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The Fight to Keep Sanctuary Cities for Undocumented Immigrants in Wisconsin

A proposed bill could threaten "sanctuary" policies that protect the state's undocumented immigrants from deportation.

by Kalee Thompson
04 March 2016, 5:00am

Thousands swarmed the capital building in Madison, Wisconsin, during a "Day Without Latinos" protest on February 18, 2016. Photo via Voces de la Frontera/Facebook

This article originally appeared on VICE US

Jesus Leza Lopez brought his family to the United States from Mexico more than 20 years ago. He spent six years working at a factory in Illinois before moving to Wisconsin after finding a better job in the state's dairy industry. For more than a decade, Lopez—who was in the country illegally—worked 12-hour shifts, milking cows and caring for veal calves.

When he first moved to Wisconsin, Lopez was able to get a driver's license. But in 2005, a state law was passed that required drivers to have a Social Security number or proof of legal immigration status. So in 2012, when Lopez was involved in a minor fender bender near his home in Green Bay, he was driving without a license, and feared that if he called the police to report the accident, he would be deported. Panicked, Lopez drove away.

Undocumented immigrants have good reason not to report crimes, as local police in cities like Green Bay share information with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But about half an hour after Lopez's hit-and-run, he started to feel guilty, and called the local police to turn himself in. No one was injured in the accident, and because the judge did not consider Lopez a public risk, he didn't serve jail time. He was charged with a felony, though, and placed on probation.

Then, two years later, on March 12, 2014, ICE showed up in the driveway of the Green Bay duplex where Lopez and his family had lived for seven years. "It was a raid—they blocked the whole street," his daughter, Marisa Leza, told me. "They could have taken my mom, too, but for some reason they didn't." Lopez and one of Leza's three brothers were arrested, and deported back to Mexico. They were two of 414,481 immigrants deported from the United States that year.

These deportations could soon become more common in Wisconsin, thanks to a pending state bill that would impose a fine "sanctuary cities," or cities with policies limiting cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents. Cities like Racine, Madison, and the county of Milwaukee would face fines of up to $5,000 per day that their sanctuary policies are in place.

The bill, known as AB 450, was approved by the Wisconsin Assembly on February 16, by a vote of 62 to 35. Since then, Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, has discouraged the State Senate from taking up the legislation. But a sister bill, SB 533, which would limit local government's ability to issue identification cards, has passed both houses, and is waiting for Walker's approval. It's unclear whether or not he will sign it into law.

Forty percent of Wisconsin's dairy workers are immigrants, the vast majority of them Mexican, according to the most recent data from 2008. Late last month, thousands of those workers joined protests against AB 450 in Madison, the state capital. "We realized that unless there was a dramatic call to action this would be the state law," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, the Milwaukee-based immigrant rights group that organized one of the protests.

Neumann-Ortiz pointed out that even in Wisconsin's "sanctuary cities," undocumented immigrants still fear deportation and the police. Yaritza Brito, an undocumented Wisconsin teenager who organized more than a hundred of her classmates to join the protests last week, lives in Madison, a city that many consider a sanctuary, but said she doesn't feel safe there. She added that she has heard of domestic abuse situations that were not reported because of immigration status.

"If these laws do get passed, it will just create more fear," Brito told me.

A "Day Without Latinos" protest in Madison, Wisconsin on February 18, 2016. Photo via Voces de laFrontera'sFacebook

Madison Police Chief Michael Koval told me that while he hopes the city is welcoming to immigrants, he doesn't think it meets the definition of a sanctuary. The police department already cooperates with the Department of Homeland Security in criminal cases, but also emphasizes community policing, and officers avoid asking residents about their legal status. Koval added that even if AB 450 is passed, it's not likely to change the way the Madison police force operates.

"My concern is that you have this toxic atmosphere, conditions where candidates for the highest elected office are having serious discussions about deporting 11 million people and building the highest wall known to mankind," Koval told me, adding that the rhetoric makes community policing much more difficult.

"[They've] already come from a country of origin where cops are not scrupulous. Now you're living in a community where conditions suggest [they] are a group of people to be marginalized and detained," he said. "It preys on the psyche of those who are living in the shadows."

The purported goal of AB 450 is to enhance public safety, according to Republican State Representative John Spiros, one of the bill's sponsors. In January, Wisconsin Republicans told before a state assembly committee that the bill would "protect law-abiding citizens" and reduce crime caused by undocumented immigrants, claiming that sanctuary cities create a "magnet" for illegal immigrants. Neither Spiros nor State Representative Jesse Kremer, another sponsor of AB450, immediately returned requests for comment.

Sanctuary laws have existed since 1979, when the Los Angeles Police Department enacted a policy to prevent officers from asking about someone's immigration status. According to Faye Hipsman, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, DC, and 350 other local jurisdictions nationwide now have policies in place that limit local law enforcement's role in enforcing federal immigration law, although the rules vary widely.

But many states are reconsidering those policies, a shift sparked by the murder of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman in San Francisco who was shot in the back and killed last July. The perpetrator, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was an undocumented immigrant who had already been deported five times and served jail time for multiple drug charges. He'd been released from San Francisco County jail three months before the murder, despite a request that he be turned over to federal authorities for deportation.

After Steinle's murder, Hipsman said, "the momentum is toward cooperation with ICE." Last October, North Carolina passed a law banning sanctuary cities; Kansas and Florida, like Wisconsin, are debating new laws. Overall, more than a dozen state bills have been introduced limiting sanctuary cities. If passed, the legislation will likely reduce undocumented populations in those states, and further strain relations between immigrants and the police.

After Lopez's deportation, his wife lived in a constant state of fear; it seemed like nothing more than chance that ICE hadn't arrested her as well, according to his daughter, Marisa Leza. Lopez had been the family breadwinner, and that role has now fallen to Leza. She is one of more than 650,000 young immigrants who are benefitting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program implemented by the Obama administration in 2012—a program that most of the current Republican presidential candidates have promised to revoke.

Under DACA Leza was able to obtain a Social Security number and a driver's license, allowing her to work legally in the US. She has a full-time job as an admissions counselor at a local college, and works weekends at a trucking company to make extra cash. Her father, now back in his hometown of Saltillo, Mexico, has found part-time farm jobs here and there, but earns only a fraction of what he was making in Wisconsin, Leza said.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin farmers are hoping to keep dependable immigrant employees on their payrolls. Last month, in the same week that protesters staged demonstrations against AB 450 in Madison, Wisconsin's Dairy Business Association came out against the contested bills.

"It's necessary labor," Neumann-Ortiz said. "You can't support the growth of the dairy industry and at the same time stigmatize workers."

Follow Kalee Thompson on Twitter.

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