By Eugene Kane Senior Writer and Columnist Published May 06, 2013 at 3:05 PM

Is the ongoing battle between the city and the taxi cab drivers who act as the unofficial ambassadors for Milwaukee with visitors and residents a civil rights issue?

Milwaukee aldermen are trying to figure out how to deal with a recent court ruling that found the city's rigid cap on the number of taxicab permits unconstitutional.

Hearings have been held to address whether the city should increase the cap on the number of permits allowed or do away with it altogether. The latest hearing on taxi cabs will be held in City Hall today; the speakers will be only those involved in the hotel, restaurant or tourist industry since the cab-drivers themselves had their say at an earlier hearing last week.

Cab drivers in Milwaukee see the city as particularly harsh on limiting the opportunities for cab-drivers to make a living, which was the crux of a lawsuit filed against the city ordinance that a Milwaukee County judge ruled was unconstitutional last month.

In the wake of that ruling, city officials are scrambling to figure out what to do about an issue that has been brewing for decades in a city that has significantly fewer taxi cabs serving busy Downtown districts than other cities of comparable size.

Anthony Sanders, an attorney representing Milwaukee cab drivers on behalf of the Institute for Justice law center, says the issue is akin to any other matter that impacts on a person's right to seek work in a legal fashion.

"It is a civil rights issue," said Sanders, who is based in Minneapolis. "The city needs to lift the cap to allow people to have the right to apply for their own permits and have the ability to earn a living."

Sanders said that Milwaukee had a particularly ironclad grip over the taxi cab industry with ordinances that allowed cab companies to impose unfair restrictions on their employee/drivers.

"The situation in Milwaukee is particularly egregious," said Sanders, who noted the ratio of cab drivers to residents was one cab to every 850 residents, which was much lower than in other cities.

Many of the cab drivers represented by Sanders are immigrants to the country, either naturalized citizens or those with work visas. That's probably no surprise to anyone who takes a cab in Milwaukee or other big cities and Sanders said it wasn't just a coincidence.

"Taxi drivers is a quintessential immigrant occupation," he said. "It's the kind of job that requires long hours and hard work, the kind of blood, sweat and tears  that these people take on to realize their American dream."

Sanders said that the overwhelming number of Milwaukee cab drivers were immigrants, which means the cap on cab permits was an issue with national ramifications as Congress debates new immigration reforms.

For many immigrants, working in the taxi cab industry is a career that only requires a safe driving record and ability to get around the city. That could help provide legal jobs for the immigrants that are the focus of many politicians in Washington D.C.

On Milwaukee's east side, there are a number of restaurants and coffee shops where cab drivers from different countries congregate to talk shop and complain about the city's treatment of their colleagues.

I've talked with a cab driver from Somalia who told me that he can't make enough money under current restrictions because the cost of a taxi cab permit can be as high as 150,000. That means the taxi cab companies are the only ones who can afford it and individual drivers are at the mercy of the management in doling out a valuable resource.

Milwaukee has a cap on taxi cab permits at 321 for reasons that some suggest involve everything from a back room deal with cab companies to the ongoing debate over pubic transportation to an unwillingness to allow the free market decide how many cabs the city needs.

In recent years, some of the people who opposed raising the cap have softened their stance, according to Sanders. "The iron wall is beginning to break."

The City Hall meeting today will be the latest step in figuring out whether Milwaukee's stance on taxi cabs is a relic of the past.

This isn't the kind of city where you can count on stepping out on any street corner with a raised hand and hailing a cab immediately. For some people, that's been a big problem; for others, it's no big deal.

The city's cab drivers who recently won the battle to protect their constitutional rights – even if they weren't born here – want to let the market decide once and for all.

Eugene Kane Senior Writer and Columnist

Eugene Kane is veteran Milwaukee journalist and nationally award winning columnist.

Kane writes about a variety of important issues in Milwaukee and society that impact residents of all backgrounds.