Hundreds march for immigration reform in Milwaukee organized by Voces de la Frontera. (Voces director Christine Neumann Ortiz, center) Photo by Isiah Holmes
Immigrant rights groups are speaking out against a bill that passed the Assembly this week. AB-176 would allow law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin to hire people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, referred to as “aliens” in the bill text. DACA, which includes 6,540 young Wisconsinites, protects immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. While some lawmakers have praised the bill, it’s seen as hypocritical and divisive by some in the immigrant rights movement.
Alejandra Gonzalez, a DACA recipient and development director at Voces de la Frontera, voiced the resolve of those within the program, who are sometimes called Dreamers. “Dreamers like me have built careers, started families, contributed to our communities and paid taxes,” said Gonzalz in a statement. “Wisconsin is our home, and we condemn this anti-immigrant bill that would only serve to further divide, criminalize, and incarcerate immigrant communities.”
During the Wednesday floor session, both Republican and Democratic legislators spoke in support for the bill. Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview) and others pointed to how AB-176 can be used to help police departments fill staffing shortages. Macco recalled conversations he’d had with a former Green Bay police chief, who spoke highly of a man who’d helped the department for many years, but couldn’t be hired as a police officer due to his immigration status.
AB-176 “is not an immigration bill” Macco said. “It grants our local police departments the option to hire from the same candidate pools as numerous other governmental agencies that are already capable of doing [that].” DACA recipients can already serve as a correctional officers, game wardens, soldiers or state troopers, operating under the Corrections, Natural Resources, Military and Transportation departments, respectively. Local police departments, however, are under the Department of Justice.
Macco argued that the bill is also a way to increase diversity in local police departments. “There’s a great misunderstanding when it comes to DACA recipients,” he said. Calling them “a finite group of people,” he listed the program’s requirements. “They currently must be in school, have graduated high school, or have obtained a G.E.D, or be a veteran of the armed forces,” said Macco. “They cannot be [convicted of] a felony, [or have] significant misdemeanors, or even multiple misdemeanor offenses. And DACA recipients have to be vetted by the federal government every two years, and in Wisconsin they have to drive to Milwaukee to do it, and pay $495 just to be here. While they are here, they pay taxes. They have a driver’s license and a Social Security card, just like the rest of us. And to top it off, they contribute approximately $42 billion in GDP nationally.”
Wisconsinites in immigrant communities and the immigrant rights movement, however, reject the framing of AB-176. “If Wisconsin Republicans truly cared about Dreamers,” said Gonzalez, “why have they repeatedly blocked in-state tuition equity and driver licenses for immigrants in Gov. [Tony] Evers’ past two state budget proposals? Why have Republicans repeatedly introduced a statewide anti-sanctuary bill that legalizes racial profiling and forces public employees, like police and teachers, to identify and report anyone they suspect is undocumented to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]? Why aren’t Republicans in the state Legislature calling on Congressional Republicans to vote for immigration reform with a path to citizenship or the Dream and Promise Act?”
Many immigrant communities are still recovering from the Trump administration’s hard-line policies, including calls for a southern border wall, unleashing the full force of ICE in cities, and filling immigration detention facilities with children separated from their parents as a result of deportations. Immigrant rights groups focused particularly on 287g, which allowed local officers to be deputized by ICE. In an interview with Wisconsin Examiner last year, John Chisholm, the Milwaukee County district attorney, recalled the Trump administration strong-arming local authorities over immigration policy. Chisholm said he hoped a Biden administration Justice Department would lead to more positive collaboration, “as opposed to, you know, threatening to take away all my funding if I don’t aggressively enforce federal immigration law,” said Chisholm.
The fight for humane treatment of and citizenship for undocumented immigrant families has carried into the Biden administration as well. Past months have seen Voces de la Frontera and its allies organizing for national immigration reform. “Dreamers like me are not fooled by this ploy from Wisconsin Republicans trying to trick us into supporting policies that would use Dreamers as a tool to deport our parents, sisters, brothers and friends,” said Gonzalez.
Macco is the lead author for AB-176 in the Assembly, and Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) is the lead author for the Senate companion bill. Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Police Chiefs Association registered in favor of the bill. Assembly Democrats have also supported it, with several signing on as cosponsors.
“This bill will help to provide flexibility to police departments,” said Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) during Wednesday’s floor session. “And it will help them to have a long-term recruitment strategy and commitment that will pull potential police officers from our local community.” The bill also could increase department diversity, “which can help to address bias, to heal past harms, and to build trust through community policing and relationship building,” she added. “It’s good for citizens and non-citizens across the state of Wisconsin.”
The bill passed on a voice vote, obscuring some Democratic support. “We are incredibly disappointed” in Democrats who supported the bill, Gonzalez said. “In the context of the dangerous growth of 287g in our state that further criminalizes and incarcerates immigrants and separates families, this legislation is actually dangerous and does not help build a movement for what the majority of immigrants need. Instead, it serves as a way to divide immigrant communities, pitting one immigrant against another. We urge members of the State Senate and Governor Evers to oppose this bill.”
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