Tour to protect immigrants, restore driver’s licenses

Alejandro, a construction worker, talks during a Voces de la Frontera tour about outreach to employers in rural areas

On a humid Saturday morning, with temperatures climbing into the 90s, about 100 community members gathered at the Centro Hispano community center in Madison for a bilingual teach-in on what to do in the event of an ICE raid, and to organize a statewide campaign to restore driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

The two issues are related, organizers from Voces de la Frontera and a coalition of other community organizations explained. That’s because, when the Wisconsin legislature made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to drive in 2007, it created a new category of crime that has accelerated police stops and deportations.

“A lot of people are being pursued by immigration for this issue,” said Voces de la Frontera organizer Larisa, who asked that her last name not be published. “Not having a license makes you a criminal, which makes no sense because families have to take their kids to school and get to work.”

Tamarine Cornelius of Kids Forward presented new research by her group showing that restoring driver’s license eligibility to undocumented immigrants would improve safety, reduce the number of uninsured drivers on the road by about 28,000, save Wisconsin drivers about $16 million in insurance costs and improve living conditions for about 14,000 Wisconsin children who are directly affected by the issue.

“Those are kids who wouldn’t have to worry anymore that when the grownup drives away in the morning, for some small problem like a burned-out headlight, they will be taken away and the family will be separated,” Cornelius said.

Currently 14 states, including Wisconsin’s neighbor Illinois, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, allow undocumented immigrants to drive.

Gov. Tony Evers put restoring driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants into his state budget proposal, but Republicans in the legislature rejected the measure.

After the budget measure failed, Voces de la Frontera launched a statewide campaign in July to push for stand-alone, bipartisan legislation.

Republican support needed

The Madison community forum was one in a series of stops on the Defending Families, Restoring Drivers Licenses for Immigrants statewide tour. The first forum took place on July 5 in Green Bay, and there are meetings planned in Waukesha, Dodgeville, Sheboygan, Whitewater, Eau Claire, Kenosha, Walworth County, Burlington, Wausau and Appleton.

“Our goal will be to get legislation introduced in September and passed by December at the latest,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voces’ executive director. “Because after that, the 2020 election starts, and our window will close to get people to support it.”

Voces is seeking support from Republican legislators in rural districts where dairy farms are suffering from a labor shortage exacerbated by immigration raids. (By some estimates, immigrants, most of whom are undocumented, perform as much as 80 percent of the labor on Wisconsin dairy farms).

“We can count on Democratic support, but that’s not enough,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “We need Republican cosponsors in the Assembly and Senate.” 

The dairy-farm crisis, and the constant fear of immigration raids hanging over rural Wisconsin have moved some Republicans on the issue, Neumann-Ortiz said. “And there’s this awakening, too, of people saying ‘What is going on in this country?’”

Voces is specifically focusing on voters in Sen. Howard Marklein’s Senate District 17 in the Dodgeville area, as well as the three Assembly Republicans within Marklein’s district southwest of Madison, Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City), Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) and Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville).

Opposition to ICE raids growing

During the Centro Hispano forum, activists began organizing a phone bank to call voters in rural districts around the state, and started compiling a list of friendly businesses. 

Businesses around the country have expressed opposition to the ICE raids and family separations. The Marriott and Choice hotel chains recently announced that they would not allow ICE to use their properties as backup detention facilities.

Volunteers planned to reach out to church groups, local officials, farmers and business owners, to build momentum to pressure elected officials to pass a bill.

“This is urgent. Time is short,” said Neumann-Ortiz.

Alejandro, a construction worker who asked that his last name not be published, said he has worked on jobs in various counties throughout the state. “After work I go to visit the business, to tell them what we do in Voces de la Frontera. It’s very important to me to carry this message to all the counties where I’m working — why we need driver’s licenses and to end the separation of families.”

Last September, ICE swept up 83 people in Wisconsin in a series of immigration raids that galvanized local communities. A local rapid response team made up of city and county officials, immigration lawyers, faith-based and community groups in Dane County formed to deal with the crisis.

Fabiola Hamden began serving as the Dane County Department of Human Services’ first immigration specialist 18 months ago. She called it “a job that I love.” adding, “The more attacks we see on our undocumented community, the more motivation it gives me.” She helps connect people detained by ICE with immigration attorneys and basic services for their families, including emergency funds to cover rent and food. 

“Recently, because of what [President Donald] Trump has been saying about raids happening in all of these cities, we have to be careful,” said Janelle Pérez Martinez, an organizer with the Madison ICE Response Network.

Tracking ICE, avoiding panic

When ICE came to Madison last fall, Pérez Martinez and a group of mostly undocumented students began following ICE vehicles, tracking their license plate numbers and reporting their locations. 

After Trump’s latest threats, her group came together again, she said, and is working with Voces and city and community leaders to get accurate information. “We do need the license plates, the vehicle and the location, because often if we are just getting reports that ICE is in the area, it just scares people.”

She advised the people gathered at Centro Hispano to rely on social media reports from the Madison ICE Response Network, Voces, Centro Hispano and city and country officials to avoid panics based on bad information.

Ingrid Fernandez, a Mexican consulate official, talks about preparing for deportation with a plastic bag for essential documents

Ingrid Fernandez, consul for protection and legal affairs with the Mexican consulate in Milwaukee, gave a presentation on the services she helps provide to Mexican citizens detained in the United States. She held up a plastic bag labeled Bolsa Familiar which the consulate has been distributing to Mexican nationals in Wisconsin to use to store their essential documents. “People like me, who used to live in Mexico City, always had these drills in case of an earthquake,” she said, comparing being prepared for an immigration raid to preparing for a natural disaster.

New ‘green book’ needed

The Mexican consulate has been able to reach people in detention centers and inform their families of their whereabouts, she added. She visits the Kenosha County detention center every Tuesday and the Dodge detention facility every Thursday. “So we have first-hand information on every person who is detained,” she said. “We can get information to the family.”

Jules Lee, an African-American community member spoke up toward the end of the meeting to suggest that immigrant-rights groups take a page from the early Civil Rights movement.

“During the Civil Rights movement and beforehand, there was something called the Green Book that was passed around among faith-based organizations. It was a list of the best places for African Americans to stay.  It was just an unofficial directory of hotels, restaurants, places of worship”

“It’s sad that we have to resort to this again,” he added.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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