In Wisconsin, Latino groups march on 'Day Without Latinx and Immigrants'

Organizers and community members urged the state Legislature to restore the right to obtain driver's licenses regardless of immigration status.

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By Ludwig Hurtado

More than a thousand people marched Wednesday onto Wisconsin's Capitol today chanting “licencias ahora" (licenses now) as part of a statewide “Day Without Latinxs & Immigrants” strike, urging the state Legislature to restore access to driver's licenses for state residents regardless of their immigration status.

Since taking office in January, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has included measures in his 2019-2021 state budget proposal to allow residents to obtain driver's licenses regardless of their legal immigration status. But the governor faces strong opposition in the Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature.

More than 175 businesses announced that they would participate in the strike.

Thousands of immigrants and their supporters converge on the Wisconsin Capitol on May 1, 2019, to urge Republican support for making driver's licenses available to all, including people living in the country illegally. The Day Without Latinos and Immigrants was held on the Capitol Square in Madison, WisconsinSteve Apps / Wisconsin State Journal via AP

Nationwide, civil rights and immigrants rights advocates recognize May 1 as a Day Without Latinxs and Immigrants. Hispanics are encouraged to leave work or close their businesses to highlight the economic impact of the population.

Eduardo Perea has lived in Wisconsin for 30 years, though he lacks legal immigration status. A small-business owner working as an independent contractor, Perea said he's helped build more than 100 houses in the Milwaukee area.

“We are rallying to let legislators know that we are human beings trying to do what any other citizen would do: go to school, doctors' appointments, grocery shopping,” Perea said, advocating for the right to obtain a driver's license.

Perea said he and the other business owners chose to stay closed Wednesday in hopes that legislators will recognize the importance of Latinos to the economies of both the state and the nation.

“We just want to demonstrate that we are an important part of this community. Our effort and hard work have a positive impact on this country and this state,” Perea said.

The Dairy Business Association has also spoken out in support of Evers' proposal, saying that in rural parts of the state, there are often very few alternatives to driving.

"An otherwise responsible person should not have to break the law to drive to work or pick up their children from school," DBA President Tom Crave said in a statement.

Up until 2007, Wisconsin residents were able to obtain driver licenses regardless of their immigration status. Under former Gov. Jim Doyle, the state's license law was changed to comply with the federal REAL ID Act, which prohibited states from issuing licenses without proof of legal status.

But federal law allows states to issue driver's licenses that are not compliant with REAL ID, which is needed to fly and enter federal buildings. States including California and Connecticut allow undocumented immigrants to obtain these licenses for driving purposes.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, said in a press release that Wisconsin must restore immigrants’ rights to drive “so people can have identification when they engage with law enforcement and others, drive legally, have access to good insurance, and not live in fear of being separated from their families and communities.”

“Under the Trump administration, a simple driving without a license infraction has been one of the primary ways that ICE has targeted people,” she stated, referring to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, the co-chair of the state's finance committee, said the proposal wouldn’t be fair to Wisconsin taxpayers.

Hispanics make up 6.6 percent of Wisconsin's population. According to the most recent statistics from the state's Department of Health Services, Wisconsin's Hispanic population almost doubled in size from 2000 to 2015.

Wisconsin DHS says that there are Latinos living in every county of the state, which has become home to immigrants and refugees from Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua, as well as from Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory.

A 2017 study found that hit-and-run accidents in California decreased by an average of 7 percent after undocumented immigrants were allowed to get driver’s licenses.

Neumann-Ortiz said the measure would make roads safer, with more people taking driving tests, and would help undocumented immigrants not to live in fear of being pulled over and detained.