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Some immigrants can’t get Wisconsin driver’s licenses, but some want that to change

Independent and Republican Wisconsin voters say immigration is a top issue in this election

Voces de la Frontera rally
A dairy worker attends a rally Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at the state Capitol where immigrants and activists called upon lawmakers to make driver’s licenses available to people who are living in the United States illegally. Phoebe Petrovic/WPR

Wisconsin is one of more than 30 states where immigrants living in the U.S. without proof of citizenship or legal residency can’t get driver’s licenses, but some advocates and officials are pushing to change that.

Driver’s license eligibility was among the issues discussed Monday during a panel on immigration hosted by NewsMakers on WisconsinEye.

A state law passed in 2006 requires people to prove citizenship or legal residency in the U.S. in order to get a driver’s license.

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But Erin Barbato, who directs the Immigrant Justice Law Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School, says it takes time for asylum seekers to get a work permit needed for a driver’s license. After entering the country, asylum seekers generally have one year to fill out an application proving they should be granted asylum status to remain in the U.S. because they fear persecution in their home countries.

“Even if someone comes here and is seeking asylum, they won’t be eligible for a work permit for about six months,” she said. “And in order to get that work permit, it’s going to take six months to a year.”

Barbato also argued the policy is especially harmful to many immigrants who work agriculture jobs in rural areas.

“They don’t have the option of taking public transportation,” she said. “So in order to get to work in order to do the jobs that they’re doing to support our communities and also support their families, they have to drive.”

Patrick Singer, the president of Whitewater’s Common Council, called it a safety issue.

“It would be a safer community if those individuals were able to be licensed because then they are proving that they have the requisite skills and ability to drive,” Singer said.

Earlier this year, before Singer was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Council, officials in Whitewater sent a letter to federal and state leaders, asking for more resources to deal with a rise in immigration.

The letter noted that, in recent years, police in the small southern Wisconsin city have issued roughly three times as many citations for operating a vehicle without a license.

Also speaking on the panel was Dave Daniels, a dairy farmer and member of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Board.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and the Dairy Business Association have previously come out in support of extending driver’s license eligibility to immigrants living in the U.S. without proof of citizenship or legal residency.

In recent budget proposals, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has called for extending license eligibility to those immigrants, but those efforts have been blocked by the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

Monday’s panel comes ahead of November’s 2024 presidential election in which independent and Republican Wisconsin voters are especially likely to list immigration and border security as top issues.