April 12th, 2019
I arrived at the Oak Creek Community Center at 7:00 AM on Wednesday. I was expecting to meet Mario from Voces de la Frontera. He told me that we needed to be there very early if we wanted to speak in front of the Joint Finance Committee hearing that was scheduled to start at 10:00 AM. We weren’t the only people there early. There was already a small group of people gathered in front of the building, braving the wind and snow.
A man named Dave stood at the door with a large, yellow notepad. I’m not sure who he is, or what organization he represents. However, he took charge of things. He made a list of people as they showed up. I think he ended up with well over one hundred names. Dave explained to each person that everyone would line up in order at 8:30, at which time, in theory, the community center would be ready to accept us inside. Dave told me that I could hang out in the cold (not my top choice), or I could go have a coffee somewhere, and come back to the center at 8:30.
I went for coffee at a nearby Starbucks with Mario and Deb. Both of them are from Voces. Deb mentioned that she planned on going on a trip to Las Vegas in the near future. I mentioned that I have bad memories from Vegas due to the fact that I was in jail there. Mario wanted to know why I was in jail. I explained that I engaged in civil disobedience during a protest at Creech AFB in 2017. Deb has also been busted at times for CD, but mostly on the behalf of Voces de la Frontera and its immigrant constituency.
Mario told us that he admired us because we were brave enough to be arrested for our beliefs (I am convinced that there is fine line between courage and stupidity, and sometimes those two things are hopelessly intertwined). Mario further explained that he came to the United States from Guatemala, years ago. He remembers the army in Guatemala killing people, even little children, because they were “communists”. He also remembers people, protesters, disappearing…forever. That’s a whole new level of courage for people willing to protest. Yeah, getting busted at a demonstration in the U.S. sucks, but we have no idea of the real costs of standing up to power. I don’t.
We went back to the community center at 8:30. It was still cold and windy as the milling crowd formed a ragged line in front of the building. I found my place between a young man and an older woman in the queue. The younger man was named Allen. He was there to speak about closing the MSDF (Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility). He had been incarcerated there, and the authorities had turned off the water to his cell for 48 hours. The woman behind me was Joyce, the wife of a local Protestant minister. Joyce has been an advocate for the poor for many years. I know that she is has been in jail many times because of her efforts to fight injustice in its myriad forms. We talked for a while, as we slowly shuffled into the center.
I had never been to this kind of hearing before. The people running the meeting issued a pink slip of paper to each person who wished to testify. We each filled out the slip with our name, address, and phone number. Then they filed each slip in the order in which it was received. We were all told that each of us would get a solid two minutes (120 seconds) to speak our piece in front of the committee members. The only exception to that rule was that a group of speakers would get a whole five minutes to plead their case.
The venue for the hearing was small, way too small. The hall filled rapidly, and soon there was standing room only. It became obvious to me that some groups were well organized, the folks from AARP had managed to fill four entire rows in front of the dais. There were also a large contingent from a group that was there to close down MSDF and stop funding for more prisons. Everybody was there on a mission. There were no idle spectators.
I sat with a few other people from Voces. We were there to speak up about getting drivers licenses for all state residents, including those persons who are undocumented. How does that issue affect the state budget? It affects the budget only in a peripheral sense. The fact is that undocumented immigrants work and pay taxes. If they cannot legally drive to work, they won’t work, and they will not pay taxes. That is the tenuous connection between drivers licenses for immigrants and the Wisconsin state budget. It’s a bit of a reach, but it’s all we got.
There were serious players at the hearing. The Milwaukee County Executive spoke to the committee, as did the chairman of the Milwaukee Common Council. There were a lot of suits there (men and women with coats and ties). Money spoke first. It always speaks first.
The first person to give his comments from Voces was Ken. He was using a walker to get up to the microphone. Ken did what he was expected to do. The budget hearings are generally about dollars. Ken had a prepared statement, from which he read. He rattled off numbers to convince the members of the committee that it made economic sense to give undocumented immigrants a license to drive. He paid little attention to the alerts from the timekeeper as he ran through his figures. Eventually, the chairperson asked Ken to end his comments. Ken reluctantly surrendered the microphone to the next speaker.
Others spoke, some eloquently, some not. People got up to ask for more money for schools. People got up to ask for a more equitable sharing of state funding. People got up to talk about conditions in jails and prisons. An older black man spoke softly about his horrendous experience in the MSDF. That cut to the core. AARP spoke about providing assets to allow seniors to stay in their homes. Anything that had to do with money was fair game. That meant that almost any comment was relevant.
I waited anxiously to speak. I wasn’t scared to talk in front of the crowd. That didn’t bother me. I was more worried that I would not get called in time. I needed to take an undocumented immigrant to his court appearance in Jackson at noon. It would have been ironic if I had been unable to speak before the committee, just because I needed to help a person who was the topic of my speech. I waited. I do not wait well.
Deb struggled to compose her two minute speech. She had it all worked out on her phone. She asked for my opinion. That was probably a mistake. To me, it seemed far too long. Like Ken, she had all sorts of facts and statistics. I told her that it looked good, but that she should focus on what she was most passionate about. Speak from the heart.
Time dragged. Dozens of people went up to the mike to talk about their issues. With rare exceptions, they all read from written documents. I understand the need to have something in writing, but those words always seem flat and lifeless when they are spoken. I listened to the speakers and I looked at the glazed expressions of the committee members.
Deb and I were finally called up for the final queue. Deb went first. she did well. She incorporated the experiences of her immigrant ancestors into her brief talk, along with her numbers and facts. Deb spoke clearly and passionately. She spoke well.
I went up shortly after Deb did. I had no notes. I had nothing prepared, except what was already in my mind and my heart. I am by nature an introvert. That is why I am writing to you now. However, I can, at times, speak to others. It is hard for me, but I can do it, sometimes.
I got up and went to the microphone. I said,
“I have no numbers for you. I only have my experiences.
My name is Francis Pauc. I work with the New Sanctuary Movement, and with Voces de la Frontera.
I take undocumented immigrants to their court appearances. I escort them because they need me. These people are scared. I am not their lawyer. I am not their translator. I go with them because I am their friend.
These people are in court almost always for traffic violations. They are there almost always because they are driving without a license. They are driving without a license because the State of Wisconsin won’t give them one. So, why do they drive without a license? They drive because they have to get to work, and there is no public transportation system to get them there. They have to drive. They have to work. They have to pay their bills and support their families.
We are criminalizing them because they are doing what they are supposed to do.
These people pay their taxes. As a byproduct, you will get you revenue.
I am in favor of giving licenses to all Wisconsin residents because it is the smart thing to do.
It is also the right thing to do.”
I did not use my two minutes. I did not need to do that.
I just walked away from the mike. I walked toward the back of the room. Some people smiled and waved. One man shook my hand. Mario gave me a hug.
I don’t know if I made any difference. I don’t care. I did my job.