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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Last Change: Anti-Immigrant Attitudes

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With Gov. Jim Doyle and Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature, long-overdue reforms affecting limits on teacher pay and funding of transit—blocked by Republicans for years—were included in the state budget with little fuss.

Sadly, one issue remains excruciatingly difficult even for allegedly open-minded Democrats to resolve on either the state or national levels: immigration.

No one ever says it’s difficult because politicians are reluctant to confront racial prejudice, but it is.

Apparently, many politicians would rather allow unsafe drivers on our roads or deny educational opportunities to children of immigrants than reform our laws to provide a path to the rights of citizenship for millions of immigrants of color living among us.

Doyle supported some form of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants living in Wisconsin. It is in the best interests of the safety of all of us that drivers on Wisconsin roads be licensed, since licensed drivers have to pass a driving test and a written test to prove they know traffic laws and safety regulations. Perhaps even more important, they have to pass a vision test. Being able to see is a pretty important requirement for drivers.

We hear estimates of 12 to 14 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. By making it illegal for undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, we’re assuring hundreds of thousands of untested, unlicensed drivers on our roads.

We know even legally licensed drivers continue to drive after their licenses are revoked. By a wide margin, operating after revocation is the offense resulting in the greatest number of those incarcerated in Milwaukee’s House of Correction.

People risk driving without a license because in our world driving is often a requirement to work or to live. By forbidding some people who live and work among us the right to even apply for a license, we are swelling the number of illegal drivers.

State Rep. Pedro Colon, the only Latino in the Legislature, shepherded the driver’s license provision through the Assembly’s version of the state budget.

Colon also succeeded in winning Assembly support for an educational provision that provided simple fairness for the children of immigrants attending state universities. Resident children of immigrants— even if their parents were undocumented immigrants or if they themselves were undocumented because they were brought here as children by their parents—would be allowed to pay in-state tuition if they were accepted by a state university since they are, in fact, in-state residents.

The change corrected the enormous injustice of forcing immigrant children to pay higher tuition than other Wisconsin children after they successfully complete high school and earn a place at a state college.

Mean-spirited Maneuver

The Assembly included both the immigrant driver’s license and in-state tuition for immigrant children in its version of the budget bill. The state Senate, in an excess of mean-spiritedness, threw out not only immigrant driver’s licenses, but in-state tuition as well.

A conference committee made up of leaders from the Assembly and the Senate worked out a compromise—you could see this one coming—killing immigrant driver’s licenses, but including the in-state tuition in the budget bill sent to the governor.

Because much of the budget negotiations took place behind closed doors, we didn’t have to listen to a lot of the tortured logic that politicians use to justify voting against treating immigrants with respect and fairness.

One thing we know is that race is never mentioned, even though the only illegal immigrants we ever seem to worry about are those coming across our southern border from Mexico or Latin America. No politician has ever proposed building a billion-dollara-mile fence along the border between the United States and Canada to stop the flow of illegal Caucasian immigrants who talk with those funny Great White North accents.

What you always hear ad nauseam in debates over immigration is demand for respect for U.S. laws. You will sometimes even hear this from ethnic groups that had to fight unjust U.S. laws that once denied them equal opportunities in this country.

Fortunately for most of us in this nation of immigrants, our own ancestors didn’t have to violate immigration laws to come here. In fact, there were no immigration laws when they came here. All they had to do was get off a boat.

But now that we’re all here, we want to enforce tough laws against anyone else attracted to this country with the same dreams for their families.

Much has been written about the enormous political miscalculation of the Republican Party in alienating Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, by working to inflame racial hatred against undocumented immigrants.

But so far the Democrats haven’t exactly displayed courage in taking leadership to create a legal way for immigrants who have lived among us for years to earn the rights of citizenship.

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