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Thousands occupy Wisconsin Capitol in ‘Day Without Latinos’ protest

Luz Sosa

Dairy production in famously cheesy Wisconsin may be slowing to a drip today.

Thousands of Latinos from across the Badger State have mobilized today, walking out of their jobs and schools in protest of two bills in the state legislature that activists say are anti-immigrant and by extension anti-Latino.

Organizers at Voces de la Frontera, a Wisconsin immigrant-rights group, are calling the action “A Day Without Latinos.” Some Latino-owned businesses have closed in support, while others around the state are closing in solidarity.

On Thursday morning, this was the scene at the state capitol in Madison:

An estimated 14,000 people were in attendance in front of the Capitol building, an official at the Madison Police Department told Fusion. There have been no reported arrests. “It’s a very, very peaceful crowd,” said the official. “Lots of families there with their children.”

That number does not include the people inside the Capitol building. Capitol Police estimate that about 1,500 people were inside the building during the peak hour of noon to 1 p.m., an official told Fusion. Overall, the Capitol Police independently estimated 14,000 people were in attendance, lining up with the city police account.

One of the bills being contested is Assembly Bill 450, which aims to prohibit “sanctuary cities” from being created in the state. “Sanctuary cities” direct their police departments not to inquire about a person’s immigration status when they come in contact with law enforcement. Republicans in the state assembly (Wisconsin’s version of a State House) passed the bill along partisan lines.

“It’s similar to Arizona’s bill that was passed that went on to the Supreme Court,” Marisabel Cabrera, a Milwaukee immigration attorney who drove to Madison for the rally, told Fusion, referring to the controversial Arizona law that was mostly struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012. The bill is expected to be heard by the state’s Senate in the near future.

Luz Sosa

Inside the Wisconsin State Capitol building on Thursday, February 18, 2016.

Another bill that has drawn ire from Latino groups is SB 533, which would restrict local governments from issuing local photo IDs for people who cannot get state IDs for some reason or another. The bill was passed by Republicans in the Senate earlier this week, along partisan lines. It will soon go to the Assembly.

Milwaukee recently passed a law that would allow it to start issuing the local IDs to the city’s undocumented immigrants and homeless populations. The law has not yet gone into effect.

“[The bills] increase the fear of anyone who is undocumented, and it’s going to negatively impact the state in general, because if people think they’re gonna be asked for their papers they’re not gonna go to school, they’re not gonna go to work; they’re gonna go more underground,” said Cabrera. “And that’s not gonna be helpful for anybody.”

Part of the reason the state’s “Day Without Latinos” is so important is because it will “let people know how much Latinos contribute to this state,” said Luz Sosa, a University professor at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, and organizer with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a progressive activist group.

“We’re not going to stand by and be discriminated against and have our rights trampled on,” she told Fusion while en route to the capitol building from Milwaukee.

The economic impact of the action is not immediately clear, but it will likely have a big impact the state’s dairy industry.

In preparation for the action, dairy farmers expressed to local papers that were concerned that the production would drop sharply, as workers leave to show solidarity. Approximately 90% of people in the state’s dairy industry are from Mexico, according to a study cited by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The head of one dairy farm told the paper it reached a compromise, where it agreed to give full pay to a handful of its employees while they go to the rally and represent their coworkers, to avoid working with a skeleton crew. The bills stand to make his employees feel less welcome in the state, he said, even though all his employees are in the U.S. legally.

“That disturbs me very much because my employees are very welcomed,” Don Niles, a dairy farmer owner, told the paper. “The vast majority of my workforce, with the exception of my family and two other people, are all from outside the United States originally.”

In Madison, restaurants and businesses surrounding the capitol have closed in support of the action. Other businesses including tattoo parlors, tax preparation services, daycares, coffeeshops and more are also closing for the day across the state, according to a press release issued by Voces de la Frontera.

“In 2006 we defeated [a bill] by mobilizing a massive Day without Latinos,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Executive Director of Voces de la Frontera in a statement. “It is urgent that we do the same on February 18th.”

Fusion’s Evelyn Baker contributed to this report

Update: A crowd estimate from the Capitol Police has been added to this story.

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