This June, someone stole Mercedes' purse. A missing wallet is always a worry and an annoyance, but for Mercedes, the theft has potentially grave consequences. Mercedes (a pseudonym) is an undocumented immigrant, and Wisconsin's "Real ID" law makes it impossible for her to replace her driver's license.
"Everywhere you go, they ask for ID," says Mercedes, a Madison resident. "You need ID to open a bank account, to order a telephone. I can't even write a check at the grocery store because I don't have an ID anymore. When I go to the store, I have to take $100 or $150 in cash. It makes me a little nervous to carry that much cash."
Then there's the driving problem. Mercedes lives with her husband, who is an American citizen, and their two young children on Madison's far west side. She has to get her kindergartener to school; get herself across town to MATC, where she takes classes; and run family errands.
"I try not to drive when I don't have to," she says. "But sometimes I just have to. I was always a very careful driver, but now I am even more careful." She fears - with good reason - that one minor accident or traffic violation could expose her undocumented status and get her deported.
A study released earlier this year by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 12 million undocumented immigrants now live in the U.S. Centro Hispano of Dane County used 2005 school census data to project that about 45,000 Latinos live in the county.
"We have to assume that many of them are undocumented," says Peter Muñoz, executive director of Centro Hispano. "Many of these people have been here for many years and suddenly they don't have access to a driver's license. They are here to perform jobs that would go vacant otherwise. They work on dairy farms and in dairy processing, in restaurants and hotels. They pay their taxes. They need to drive to get to their jobs."
Mary Castro, a Madison lawyer who specializes in immigration law, thinks the state's Real ID law makes little sense.
"Why wouldn't you want people to have identification?" she asks. "Even though you may be opposed to illegal immigration, why wouldn't you want to know who people are? It's an issue of public safety. People are driving without a license and without insurance. They can't be identified if they commit a crime."
Wisconsin's Real ID law took effect in April, presaging changes in federal law that will mandate that motor vehicle authorities verify immigration status.
According to an Aug. 6 article in The New York Times, every state in the country has debated some kind of immigration legislation over the past year, and 41 states have passed immigration laws. Nineteen states have passed laws blocking illegal immigrants from getting jobs.
In Tennessee, it's now a criminal offense to hire an illegal immigrant, with employers risking fines of up to $50,000. Several other states have new laws on the books to keep undocumented immigrants from getting public benefits and driver's licenses.
Municipalities are also cracking down. Green Bay's city council recently passed an ordinance to deny city licenses to businesses that hire illegal immigrants. (A U.S. district court struck down a similar ordinance in Hazleton, Pa.) Other municipalities around the country have passed laws making English the "official language," and no longer offer Spanish-language versions of official documents, Web sites and other information for residents.
"My sense is it has become fashionable to bash immigrants," says Muñoz. "Latinos have taken the issue as a personal assault. They ask: 'Why are we building fences at the Mexican border but [maintaining] an almost open border with Canada?'
"And what really offends people is that the issue of immigration from Mexico has been all wrapped up with the War on Terror. These people aren't terrorists."
Salvador Carranza, the president of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA), believes the recent anti-immigrant sentiment is rooted in bigotry.
"There is a very vocal minority of people who feel threatened by a different culture," he says. "Xenophobia is growing in this country."
LUChA and several other organizations are urging the Legislature to amend the Real ID law to allow undocumented immigrants to get some form of identification so they can drive cars, cash checks and take care of normal business. This ID would not let a person board an airplane or enter a federal building, prohibitions Carranza says are reasonable if the law is really meant to prevent terrorist acts.
Mercedes is about as far from a terrorist as one can imagine. She is petite and speaks softly. She moved to California to live with an uncle when she finished high school in a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Another uncle invited her to come to Wisconsin, where she met her husband.
Over the years, Mercedes has worked restaurant jobs, but now stays home to care for a new baby. Her family lives in a modest, tidy house, and Mercedes loves to work in her garden. She has a tutor to improve her English and attends classes at MATC. Her husband works two jobs and takes classes at MATC. He hopes to transfer to UW-Madison and earn a degree in computer science.
When her license was stolen in June, Mercedes had already started the long, complex and expensive process of becoming a legal resident. She will return to Mexico to file for residency at the American Consulate in January. She could have to wait there as long as a year.
Castro's clients pay about $5,000 for legal and government fees, travel, and food and housing while they are working through the paperwork, which must be done in their home country.
"This is huge issue," Castro says. "I don't know how many clients I have, but I can tell you I have seven file cabinets full of active files." About 20 of her clients have returned to Mexico so far, and most were granted permission to return.
"A police record, a drunk-driving conviction, or multiple illegal entries into the U.S. will disqualify a person," she explains. "My clients who were denied did not tell me that they had these problems. If they had told me, I would have told them not to bother because they were wasting their money and would not be allowed to come back."
Mercedes has a spotless record and is married to a U.S. citizen, so her chances of becoming a legal resident are better than most. But still, she fears that when she goes back to Mexico to apply for residency, she'll be refused re-entry to the U.S.
"I worry that the person who has my license might get caught doing something illegal," she says. "If they use my license as their ID, that might show up on my record. Then I might not be able to come home."