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Immigrant rights groups press for Wisconsin driver's licenses for 32,000 living in country illegally

The streets around the state Capitol filled with protesters during "A Day Without Latinos and Immigrants in Wisconsin" in 2016. The election of Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers has increased hope among immigrant rights groups that the state will grant driver's licenses to immigrants living in the country illegally.

Immigrant rights advocates hope a new Democratic administration could mean a chance for undocumented immigrants to obtain a Wisconsin driver’s license.

But while groups such as Voces de la Frontera may have an ally in Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who supported such a move during the campaign, there’s so far no indication the Republican-controlled Legislature will support Democratic legislation on immigration or any other issue.

Still, Voces executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said the very topic of driver’s licenses was one of the chief reasons Latino voters opted for the state superintendent at the polls.

“This was a decisive issue for them, because you have people who have families and friends and co-workers, neighbors who are undocumented, and under the Trump administration, the aggressive persecution of immigrants and hate mongering that’s coming out has really been a wake-up call,” she said.

In the wake of an election wrought with heated immigration rhetoric, Voces is bringing the driver’s license issue to the forefront with a Driver’s Licenses for All campaign to engage elected officials, law enforcement and business and community leaders.

Neumann-Ortiz said she believes Evers is “standing up to bullies” and providing solutions for the state when he said he’d support giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants during the first gubernatorial debate.

An Evers spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Meanwhile, outgoing Gov. Scott Walker during the first debate declined to take a definitive stance on driver’s licenses, except for stating the U.S. is “a nation of laws.”

Polling in recent months found immigration was the top issue for Republican voters as President Donald Trump and conservative media warned about a caravan of refugees walking through Mexico toward the U.S. border to escape violence in their home countries.

But since Walker’s defeat, Republican lawmakers have yet to articulate where they stand on changing the law, which would require an act of the Legislature.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said the last time the driver’s license issue surfaced in the Assembly, the caucus could not reach a consensus. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, plans to reintroduce a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in the state, something they were allowed to do before 2007, when state law changed.

“If we can offer driver’s cards, I believe (undocumented immigrants) can breathe a sigh of relief,” Zamarripa said.

To quell concerns from Republican legislators, Zamarripa’s bill, like previous versions, would require the licenses be renewed every two years and include the wording “not valid for voting purposes.”

Zamarripa, citing renewed hope for the bill after Evers won, believes providing undocumented immigrants licenses is a public safety issue, citing what would likely be an increase in the number of Wisconsinites insured.

A new report released Tuesday by Kids Forward, a liberal-leaning research organization, found the number of Wisconsin drivers without car insurance would decrease by about 28,000 if lawmakers allowed immigrants living in the country illegally to obtain licenses.

The report also estimates 32,000 residents would gain a Wisconsin driver’s license; 22,000 of those residents are currently employed, some in industries such as dairy, which relies heavily on immigrant labor.

Agriculture groups, such as the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, aren’t weighing in on Zamarripa’s potential legislation but have supported similar efforts before.

But while immigrant advocates push for driver’s licenses on economic and public safety grounds, other groups, such as the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, say the idea could further incentivize immigrants and others to ignore the law.

“Policies that facilitate the ability of persons to remain in the country illegally aren’t merely in tension with the rule of law; they prompt calls for more aggressive means of enforcement,” WILL president Rick Esenberg said in a statement.