Victoria, an undocumented immigrant, works at a dairy farm east of La Crosse -- and gets there by driving, although she lacks a license. JACOB KUSHNER / WCIJ
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Drivers beware: There’s a woman driving a stretch of Interstate 90 between Sparta and Tomah — without a license or any training about Wisconsin’s traffic laws.

Her name is Victoria. She’s a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico who works on a Tomah dairy farm with other undocumented immigrants whom  she says “all understand our boss through signals” because of language barriers.

Victoria, who arrived in Wisconsin 13 months ago, hasn’t taken any drivers’ training in the United States because Wisconsin law prohibits her from obtaining a license. She says she hasn’t had any run-ins with police, but requested that her last name be withheld out of fear she might be pursued as an illegal immigrant.

She is among a growing number of illegal immigrants who are finding work on Wisconsin dairy farms, located in rural areas where the only way to get to work is by car.

Immigrants now account for about 40 percent of the state’s dairy labor force, up from just 5 percent a decade ago, according to a 2009 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies.

These 5,000 immigrants have become a critical part of the state’s signature industry at the same time that some are calling for a greater crackdown on undocumented immigrants. While there are no estimates on how many of Wisconsin’s immigrant dairy workers are here illegally, federal surveys have estimated that half of all immigrant crop workers nationwide lack immigration papers.

The debate over undocumented immigrants spilled into the state budget this summer as lawmakers debated a proposal that would have allowed them to get licensed.

The measure, backed by some dairy farmers and law-enforcement officers, would have reversed part of a 2005 state law passed to comply with the federal Real ID Act, which required applicants for a driver’s license to submit proof of citizenship or legal resident status.

Opponents argue Wisconsin shouldn’t be in the business of ignoring state and federal immigration laws, regardless of the limitations on state agriculture and driving enforcement.

Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia
Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia

“There’s a tendency to sometimes accept the fact that we have people here breaking the law,” said state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia.

Still, the measure’s failure came as a blow to immigrant advocacy groups, which have long petitioned for the right of undocumented immigrants to drive legally in the state.

“It shows that neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party in Wisconsin or nationally have the intention to fix the problems that are most urgent to our people,” said Alex Gillis, co-founder of the Madison immigration rights group Immigrant Workers’ Union.

No one knows how many undocumented immigrants are driving without licenses in Wisconsin. But state Department of Transportation data show that after the law requiring applicants to submit proof of legal residence took effect in 2007, the number of people taking the Spanish-language version of the road skills knowledge test plummeted 91 percent — from 42,500 in 2006 to fewer than 4,000 in 2008. The number of applicants taking the English version of the test also declined during the period, but by just 23 percent.

Patrick Fernan, the agency’s operations manager, acknowledged the possibility that the decrease represents a drop in the number of undocumented Hispanic immigrants applying for licenses, but cautioned it’s impossible to say for sure.

Driving a necessity for many immigrant agricultural workers

According to a 2008 study by Paul Dyk, a livestock agent at University of Wisconsin-Extension in Fond du Lac County, 78 percent of Hispanic workers at Eastern Wisconsin dairy farms arrive at work in their own car, but only 44 percent of Hispanic dairy workers have a driver’s license.

Mario Garcia, youth coordinator at the Madison-based nonprofit agency Centro Hispano, says driving legally in Wisconsin has become impossible for many of the state’s agricultural immigrant workers since the federal government passed the Real ID Act. The 2005 federal law was crafted to shore up the security of the state driver’s licenses, although deadlines for compliance have been pushed back amid complaints from states about its requirements and costs.

Garcia said the inability of immigrant workers to drive legally makes Wisconsin roads dangerous for all.

That was one reason a number of law enforcement officials came out in support of the license provision this summer during the budget debate. Police chiefs in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Appleton and Beloit each backed the provision, along with support from chiefs of smaller departments such as Whitewater, Shorewood and Dorchester. The Wisconsin State Troopers Association was also on board.

“Regardless (of whether) these cards are issued or not, undocumented individuals are going to be driving motor vehicles throughout the state,” Whitewater Police Chief James Coan said this summer. “Our traffic safety efforts will be enhanced by providing them with an opportunity to obtain a limited driver’s license.”

Tom Hochstatter, a Milwaukee attorney who practices immigration law, says giving immigrants driver’s licenses would increase safety and reduce the burden on law-enforcement officials to act as de facto immigration enforcement agents.

The potential downside is just that if you’re showing a law enforcement officer your document, then they know that it’s really a second-class driver’s license,” Hochstatter said. “If you have an agenda about immigration, you could end up pursuing your questioning … to a point where you find they are undocumented.”

