RACINE — Dozens of people filled the city’s Affirmative Action and Human Rights Commission’s meeting on Thursday to support an advisory resolution promoting the expansion of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants here illegally and people who have previously lost their licenses for financial reasons.
Undocumented immigrants were able to obtain driver’s licenses in Wisconsin before the 2007, when state law was changed to comply with the federal 2005 REAL ID Act, which prohibited states from issuing licenses without proof of legal status.
Starting with California in 2013, 12 states and Washington, D.C., have passed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license or equivalent documentation.
Since Gov. Tony Evers was elected in November, Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization, has organized a campaign presenting bills in favor of such a measure to school districts, municipalities and counties to pressure the state Legislature.
Last month, a similar bill was narrowly approved by the Racine Unified School Board after passionate arguments both for and against.
Evers has not yet submitted his budget for 2019-2021 but he told Milwaukee media that it will include a provision to allow immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to qualify for driver’s cards.
An estimated 32,000 undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin are unable to obtain driver’s licenses according to a report by Kids Forward, a left-leaning research organization.
A modern ‘debtor’s prison’
The advisory resolution presented Thursday to the commission by Alderman John Tate II not only supports licenses for undocumented immigrants but also includes a provision to allow residents whose licenses have been suspended for minor infractions or for failure to pay fines to have their licenses reinstated. Seventeen people spoke before the commission on behalf of the undocumented and the poor.
Jen Levie, a candidate for alderman in the spring election, argued that license suspension for failure to pay a fine did not make sense.
“People who have challenges economically should not be penalized,” said Levie. “It really is a downward spiral when someone doesn’t have a driver’s license because it’s hard to get a good paying job without one.”
Tammy Hayward of Mount Pleasant compared the situation to a modern “debtor’s prison.”
“They will not get a job again they will not be able to (pay the initial fine),” said Hayward. “Let’s put you in prison for not paying your debts and you’ll never pay your debts.”
Two students from Horlick High School’s Youth Empowered in the Struggle club spoke about their own family’s hardships after a family member’s license was suspended due to inability to pay their fines.
“It really affects my family every day. It affects the black and brown community a lot,” said 17-year-old Tabria Snead. “I’m here to say please stand with us.”
“When the state chooses to take away a poor person’s license they’re taking away a poor person’s ability to take care of their family,” said 16-year-old Jacquez Woodley.
A local issue
Several members of Racine Interfaith Coalition’s immigrant task force spoke in favor of extending licenses to undocumented immigrants on humanitarian grounds. They also cited benefits to the overall community, such as more drivers going through driver training and more drivers purchasing insurance.
Nikki Fisher of Wind Point gave a list of 10 reasons, including that it would allow parents to be more involved in their children’s education, it would reduce childhood absences and stress and it would help law enforcement identify victims, suspects and reduce paperwork since they would no longer have to process undocumented immigrants for driving.
“I’m sure our courts and I’m sure our law enforcement have much more important things to do,” said Fisher.
Fisher also cited a Standford University study that found that since California allowed undocumented drivers to have licenses, hit-and-runs decreased by about 7 percent, or about 4,000 incidents. But ultimately, she said it was because licenses are a local issue that affect local residents.
“This is not about the issue of immigration — that is something that has to be fixed at the national level,” said Fisher. “It’s about the fact that here in Racine we have people who are seriously disadvantaged because they don’t have a driver’s license.”
The commission voted unanimously to forward the resolution to the City Council with a recommendation to approve. The next City Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., Room 205.