Thousands march on Wisconsin capitol in support of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

Roughly 10,000 students, business owners, immigrant workers, and their families gathered at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on Wednesday for a May Day rally to pressure the state government to restore driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Voces de la Frontera, a nonprofit organization focused on fighting for immigrants and low-wage workers, organized the rally. The group has held May Day events for over 10 years, usually centered around issues affecting the immigrant community.

“May 1 has been a marker for where we are in the immigration movement,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, told ThinkProgress. “This is part of a national effort with other states to get driver’s licenses for [undocumented] immigrants. Given what’s happened at the federal level, there is an added urgency to win this protection.”

Until 2007, anyone could obtain a Wisconsin driver’s license, regardless of their citizenship status. Since then, the state has required people to provide proof of citizenship or authorized presence when they apply for a new license or renew an existing license.

This Wednesday, tens of thousands will strike, leave class, close businesses, and rally at the Capitol in Madison to urge the legislature to restore driver licenses for immigrants in Wisconsin! #MayDay #DayWithoutLatinxs

— Voces de la Frontera #DreamActNow (@voces_milwaukee) April 30, 2019


Wisconsin residents who were granted immigration relief under DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, were able to obtain a driver’s license. Since President Donald Trump ended the program in 2017, however, no new DACA applications have been accepted. An estimated 5,500 DACA recipients in Wisconsin hold driver’s licenses. Without a proper license, many undocumented individuals must drive either illegally or not at all.

Supporters of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants say it will make the roads significantly safer, lower insurance costs, and allow more opportunities for members of the immigrant community to take jobs in areas they may not be able to access without a vehicle.

“It makes our communities safer when people can drop their children off at school or go to work without fear,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the crowd on Wednesday.

Kids Forward, a research nonprofit based in Wisconsin, estimates that about 32,000 Wisconsin residents would gain driver’s licenses if restrictions were removed. They also estimated that the number of uninsured drivers in the state would drop by 28,000.

“The driver’s licenses issue is really pertinent to our staff,” Becky Cooper, co-owner of Bounce, a business in Milwaukee that routinely closes on May Day in support of its immigrant staff, told ThinkProgress.

Credit: Becky Cooper

“We have a brother and sister who have been working for us for a couple of years. The sister is older, she’s a Dreamer, and the younger brother just turned 18, but a couple of years ago when [DACA] was being threatened under Trump […] It became really, really urgent that he get his license because they were at a point where she could no longer renew her license and her parents couldn’t drive,” Cooper said. “He was going to have to drive all of them to school and to work, to doctor’s appointments.”

Cooper, along with her husband, Ryan, attended Wednesday’s rally in Madison, as they have for the past four years, and even paid for their staff to travel there for the May Day action.

“Every single year our employees unanimously, whether they are Latinx or just an ally, are happy to close,” Ryan Clancy told ThinkProgress. “We always try to help them make up hours. It really gives everyone a good feeling to know that we are on the same side.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) proposed allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses in his first state budget earlier this year. The proposal has received widespread support not only from immigrant activist groups, but also from top law enforcement officials in the state.

“Police officers work tirelessly every day in our state to establish meaningful relationships founded on trust, however we often encounter people who are fearful of any interaction with law enforcement because of their immigration status,” Madison Police Chief Mike Koval wrote in a letter to state legislators in March. “We believe this proposal will help to eliminate this fear that impedes our efforts to build trust and relationships with our undocumented residents.”

Michael Slattery of the Wisconsin Farmers Union also expressed support for the measure, saying it will help thousands of immigrant dairy workers who help produce more than $30 billion worth of product.

“These are family-oriented people, they are conscientious, they are committed, they are doing work that no one else would, and we need to take care of our labor,” he told a group of supporters in March.

According to a 2015 survey from the National Milk Producers Federation, a loss of half of immigrant labor could cause 1 in 17 dairy farms to go under, decrease milk production by 12%, and increase retail milk prices by 45%.

Should the budget pass in Wisconsin, it would join 10 other states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, in issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. The Wisconsin state legislature, however, is Republican-controlled and while some have crossed the aisle in supporting the proposal, many still believe it incentivizes “illegal activity.”

CORRECTION: This piece piece originally referred to Becky Clancy. It has been updated to correct her name to Becky Cooper.

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