The budget proposal would have required the limited-use licenses to appear “distinctive” from standard driver’s licenses and would also have required language on the new licenses to stipulate they could be used for driving only. Cardholders could not have used their cards for other identification verification purposes, such as cashing a check or boarding a commercial flight.

The measure also would have stipulated that law enforcement may not press cardholders on their immigration status if the limited-use license was presented for its intended purpose.

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office indicated he would be opposed to the bill’s provision on checking immigration status “to the extent these proposals limit the ability of law enforcement to work together at the federal, state and local levels.”

Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee
Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee

Debate in the state budget

The governor did not include the provision on driver’s licenses in the original budget for the 2009-11 biennium that he proposed in February. But state Rep. Pedro Colón of Milwaukee persuaded fellow Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee to add the measure during its deliberations on the budget.

The Assembly then approved the measure in its version of the budget.

Under Colón’s proposal, drivers unable to prove their legal residence could obtain a limited license provided that some key conditions were met, including establishing Wisconsin residency, providing proof of identity, being ineligible for a Social Security number and passing all relevant driving tests.

Colón said undocumented immigrants “were just in a panic. … They couldn’t go to work, they couldn’t go to the store,” and the issue was critical to his constituents.

At a December meeting of the Dairy Business Association, a group of large dairy farm owners, Colón told farm owners that the right to a driver’s license represents “the most basic of what we call the American dream, this basic attainment of what we call happiness.”

“Happiness to people in my district,” he said in a Madison speech, “is going to take grandma to the doctor and not being stopped by a police officer for four hours while they determine your identity because there is no way for you to get a driver’s license.”

Vos, a fellow member of the Joint Finance Committee, introduced a motion to eliminate the license provision during debate over the Department of Transportation budget.

“The entire idea … flies in the face of what common sense should be,” Vos said of the proposal, arguing that both dairy farm employers and potentially undocumented employees should be facing stiff state and federal penalties rather than being allotted a loophole in the state’s driving laws.

This undocumented immigrant, who works at a dairy farm in Western Wisconsin, isn't able to obtain a driver's license. He was cited for that infraction in September after another driver backed into his parked vehicle at in a grocery-store parking lot. The worker and his family were profiled Nov. 11 in the Dairyland Diversity journalism project. (
This undocumented immigrant, who works at a dairy farm in Western Wisconsin, isn’t able to obtain a driver’s license. He was cited for that infraction in September after another driver backed into his parked vehicle at in a grocery-store parking lot. The worker and his family were profiled Nov. 11 in the Dairyland Diversity journalism project. ( JACOB KUSHNER / WCIJ

With Democrats in the majority in both houses, Republican opposition wasn’t enough to derail Colón’s proposal. Once the budget moved onto the Senate, however, some Democrats expressed concern about the measure, citing their constituents’ opposition.

Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, told a constituent in an e-mail that he was “able to convince” his caucus to drop the driver’s license provision. He represents a sizable Latino population and became the subject of intense scrutiny from the immigration advocacy group Voces de la Frontera.

But Carpenter was not swayed by the effort from law enforcement, labor groups and religious organizations, noting this summer that 90 percent of his constituents who had contacted his office were opposed to the measure.

Carpenter was also unhappy the provision was stuck into the budget during late-night deliberations and without a public hearing.
“I wasn’t the only one who had concerns,” Carpenter said of his discussions with fellow Democrats in the state Senate.

Colón said federal legislation left room for states to address the problem of undocumented drivers in the Real ID Act, and his staff analyzed two states that have implemented similar laws — Utah and Tennessee.

Tennessee, however, suspended its two-tier license program after the state found undocumented immigrants from neighboring states were attempting to acquire the licenses. Before the suspension of the program, the National Immigration Law Center estimated that Tennessee issued some 51,000 driving certificates to citizens who could not authenticate their legal status.

Vos said that while the public generally is not comfortable condoning what is seen as illegal activity, the economic issues surrounding the state and the country could also color voters’ views on immigration issues.

If the unemployment rate stays at current levels heading into the 2010 election season, Vos asked, “Will they be angry that you’re giving benefits to people here illegally?”

State fix likely to depend on Washington

Lawmakers on both sides of the driver’s license issue are united in one aspect: The Wisconsin Legislature shouldn’t be in the position of dictating immigration policy.

For now, Colón says he has no plans to reintroduce the plan as a stand-alone bill. In addition to the already difficult path it faces in the Legislature, Colón believes federal lawmakers are ready to make the state’s job easier by reforming how the nation deals with illegal immigrants.

“As a legislator in Wisconsin, I don’t want to be messing in immigration law,” Colón said, adding that federal lawmakers forced his hand with the mandates in the Real ID Act.

Vos acknowledged that he doesn’t have a say in the ultimate answer on immigration because, “I’m not in Congress.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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