Just hours before Tony Evers was sworn in Monday as governor of Wisconsin, a group of immigrants and their allies rallied on the steps of the Capitol.
Shielding themselves from the rain with raincoats and umbrellas, they eagerly awaited the arrival of a governor who has said he will support two issues close to their hearts: driver’s licenses for the undocumented and in-state tuition for students who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Asked to describe the mood of those gathered, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of immigrant rights organization Voces de la Frontera, used two words: hope and energy.
“There is energy and momentum without a doubt. I feel that in my bones, we all feel it,” Neumann-Ortiz said.
But while Evers’ promises to the Latino community are “something to celebrate,” Neumann-Ortiz said, “we know that we need members of both parties to support this to make this real.” The Voces-led rally was just the first step in building bipartisan support for driver’s licenses and in-state tuition, she said.
The Wisconsin Latino community has long advocated for licenses for the undocumented, pointing to the everyday stress and logistical challenges of getting to work and school. Evers’ election made many hopeful this could finally become a reality. Evers has since said he will pursue measures for licenses and in-state tuition in his budget, but he faces Republican majorities in the legislature.
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.
A dozen states allow for residents to qualify for 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.
A recent report from Kids Forward estimated that a move to such licenses would allow 32,000 Wisconsin residents to get licenses within three years.
Supporters 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. Critics have said the measure could spur more immigrants to come to the state without documentation.
On Monday, speakers cited economic and humanitarian reasons to argue for licenses regardless of immigration status.
“Children of immigrants, like all Wisconsin children, do best when they grow up in families that are stable, nurturing and economically secure,” said Ken Taylor, executive director of Kids Forward. “Some of our Wisconsin neighbors and friends are forced to take enormous risk every time they go out to live their ordinary lives.”
Michael Slattery, with Wisconsin Farmers Union, said roughly 80 percent of Wisconsin milk depends on undocumented labor. But more important than economic benefits, Slattery said, is the “human values” at stake.
“These people our our neighbors. They're our friends they are supporting families they are hardworking, they are law abiding. And we need to support them,” Slattery said.
Veronica Figueroa-Velez, executive director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, told the crowd that driver’s licenses can even save lives.
“Domestic violence victims are isolated from the rest of the world, sometimes when they're unable to drive to places to seek help,” she said.
The need for licenses is more urgent than ever, Neumann-Ortiz said, as under the Trump administration, Voces has seen a resurgence in immigration agents in places like courtrooms.
“The fact is that we know immigration is using driving without a license offense as a way to target people and put them in deportation proceedings,” she said. “The kids say a prayer when they see law enforcement when they're driving, because you really don't know if something as simple as driving to work or driving to school will end up putting you in deportation proceedings and separating you from your family.”
After the rally, Marco Marquez, with the Whitewater chapter of Voto Latino, a national nonpartisan group, said his group came to emphasize the need for licenses and “to make sure Tony Evers keeps his promise about doing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.”
The issue of in-state tuition is a priority for Madison's Centro Hispano. Executive director Karen Menendez Coller has said roughly a third of Centro kids don’t have access to in-state tuition or financial aid.
Neumann-Ortiz said Voces plans to organize, lobby and engage elected officials, law enforcement, religious leaders and business associations to “really call for this to stay in the budget and to be passed so that it can be implemented this year.” To aid this effort, Voces may organize another “Day Without Latinx and Immigrants” statewide strike, and this could be a sustained strike if needed, Neumann-Ortiz said.
“We know it’s going to take a long time to change what happens in Washington, but there are things we can do at the local level and at the state level to embrace and support immigrant families here in Wisconsin,” she said.