IMMIGRATIONWhy Some Wisconsin Lawmakers and Local Officials Have Changed Their Minds About Letting Undocumented Immigrants Drive

By Melissa Sanchez

Published 11 August 2023

“If we suddenly kicked out all of the people here, the undocumented, our dairy farms would collapse,” one lawmaker said. “We have to come up with a solution.”

When Judy Kalepp became the municipal court judge in Abbotsford, Wisconsin, more than a decade ago, she was shocked to see how many Latinos were ticketed for driving without a license. She asked herself: Couldn’t they just get licensed and stop breaking the law?

Then she got to know some of the drivers, mostly Mexican immigrants who lived and worked in the community. Despite not speaking Spanish, she was able to communicate with many of them and learn that they were undocumented and prohibited by state law from getting driver’s licenses.

Over time, her views changed. While she still worries about road safety with so many unlicensed immigrants driving, she’s also come to recognize how important their labor is to the area around Abbotsford, a Central Wisconsin town that’s home to a meatpacking facility and is surrounded by dairy farms.

“The more I see of it,” Kalepp said, “the more I think we’re probably wrong in not allowing them to get a license.”

Last week ProPublica reported on how Wisconsin, a state that bills itself as “America’s Dairyland,” relies on undocumented immigrants to work on its dairy farms but doesn’t let them drive. As a result, many undocumented dairy workers struggle to take care of some of their most basic needs — from buying groceries and cashing in checks to visiting the doctor or taking their kids to school. They say they are trapped on the farms where they work and often live, dependent on others to take them where they need to go.

Immigrants who break the law and drive anyway risk getting ticketed and receiving hefty fines or even being arrested or deported. “It’s scary to drive,” said an undocumented Honduran immigrant who works on a farm near Abbotsford.

He’s lived mostly in isolation in his 10 years in Wisconsin: He’s never visited Milwaukee, he rarely sees friends from back home (they can’t legally drive either), and he doesn’t know how or when he’d ever meet a romantic partner. But he still gets behind the wheel six days a week to get to work — and then again every two weeks to go into town to cash his check, buy groceries and do his laundry. “To get anything done,” he said, “you have to drive.”