Activists call for immigration reform on May Day

Restoring driver’s licenses, in-state tuition for immigrants and improving school lunches

By: - May 1, 2023 6:00 am
Voces de la Frontera and allied organizations hold a lobby day at the Capitol. This was part of a two day call to action. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Voces de la Frontera and allied organizations hold a lobby day at the Capitol. This was part of a two day call to action. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

On the first day of May, activists from the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera and allied organizations are taking to the streets for two days of marches in Milwaukee and Madison. The actions focus on continued efforts to restore driver’s licenses to undocumented Wisconsin residents and tuition equity for students from immigrant families. Organizers from Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) will also raise awareness of campaigns led by local students to improve the quality of their lunches and school lives.

Monday’s events begin at 10:45 a.m. at the Voces de la Frontera Milwaukee office. Streets will be blocked off and, like every year, entertainment will be provided in the run-up to the march. From the office, participants plan to march to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), where they will arrive a little after noon. Marchers will conduct a postcard drop-off and then continue to Zeidler Union Square where the march will end in a community celebration. On Tuesday, Voces de la Frontera as well as students from Raza United and UW-Mecha will lead a student-led walkout and rally at the State Capitol in Madison. Students from Madison East High School and undergraduates from area colleges will advocate for driver’s license reform and in-state tuition for Wisconsin’s immigrant community.

Voces de la Frontera gather alongside allies in Milwaukee for a massive May Day march from the Hispanic and Latinx south-side, to the federal courthouse downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Voces de la Frontera and allies gather in Milwaukee for a massive May Day march from the Hispanic and Latinx South Side to the federal courthouse downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Although the May Day events are often energetic days of celebration, they are focused on  serious policy change. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, says restoring driver’s licenses, which the Legislature took away from noncitizens in Wisconsin under a 2007 law, is at the center of this year’s protest. Hopes are high that the election of a liberal-leaning judge to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court could help change the political landscape for immigrant activists and their families. The May Day events will also bring attention to the continuation of the 287(g) program, which involves local law enforcement in federal immigration enforcement activities.

The sheriff’s offices of Brown, Fond du Lac, Lafayette, Manitowoc, Marquette, Sheboygan, Waukesha and Waushara are part of the 287(g) program, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) webpage. Nationwide, the program incorporates over 700 law enforcement officers across 142 state and local agencies. “This really heightens the stakes for getting driver’s licenses,” Neumann-Oriz told Wisconsin Examiner. After community outcry in 2017, the federal government rejected Milwaukee County’s attempts to join the program under former Sheriff David Clarke Jr. Despite that success, Neumann-Ortiz noted, “under the Trump Administration this program has a terrible civil rights and human rights record. It legalizes profiling and turns local law enforcement into an arm of immigration.” Racial justice experts from the United Nations called on the Biden Administration last year to end the program.

Beyond the program’s growth, there’s a separate under current of federal partnerships with local police that worries immigrant rights activists. Those sorts of partnerships “do something very similar in terms of the information sharing,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “This is something that is dangerous and it’s really grown, so one of our goals is to just bring visibility and attention to this.”

Cooperation between federal and local law enforcement has become more noticeable in recent years. Wisconsin saw several federal operations in  its cities from 2019-2021, including Operations Relentless pursuit and Legend. On the surface, both were focused on violent crime and provided Milwaukee and other communities with millions in funding, additional investigators and equipment. Federal grants rained down on Milwaukee as it prepared for the Democratic National Convention in 2020. The protests that followed the killing of George Floyd were another way in which funds were funneled into law enforcement operations. In January, the U.S. Marshals Service met with Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and local law enforcement to discuss ways the federal agency could help reduce violent crime.

Voces de la Frontera gather alongside allies in Milwaukee for a massive May Day march from the Hispanic and Latinx south-side, to the federal courthouse downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Voces de la Frontera gather alongside allies in Milwaukee (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Neumann-Ortiz has been encouraged by the Biden administration’s immigration enforcement priorities. “We’re still seeing that under the Biden Administration, at least for internal deportations, it hasn’t been as large of an impact in terms of total numbers,” says Neumann-Ortiz, speaking of deportation efforts like 287(g). By contrast, the Trump administration cast a wide net for immigration enforcement. Trump also disparaged immigrants of color and their home countries. On the other hand, Biden has not fully cast aside some Trump-era policies on immigration.

While the U.S. under Biden is preparing to lift the Trump-era Title 42 policy, which was used to expel 2.7 million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border without due process, asylum cases  continue to pile up. Ending Title 42 was a top demand of immigrant rights activists during last year’s May Day march. Last week, the Biden administration announced plans to open regional processing centers in Latin America, where asylum seekers would have to request permission to come to the U.S. to address the backlog.

The first of the regional processing centers will be opened in Guatemala and Colombia. The U.S. has agreed to take in 20,000 refugees over the next two fiscal years.

Neumann-Ortiz reflects on the Biden administration condemning Trump-era policies on the campaign trail, only to continue some of them. “We just saw, recently, even the idea of returning to family detention centers,” she says.

“It’s a lack of commitment to really offer a meaningful alternative,” she adds. “And we saw during the Obama years how trying to give the right everything they wanted only meant you were throwing out the people who helped get you there, and creating a lot of justified anger and resentment. …it’s always been the movement that’s really challenged, and put pressure on elected officials.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.