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Opinion

Wisconsin Should Restore Driver’s Licenses for Immigrant Workers | Opinion

Credit: iStock

by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner

No one could possibly favor putting thousands of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road. Yet the Wisconsin Legislature did just that back in 2007 when it passed a law taking away driver’s licenses from people who don’t have valid Social Security numbers. The result is that undocumented immigrant workers, people we rely on to do a lot of heavy labor in our state, are often forced to choose between getting to work and putting themselves and others in danger. 

Some 12,000 undocumented parents of  U.S.-born children hold their breath when they drive their kids to school, for fear they will be arrested for driving without a license and deported.

And no matter where you live in Wisconsin, taking away driver’s licenses from undocumented immigrants drives up the cost of your insurance. The law also creates a perverse incentive to run from the scene of an accident.

In 18 other states and the District of Columbia, anyone, regardless of immigration status, can be a licensed driver. Wisconsin’s neighbor Minnesota just passed such a measure and the governor is expected to sign it. Research shows that in states that have made it possible for undocumented immigrants to get a license, insurance rates are lower and there are fewer hit-and-run crashes. Officials in those states attribute improved road safety to making sure all drivers go through basic instruction and pass a test.

Making life miserable for undocumented immigrants might seem like good politics to politicians who are running on fear of an “invasion” of the U.S.-Mexico border. But punitive policies are bad for all of us. In Wisconsin, the reality is that our state economy depends heavily on undocumented immigrants. Far from being invaded, we are facing a labor shortage and employers — especially dairy farmers — are desperate for immigrants’ help. Since there is no such thing as a year-round visa for low-skilled agricultural work, the immigrant workers who do most of the work on Wisconsin dairy farms are almost all undocumented.

That was one of the main points made by members of the Wisconsin Coalition for Safe Roads at a Tuesday press conference in the Capitol rotunda.

Wisconsin employers are staring down a massive labor shortage, with a projected 45,000 worker shortfall by 2024, multiple speakers pointed out. Dairy farmer Michael Slattery explains why he supports driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Michael Slattery, a dairy farmer from Manitowoc County and a board member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, explained that large and mid-sized dairy farms, which produce most of the milk in Wisconsin, employ about 8,000 undocumented people, who make up 70-80% of their workforce.

“We need to get our people to and from work,” Slattery said. “They’re coming out at four o’clock in the morning. They’re milking maybe two, three times a day. We cannot get anyone else to come out to be defecated upon, urinated upon, to be kicked, feed the calves, clean the barn. It’s just impossible.”

Also, Slattery added, “Who are the people in farming — the undocumented — who are doing this work? They’re our neighbors. They’re families. They are brothers and sisters. And as a human being, I owe it to them and I have a relationship with them to support them and protect them and defend them. And the driver’s card brings them out of the shadows that makes them part of our communities.”

“I personally consider myself to be a Christian,” Slattery said. “And as a Christian, we support those on the margins.”

In addition to making their case about highway safety and economics, speakers at Tuesday’s press event, who thanked Gov. Tony Evers for including the restoration of driver’s licenses in his budget, returned, repeatedly, to spiritual themes. The Rev. Breanna Illéné of the Wisconsin Council of Churches opened the event with a prayer and made a religious case for welcoming the stranger. Jesus was an immigrant, she pointed out, as are most Americans. “Immigrants aren’t some other people. Immigrants are all of us,” she said.

If the theological argument doesn’t persuade you, try simple common sense. Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes | Wisconsin Examiner Photo

Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes rattled off three good reasons to support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants:

“We think it’s best when we can identify people,” he said. Police would rather know who’s on the road, and be able to respond with full information in case of an emergency.
By restoring driver’s licenses to immigrants California has already reduced hit-and-run crashes.
Doing so has been shown to cut insurance costs.

“We’ve seen this work in other states in the union and it certainly can work in Wisconsin,” Barnes said.

The good news, according to Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee), is that there’s growing bipartisan support for restoring driver’s licenses to immigrants in the Wisconsin Legislature. Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Ortiz-Velez, herself the daughter of a migrant worker who came to Wisconsin to pick strawberries in the village of Sussex about 20 miles north of Milwaukee, is pushing the idea with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Ideally, Republicans would agree with Evers’ proposal to make driver’s licenses part of the state budget, she said. But if not, she thinks there is also a chance for separate, stand-alone legislation.

While similar proposals have repeatedly failed in recent years, this year “I feel like there’s more space to talk bipartisanly,” Ortiz-Velez said. Republican concerns that undocumented immigrants could use a driver’s license to try to vote have been addressed by a requirement that the new driver’s cards carry a sticker that indicates they are not valid for voting. “So that’s already built into the bill,” she said. Republicans are proposing new legislation that would add the same sticker to driver’s licenses for people who currently have them but cannot legally vote, labeling them as nonvoters. “So maybe there could be a compromise there,” Ortiz-Velez said.

“Just to address any fears, we all share Wisconsin roads,” she added. “And we will all be safer when everyone on our roads is licensed and insured.” Fond du Lac business owner Hiram Rabadan | Wisconsin Examiner photo

The mean-spiritedness of the current law was brought home by the poignant testimony of Hiram Rabadan who owns an auto repair shop in Fond du Lac. Rabadan himself cannot legally drive. He has lived in Wisconsin for half his life. As an undocumented immigrant he was able to legally start his own business after applying for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, he explained. His family regards the state as home, and his grandchildren were born here. “I consider myself a Wisconsinite,” Rabadan said. 

Rabadan doesn’t mind paying taxes, he said. “You know, I don’t mind to keep doing what I have to do. But I would love to have a license.”

“It’s not possible to take every immigrant out of the United States,” he added. “That is not realistic. So why instead of considering immigrants part of the problem, why don’t we start considering immigrants part of a solution?”

This story was written by Ruth Conniff, Editor-in-Chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.