Dairy farms are some of the most dangerous job sites in America. Much of the labor is done by immigrants working on small farms that operate with little safety oversight.

Leer en español.

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.”

For years, advocates for immigrants have tried to persuade lawmakers in Wisconsin to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Democrats have been mostly on board, with Gov. Tony Evers inserting the issue into his budget proposals. The challenge has been convincing Republicans, who control the state Legislature, to take an action that some of their constituents might fiercely oppose.

“I have some Republican voters and Republican colleagues that say, ‘Hey, they came here illegally. They didn’t come here through legal channels, so they shouldn’t be rewarded,’” said Rep. Patrick Snyder, a GOP lawmaker whose district sits a little to the east of Abbotsford and includes parts of Marathon County. “I understand their concerns. But in the same sense, if we suddenly kicked out all of the people here, the undocumented, our dairy farms would collapse. We have to come up with a solution.”

Snyder is one of a number of Republican lawmakers and local officials from the area who met with law enforcement officials, dairy farmers, civic leaders and immigration rights advocates in Abbotsford in March to discuss the impact on the community of a 2006 law banning undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. Wisconsin is one of 31 states that doesn’t allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally.

The meeting in Abbotsford, which straddles the border of Clark and Marathon counties, offers a window into how the politics around this issue might be changing. Some local officials who live in these places and routinely interact with undocumented immigrant drivers or hear from local dairy farmers are becoming more vocal about changing the law.

Like much of rural Wisconsin, both counties voted solidly in 2020 for then-President Donald Trump, whose stance against illegal immigration was a hallmark of his presidency.

Abbotsford, with a population of about 2,100, has a downtown that’s lined with Mexican restaurants and grocery stores. Local residents and dairy workers from around the area drive in to cash their checks, buy tortillas and other staples from back home, and go to the municipal court to pay their tickets for driving without a license.

This $124 citation is, by far, the most common processed in the municipal court, accounting for nearly one in three cases that ended with a guilty disposition and more than $19,000 in fines last year, records show. The court does not track defendants’ race or ethnicity, but ProPublica found that 134 of the 157 tickets for driving without a valid license involved defendants with common Hispanic surnames, such as Cruz, Lopez and Garcia. (The U.S. Census Bureau says more than 85% of people with these last names are Hispanic.)

Jason Bauer, the chief of the Colby-Abbotsford Police Department, said he wishes the state would allow undocumented immigrants to get trained and tested to get driver’s licenses. But in the meantime, he said, he can’t tell his officers to stop enforcing the law when they encounter a driver without a license. “Then I’d have to say, ‘You’ve got to treat everybody the same,” he said, “including the 15-year-old white kids” who are driving.

Still, tickets for driving without a license are so common that Bauer has asked his officers to stop seeking criminal charges on repeat offenses — which is what typically happens — to help drivers avoid mandatory court appearances. Bauer said he also wants to avoid overwhelming his local county district attorneys. (Melissa Inlow, Clark County’s district attorney, said she stopped pressing criminal charges on repeat offenses for driving without a license last fall due to limited resources, but drivers still have to pay a fine.)

Abbotsford Mayor Jim Weix said he talks to Bauer several times a week and knows just how frequently drivers are ticketed for this offense. Weix is a Republican who backs Trump and supports tougher border policies. But he doesn’t think the current state law, which lets undocumented immigrants own cars but prohibits them from driving, makes sense.

“We need these people to learn how to drive and our rules and regulations and everything,” Weix said.

But like many fellow Republicans, Weix worries about voter fraud and said he wouldn’t want undocumented immigrants to use driver’s licenses to vote illegally. Since Wisconsin residents can use driver’s licenses as proof of ID for voting, he would urge lawmakers to ensure that any type of driver’s license that’s created for undocumented immigrants be clearly marked “not to be used for voting.”

At the March meeting, law enforcement officials expressed concern about having so many people on the road who haven’t passed a local driving test. “That’s a danger. We want to keep roads safe,” Clark County Sheriff Scott Haines said in an interview. “I am looking more for the safety of all citizens.”

Haines said the meeting opened his eyes to the issue’s complexities. But he said changing the law “is out of our hands.” Like Bauer, he said that unless the Legislature allows undocumented immigrants to get licenses, he has to enforce the law.

Dairy farmers at the meeting spoke about how the state law makes it difficult for their workers to get to and from work without risking tickets and arrest. Among the farmers: Hans Breitenmoser, who operates a 470-cow farm in Lincoln County, northeast of Abbotsford.

“Dairy cows are 24/7,” Breitenmoser said in an interview. “I don’t have the luxury of just shutting down the machines. We have to milk them every single day, three times a day. If someone doesn’t show up it’s kind of a big deal compared to in other industries; we’re dealing with live creatures.”

ProPublica reached out to the four Republican lawmakers who attended, as identified by the meeting’s organizers and other attendees. Sen. Jesse James declined to comment, though he recently told Wisconsin Public Radio he would be open to considering legislation to give undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. Rep. Calvin Callahan did not respond to interview requests. But in a June press release, he explained how Republicans had removed “liberal wish list” items from the governor’s budget proposal, including driver’s licenses and other “new benefits for illegal immigrants.”

Meanwhile, Snyder and Rep. Donna Rozar, whose district includes Abbotsford, said they’d support legislation restoring driving privileges to undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin. But both acknowledged it’d be a tough sell to some of their Republican colleagues.

The real problem, they said, is Congress’ failure to fix the country’s broken immigration system.

“There are a lot of us that believe we’re being invaded and the federal government doesn’t care,” Rozar said. “And I get the sense that some of my colleagues believe that if we start chipping away at this undocumented worker issue, we are taking some of the responsibility away from the federal government to do their job.”

Maryam Jameel contributed reporting.