Skip to content

An Inclusive Approach to Undocumented Immigrants Can Help Wisconsin Prosper 

August 23, 2019, Tamarine Cornelius

Undocumented immigrants come to Wisconsin in search of opportunity, looking for safe communities for themselves and their families. In return, they benefit our communities by bringing cultural and economic vibrancy, entrepreneurship, and an expanded workforce for some of the state’s most critical industries. Wisconsin lawmakers should implement policies that promote prosperity for immigrants who are undocumented, their families, and the communities that welcome them.

Giving undocumented Wisconsin residents access to better opportunities would enable them to earn higher wages, spend more at local businesses, and contribute even more via their taxes to schools and other public investments that are critical to a strong economy. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities lays out four steps state lawmakers should take to achieve that goal:

1. Licenses for All

Wisconsin policymakers can create a more inclusive state and stronger economy by allowing immigrants who are undocumented to obtain driver’s licenses, which would not only help them get better jobs but could make our roads safer and modestly reduce insurance premiums.

  • Currently, 14 states and D.C. allow immigrants to get driver’s licenses regardless of their status.
  • Allowing people who are undocumented to obtain driver’s licenses would benefit children and families. An estimated 32,000 Wisconsin residents who are undocumented would get licenses if obstacles were removed, 14,000 of whom live with children and would be able to better care and provide for them.
  • Already-insured drivers could see savings of $16 million a year in lower insurance premiums.

Governor Evers included a provision in his budget proposal that would expand eligibility for driver’s licenses, but the Republican-controlled legislative budget committee removed the measure.

2. In-State Tuition Rates for All Students Who Grow Up in Wisconsin

Wisconsin policymakers can create a more inclusive state and stronger economy by allowing all Wisconsin residents, regardless of immigration status, to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities and to obtain state financial aid. Doing so would boost the skills and wages of the state workforce.

  • Twenty-one states and D.C. have adopted “tuition equity” laws or policies enabling resident students who meet certain criteria, regardless of immigration status, to pay in-state tuition rates at some or all public universities and colleges.
  • Twelve of these states and D.C. also offer state financial aid to resident students who are undocumented and qualify for in-state tuition.
  • These policies improve student outcomes. For example, the high school dropout rate for foreign-born, non-citizen Mexican students fell by 7 percentage points in states that adopted an in-state resident tuition policy, without any apparent negative effects on the academic achievement of U.S.-born students. College graduates earn about $24,000 more a year than their peers with only a high school diploma, on average.

Governor Evers’ proposed budget recommended removing the ban on in-state tuition rates for undocumented students who grow up in Wisconsin, but the legislative budget committee threw out his change.

3. Cracking Down on Wage Theft

Wisconsin policymakers can create a more inclusive state and stronger economy by not allowing employers to steal from their workers. We should make sure businesses follow the rules and pay all working people, regardless of immigration status, what they earn. Doing so would level the playing field for both businesses and workers in the state.

  • An estimated 37 percent of undocumented foreign-born workers were paid less than the minimum wage, compared to 21 percent of authorized foreign-born workers and 16 percent of U.S.-born workers.
  • These lost wages increase poverty and lower income tax revenues, harming workers and their families, public revenues, and the economy.
  • Despite the economic costs of wage theft, Wisconsin has fewer than 10 designated investigators to enforce the minimum wage.

4. Making Sure All Children Have Access to Health Care

Wisconsin policymakers can create a more inclusive state and stronger economy by expanding access to health care to all children, regardless of immigration status.

  • Children’s access to health insurance can lead to better long-term health outcomes, greater high school and college completion, and higher incomes in adulthood as a result.
  • Nearly a third of the nation’s one million children who are undocumented lack health coverage. Only six states and D.C. offer health care coverage to all children.


Wisconsin is home to about 86,000 residents who are undocumented. Despite the Trump Administration’s harmful rhetoric and administrative actions targeting these individuals and their families, people who are undocumented have continued to contribute to our communities and economy in significant ways:

  • Nearly three in five undocumented residents in Wisconsin have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, and about one in ten have lived here for 20 years or more.
  • More than one in three Wisconsin residents who are undocumented own their own homes.
  • Households headed by a person who is undocumented pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than the top one percent of U.S. households. Each year, they pay $72 million in state and local sales, income, and property taxes and would pay an additional $20 million if provided a pathway to citizenship.

Wisconsin can foster community well-being and strengthen its economy by adopting policies that provide all residents the opportunity to thrive regardless of their immigration status. Despite the Trump Administration’s inflammatory and harmful rhetoric, people who are undocumented already make significant contributions to our communities.

Read more here.