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Governor Evers Looking to Restore Driver's License Pathway for Those Here Illegally

Friday, March 17th, 2023 -- 9:00 AM

(By Jonah Chester | WPR/Wisconsin Watch) "Antonio’s" daily commute to work could end with his family being torn apart.

According to Jonah Chester with Wisconsin Public Radio/Wisconsin Wath, Antonio, not his real name, is among Wisconsin’s estimated 70,000 residents who lack permanent legal status. None of them is eligible for a driver’s license. It means they face legal risks, even the possibility of detention and deportation, whenever they take the wheel.

That stirs anxiety extending to family, like Antonio’s daughter.  "Once she sees the police, she freezes," says Antonio, who has lived in the country since 2008 and asked to remain anonymous for fear of legal repercussions. "She’s starting to worry, because she knows my situation. And she’s like, 'Oh, Dad, you have to drive carefully, because we don’t want the police to stop you.'"

It hasn’t always been this way in Wisconsin, which once provided a driver’s license pathway for residents who enter the country illegally. The state closed that path 16 years ago, leaving people like Antonio with few safe options for navigating a state with shrinking or non-existent public transit systems, especially in rural areas.

Antonio, for instance, says a 30-minute car ride from Green Bay is the only viable way to commute to his job with a cabinet shop. "I don’t even see any bus stations by my work, so I don’t think it’s a choice to go to my work by bus," he says.

Immigrant advocacy groups have spent years pushing to repeal Wisconsin’s ban on driver’s licenses for people who lack legal status, saying doing so is not only humane, but would expand the state’s tight labor force and boost public safety, an argument research in other states supports.

In his latest state budget proposal, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is calling for doing just that, the third time he has tried to use the budgeting process to broaden driver’s license access. Removing the ban would pave the way for licensing as many as 32,000 residents in three years, Madison-based Kids Forward, a liberal-leaning advocacy group, estimated in 2018.

"In America’s Dairyland, immigrants are an essential part of our communities," Evers said during his budget address in February. "Let’s make sure everyone can access driver’s licenses regardless of their citizenship status, so that workers can get from point A to point B, and we can make our roads safer, too."

But the Republican-controlled Legislature has stripped that provision from two previous budgets it has sent for Evers’ signature, and it is likely to again do so this year. Republicans argue the state’s spending plan shouldn’t include non-fiscal proposals that merit debate through standalone legislation.

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