The forum was the second in a statewide series of five public gatherings to discuss the provision of a driver card for undocumented residents. Other forums were or will be held in Milwaukee, Madison and Eau Claire.
Cindy Breunig, who coordinates the safe roads coalition from Madison, told about 45 people in attendance that the Coalition for Safe Roads is promoting the issuance of driver cards. She said the coalition consists of groups such as dairy farmers, faith leaders, insurance agents and law enforcement agencies, all who have “a shared interest in restoring access to a legal way for people to drive in the state, regardless of immigration status.”
Change in federal, state laws
Like other states, Wisconsin offered state IDs and driver’s licenses to immigrants until recently. In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act that established national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and driver ID cards. Among the changes, it required states to check immigration status before issuing driver’s licenses or state IDs.
The federal law, put in place in an attempt to bolster homeland security, has been met with opposition by numerous states due to privacy issues and costs. Congressional leaders have also challenged the REAL ID Act and it has not received federal funding.
Breunig explained that up until 2007, Wisconsin was one of many states that didn’t require any proof of immigration status in order to have a state ID or driver’s license.
“In 2006, riding the tide of … Real ID, the state of Wisconsin felt that they had to pass this law to be in compliance with the Real ID law,” said Breunig. Known as Wisconsin Act 126, the law took effect in April 2007.
“Effectively it said if you don’t have a Social Security number you can no longer get the service of a driver’s license or a state ID,” said Breunig. “This affected not only people who were undocumented, but also people who were applying for political asylum, who were part of a legal process but who don’t yet have documentation, as well as people who were victims of domestic violence (and) planning for new visas.”
Law endangers public safety
Breunig said the safe roads coalition believes restricting driver’s licenses endangers public safety “even though some of the arguments for passing this law was homeland security,” she said. “After Sept. 11, immigrants started to be equated with terrorists. But we actually believe it’s a harm to public safety because it’s a barrier for people to have proper education to know the rules for the road. It’s a barrier to accessing insurance. It also creates a vacuum where people no longer have a way to prove their identity.”
From an economic angle, restricting driver’s licenses adversely affects the state, added Breunig.
“One very important fact is that recent research has shown that Latino immigrants make up an estimated 42 percent of the Wisconsin dairy industry. That’s about 5,300 workers” who now drive with licenses due to expire, without a license or with false documents, she said. “Without those workers, the very existence of the dairy industry as we know it in our state is in peril.” The Wisconsin dairy industry is a $26.5 billion industry and employs more than 146,000 workers, she added.
If and when the REAL ID Act is implemented, it would cost states $11 billion, said Breunig. States that have complied with REAL ID legislation, no longer offering driver’s licenses or driver cards to undocumented residents, have lost a revenue source, she added.
Under the REAL ID Act, states are able to issue driving privilege cards to people who do not have a Social Security number, but cards cannot be used for federal purposes such as boarding an airplane or entering a federal building. Some states, such as Utah, have introduced these driver cards. “They bring in $1 million annually to the state budget,” she said.
In June 2009 a similar provision, AB777, was introduced in the Wisconsin State Assembly, but it failed. Driver card supporters are hoping to have the legislation reintroduced in the state Legislature. “We are here to provide this education because we do believe that the driver card would benefit all residents of Wisconsin, not just the immigrant community,” said Breunig.
Sheriff supports plan
Kewaunee County Sheriff Matt Joski told the assembly that his interest in the issue is strictly from a highway safety viewpoint.
“I’m not advocating anybody circumventing the laws,” he said. “However, what we have here is an impasse, where there is a larger subject and a larger issue (immigration reform) that cannot be addressed through strong leadership locally. … So we have to focus on what we can do as leaders in our local communities. We have to figure out a way to make this work.”
Joski said his concern is highway safety, and that offering driver cards to undocumented residents who successfully pass state safe driving requirements is a reasonable solution.
“Without getting into the broader issue (of illegal immigration), we have to deal with the here and the now,” he said. “We have to deal with the fact that these people are operating on the roads and we want to be able to facilitate that. Maybe down the road, something larger will come of this and we’ll get this on track. But in highway safety, in Kewaunee County at least, we do have contact with this population.”
He said that the majority of interaction his department has with undocumented residents is driving infractions. “We’re not seeing heinous crimes, we’re not seeing horrible acts of violence. What we’re seeing are a group of people who are not fitting into the infrastructure that we have set forth.”
Joski said offering driver cards “is a step in the right direction.”
“Do I believe it should afford them any greater privileges? That’s not for me to answer,” he said. “In law enforcement I think we have to stick to the issue of safe roads.”
Dairy farms need workers
Mark Hiberle, who is the manager of a dairy farm in Door County with 240 cows, told the assembly that finding workers to fill jobs milking cows twice a day is difficult, especially when labor costs must stay low to show a profit.
“I have had an ad out and have gotten very few responses,” he said. “I had probably two Americans apply for the job and neither has worked out. I have had six Hispanics apply and, directly related with this driving issue, none of them have a legal driver’s license.”
Because the dairy farm has three locations off the main farm, a driver’s license is necessary for workers, he said.
“They talk about people taking our jobs away,” said Hiberle. “I don’t get any other people that want to come and take these jobs. … As dairy farmers, we are told every day what we are going to get paid for our product. (Expenses have) increased with inflation but our milk is still down at the bottom. Labor is something we’ve always had to keep cheap. These guys … are the first ones, when a job opens, to be there looking for that job.”
Caroline Farvour, a Catholic Charities immigration counselor, said many of her clients come to her with questions about driver’s licenses. “Work is the number one priority for a majority of the clients,” she said. “We usually advise them to obey all of the traffic laws. That’s usually what they try to do.”
She said clients who do have a driver’s license worry about them expiring. “They are really getting nervous because they don’t know what to do. For some, they will be able to renew their license because they are in the process of getting their documentation. For others there’s no chance for them to get the license within the near future,” said Farvour.
Laura Krzysiak, principal of St. Mary School in Algoma, told the assembly that prohibiting the issuance of driver’s licenses to immigrants is unfair.
Denies right to practice faith
“As a Catholic school principal and director of religious ed, I have a real problem with this driver’s law,” she said. “Because if you cannot drive in Kewaunee County and in many (rural) counties in the state, you cannot attend church. There’s no public transport. If you just happen to be a child of an immigrant family, a child who was born in the U.S. and is therefore a U.S. citizen, this very law, which is meant to protect us from who knows who, is denying your constitutional right to freely practice your religion. As a Catholic educator, that makes my hair stand on end.”
Krzysiak said she has witnessed Hispanic families in the parish who have been affected by the state law. “We run religious ed programs after school in the evening for our children who attend public school,” she said. “Many, many times my Hispanic students cannot come because … there’s nobody who can pick them up at the end of the evening, so their religious education goes by the side.
“As a citizen I am incensed that this law was ever passed,” added Krzysiak. “I hope that we will have leadership in the state of Wisconsin who will step up and sponsor a change to allow for a driver permit.”
For information about the driver’s license campaign go to this link.