Parishioners filed out of the Sunday's Spanish Mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church shortly after 1 p.m. and filed into the gym, behind the 84-year-old beautiful and architecturally historic church, which is listed on the National Register. There they joined the mayor and police chief on folding chairs for a bilingual session, punctuated by immigrants' tears, and by frequent applause for what the mayor had to say.
Three women laid out the problem Hispanics face here:
Martha -- a mother of 10 children, including a disabled child needing dialysis weekly -- described her family's hardships when she was forced out of the country. "It was very hard for my husband. My son got worse, he lost his sight. We are homeowners, small business owners; we've lived here for 15 years; we pay our bills. Somehow we got through with the help of God." But she said her son cannot have a kidney transplant because he's not a legal permanent resident -- and "you have to wait 12 years to become a citizen." She thanked the mayor for writing several letters on her behalf.
Julia described an arrest. "When the police pulled us over, my husband didn't have ID on him. He was handcuffed, they searched the car. He gave his name, but the cop couldn't find it (it was hyphenated) in the database. The car that passed us, speeding, they got nothing. Me, being born and raised here, I didn't expect this. It's just not right." She believes they were treated that way because they are of Mexican descent. Police said they were stopped because their car had tinted windows.
Maria told a similar story. "The words 'racial profiling' leave us with a bitterness in our heart." She described a young man's arrest: "Police were very aggressive with him, knocked him to the floor, kicked him and put him in handcuffs.They took him to jail for three days. His mother took him his medication in jail. When he went to court, he was found not guilty." But she said his asthma was exacerbated by the arrest, and led to a heart attack, and the need for a pacemaker.
"His only sin was his skin color," she said.
All that was preamble for Mayor Becker, who addressed the crowd under a Racine Interfaith Coalition banner proclaiming "Peace in our Neighborhoods, Peace in our Schools, Peace in our Hearts."
Mayor Gary Becker, and translator Sonia Tellez
"It's an honor to be your mayor. Nothing would make me happier at City Council meetings than to look at the aldermen's desks and see some of the faces I see here," he said, adding -- with a smile and a nod to the two aldermen present, Jim Kaplan, District 4, and Greg Helding, District 11 -- "Nothing personal, guys."
The mayor, who has been a vocal proponent of immigration reform, said there are two reasons it is needed. "The first is moral: We're doing it because it is what any loving God would want. The second is common sense. It's self-serving from a city perspective. Unfortunately, some politicians have demogogued this issue to convince voters immigrants are a threat, the source of all evils. Unfortunately, immigrants have always been a target for politicians who want scapegoats.
"But I'm here to tell you, I value and respect the contributions you make to our cities....Racine is better off because of immigrants."
The mayor described the resolution passed by the US conference of Mayors in June, at their meeting in Miami, a resolution that urges suspension of raids, responsible immigration reform and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Becker explained, "Mayors don't get to write immigration laws, but the US Conference of Mayors does carry some influence with the members of Congress." The statement was met with applause.
Questions from the audience concerned similar issues. Asked what can be done about the cost of getting legal ID, the mayor responded, "There's no law we (mayors) can pass. The best I can tell you is we will continue to push them on the issue."
A young woman described to Chief Wahlen how she, and a black man in her car, were stopped on the way from the beach. She said she asked the policeman why they were stopped, and he reportedly replied, "Well, you looked suspicious."
Wahlen, who has spent 32 years on the police force, began by telling the audience two things they don't know about him: he has an Hispanic sister-in-law, and he has been on 20 Christian missions in Central America. He said racial profiling is a term used very loosely, and defended his officers, saying that in the case of the woman pulled over for having excessively tinted car windows, "Probably the officer couldn't see into the car," and thus didn't stop it because of the race of the occupants. "Our officers must have probable cause to make a traffic stop," he said.
He described the process citizens should follow when they believe racial profiling has been invoked: "There is a process to investigate racial profiling. Citizenship is not a factor in the investigation. Simply come down to the police station and ask for a complaint form. We may interview you. I am involved in all complaints. I can assure you, I take them all seriously."
Wahlen told the crowd, to applause, "I want an aggressive police department. But there is no place for unprofessional conduct."
RIC will hold another meeting on Oct. 21. The mayor has agreed to attend.