Undocumented immigrants face ‘difficult choices’

by Cara Lombardo

Undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin are ineligible to get driver’s licenses. In Madison, they hope for bus routes and schedules that get them where they need to be or risk driving illegally.

After attending a community forum where immigrants described their experiences, Police Chief Mike Koval wrote in a blog post, “We are forcing people to make difficult choices between violating the law—operators need to be licensed—and providing for the essential needs of a family.”

Koval said that the things that many people take for granted, such as driving to work and going grocery shopping, are instead “calculated risks” for undocumented immigrants ineligible to obtain driver’s licenses.

Centro Hispano hosted the forum. The Madison non-profit provides Latinos in Dane County with social and legal services.

“The fact that (undocumented immigrants) don’t have driver’s licenses is very limiting,” said Centro Hispano’s Executive Director, Karen Menendez Coller. “They may be going outside of Madison for employment that provides for a family of eight. When you take away that opportunity, you’re limiting their capacity to work.”

Cara Hard news photo

Centro Hispano, a non-profit that supports Latinos, hosted a community forum with Madison Police Chief Mike Koval on November 5. (Cara Lombardo)

Madison’s Metro Transit has no plans to expand bus service routes or frequency. They are currently operating at capacity and would need a larger storage garage if they were to add buses to their fleet. The agency did hire two Spanish-speaking employees this year to better communicate with Spanish-speaking riders.

Metro Transit offers a limited number of low-income bus passes which riders must purchase in-person each month from one of three locations. The passes are sold two days each month. Mick Rusch, marketing communications manager for Metro Transit, said they sometimes run out of passes and have to turn people away.

“They go like hotcakes,” said Menendez Coller.

Menendez Coller also noted that while the Madison Police Department has a policy against detaining someone solely for a suspected violation of immigration laws, areas outside of Madison might not have the same policy.

Until 2005, Wisconsin permitted undocumented immigrants to hold driver’s licenses; this ended when Republican-sponsored legislation made state law compliant with federal law under the REAL ID Act. The REAL ID Act, in an effort to curb terrorism, required states to only issue identification cards to U.S. citizens or those with legal status.

Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

In September, State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee) introduced a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. She said the current situation is a public safety issue.

“(Undocumented immigrants) are still getting on our roads, but without having gone to the DMV,” she said. The proposed bill would require undocumented immigrants to pass a road test and purchase car insurance within 30 days of being licensed, both of which would protect other drivers, she said.

The licenses could not be used for voting or boarding planes and would not be recognized federally.

But the bill has a small likelihood of passing given that it doesn’t have any Republican support in a Republican-controlled legislature.

When similar bills were proposed in the past, opponents argued that the state should not give undocumented immigrants the same rights as U.S. citizens.

State Representative Joe SanFelippo (R-New Berlin) recently introduced his own bill that would require drivers caught without valid licenses to immediately surrender their vehicles to police. “We have to stop letting reckless drivers continue to negatively impact the lives of anyone who gets inside a vehicle,” he said in a statement.

Both SanFelippo and Zamarripa have touted their bills as promoting public safety, though the two bills take contrasting approaches.

“People need to drive to get to work,” Menendez Coller said. “It’s a little short-sighted to think, ‘We have this community that’s growing and we want them to work and we want them to contribute, but there might not be jobs in the city so you have to go outside of the county, but we won’t give you a driver’s license.’”

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