Thousands of people rallied at the Capitol Wednesday morning in support of allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses.
Voces de la Frontera organized the Day Without Latinxs rally along with an accompanying general strike. They hope their actions will help convince Republican leaders in the state legislature to support Gov. Tony Evers’ legislation to reinstate driver’s licenses for the state’s undocumented residents.
East side high school students marched from East High to the Capitol, where they joined thousands of protesters who bused to Madison from across the state.
Focundo Ortiz is Junior at La Follete High School. He said he’s been encouraged by the support of his classmates and school officials and remains optimistic that the Legislature will take action on the issue of driver’s licenses.
“We’re a lot of people and I’m sure they can hear us,” Ortiz said.
Evers is proposing letting undocumented residents get drivers licenses in his budget. That means it has to go through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Silvia Gomez, a bilingual resource specialist at East High School, said that student turnout wasn’t quite as high as it was in during the 2016 Day Without Latinxs rally. That event drew about 20,000 protesters to the Capitol, with around 200 from East.
But Gomez said engagement among high schoolers remains high due to the impact the issue has on many students and their families.
“I know how difficult it is for our families to try and get their kids to school, the fear of being pulled over and not having a license, it can affect students attendance because they don’t have a ride so I can see the importance,” Gomez said.
Undocumented people were eligible to receive a driver’s license up until 2007. That’s when the Real ID Act prohibited states from issuing IDs to people who do not have legal status.
According to Voces de la Frontera, more than 150 businesses across the state closed today in support of the Day Without Latinxs.
At the Capitol speakers included Voces De La Frontera executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway who gave her speech in Spanish as well as English.
Rhodes-Conway took office late last month.
“I want to remind you that under the United State Constitution, all people, no matter their immigration status, have the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assemble, and the right to ask their government for needed change,” Rhodes-Conway said.
Jonathan Irias, a DACA recipient and Marquette University student from Milwaukee said the issue of driver’s licenses is also a matter of building trust with police and the community.
His parents are undocumented, and not being able to have licenses affects their day-to-day lives.
“It’s just the fear that I may get pulled over and I don’t know what happens next. It just creates a distrust between police and people where they’re the bad people,” Irias said. “But when you actually need them and you can’t trust them, you’re not going to call them. It just creates safer cities.”
Javier Romero, an immigrant who has lived in Milwaukee for 12 years, said he’s hopeful the government will eventually allow undocumented people to receive licenses. But having a license is about more than just transportation, it’s also about getting jobs. He says he couldn’t get a new licenses after his old one expired.
“I know many people who are in a similar position,” Romero said in Spanish. “The majority of immigrants like us need licenses, they would allow us to access better and different jobs because many jobs require licenses. There are many people who would do these jobs such as landscaping, construction, remodeling houses and other dirty and difficult jobs.”
Evers said today that quote “the business community gets it” regarding the economic impact of undocumented workers not having driver’s licenses. In 2016, the Dairy Business Association was influential in striking down the two bills at the center of that year’s rally.
Evers said he’s not hopeful Republicans will keep his driver’s licenses proposal in the budget. But he says if it’s taken out, he’ll introduce it has separate legislation.