Friday's debate. 

The question was framed in the debate as an element of the state's and nation's problem with student loan debt. Walker touted the state's six-year freeze on undergraduate in-state tuition.

"Now going forward, we're a nation based on immigrants, but we're also a nation based on laws, so we've got to make sure folks in Washington change the laws so we can adjust things going forward," Walker said during the debate. 

Pressed to give a "yes" or "no" answer, Walker said federal law would prohibit Wisconsin from offering in-state tuition to DACA students. 

Twenty states offer in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrant students, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states have passed laws barring these students from receiving in-state tuition benefits.

In 12 states and the District of Columbia, unauthorized immigrants may obtain driver's licenses if they provide documentation such as a foreign birth certificate or passport and evidence of current state residency, according to NCSL

According to reporting by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, immigrants now account for 40 percent of the state's dairy labor workforce. There is no measure of how many entered the country illegally, but an oft-cited federal report found that in 2001-02, about half the country's crop labor force did not have authorization to work in the United States. 

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which endorsed Walker last week, stated in its 2017 policy platform that it supports "under documented workers being able to obtain a provisional driver’s license with the completion of an instructional course."

Asked whether immigration should remain a part of Wisconsin's dairy industry and what he would push for as governor, Walker said the question would be better suited for the U.S. Senate debate.

"Do I think we should have immigrant, open to immigrants here in the state, whether it deals with our dairy industry or anywhere else? Yeah. For legal immigration in the state of Wisconsin, we need people to come in," Walker said, adding that Wisconsin is working to recruit and retain workers.

Evers hammered Walker for deferring to the federal government and said Wisconsin needs "comprehensive reform."

"It's not a federal issue, it's a human issue," Evers said, adding that he would provide driver's permits for undocumented workers. 

"Undocumented folks are working hard at jobs all across the state of Wisconsin, paying taxes, paying into Social Security. They should have the opportunity, a) to have permits, but the state of Wisconsin also has the opportunity to hire good workers," Evers said. "In addition, when you get that permit, you have to learn how to drive safely in Wisconsin. To me, it wins for the economy and it wins for workers and it wins for the people of Wisconsin."

Walker said again that federal law would prohibit that practice in Wisconsin.

"That's the reason why we need federal officials to stand up and make positive, affirmative changes that allow for legal immigration into the state from anywhere around the world," Walker said.  

According to a Marquette University Law School poll released last month, 68 percent of voters surveyed said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually apply for citizenship. Fifteen percent said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay as temporary guest workers without a path to citizenship, and 14 percent said these immigrants should have to leave the country. 

A spokesman for Evers called the ad a "sad, desperate attempt by a career politician to mimic Donald Trump to save his political career."

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"Unable to run on his record of gutting pre-existing condition protections and cutting $800 million from our public schools, it's clear Walker will do or say anything as long as he thinks it will help him, no matter the consequences for Wisconsin families," Evers spokesman Sam Lau said in a statement. "The fact is: Scott Walker has voted for in-state tuition for undocumented students. Wisconsinites have had enough of fear mongering and divisive political games. It's time for a change."

Lau pointed to a 2015 Politico article on Walker's immigration positions written during his presidential bid.

The article noted that in 2001, as a member of the state Assembly, Walker voted for a budget bill that included a provision that would have given in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduated from Wisconsin high schools. Walker had voted to remove the provision, but voted for the budget in its entirety with the provision intact. It was vetoed by Republican Gov. Scott McCallum.

Under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, undocumented students were eligible for in-state tuition during the 2010-11 academic year. The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 2011 that about 100 students took advantage of the short-lived law, which was undone by Walker in his first budget bill.

Also during his presidential run, Walker said his previous views on a pathway to citizenship had changed. After generally supporting a path, Walker said in 2015 that it shouldn't be an option until the U.S. expanded and strengthened its border security efforts. 

The ad also drew rebuke from Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, for its rhetoric and for Walker's policies.

"The word 'illegal' is an offensive term for immigrants because it denies them their humanity as people, and that’s very intentional racist, hateful language," Ortiz said.

Voces de la Frontera Action, the group's political arm, has endorsed Evers and is running a set of digital ads touting his positions on in-state tuition and driver's licenses.

Neumann-Ortiz said she thinks the ad could backfire on Walker, pointing to rural communities where immigrants are a key part of the workforce. 

"I think that Walker is doing us a favor because the majority of people from Wisconsin support immigrants and their families, and for him to pick on immigrant youth and Dreamers who are doing their best to study, fulfill their potential, have a desire to give back to their community, those are the same tactics as Trump, that they’re trying to pick on young people that should be supported and admired," Neumann-Ortiz said in an interview.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.