Before today, I have never been in a courtroom where the defendant appeared in chains and jail uniform. The fact that this individual was an undocumented immigrant who has not committed any real crime made a strong impression on me. Julio was taken to jail because of driving under the influence. Successively, it was determined that he had been previously deported and thus had a 10-year ban of re-entry into the country. Julio did return. His family back in Guatemala—a wife, two kids and his mother—relied on him to make a living. That’s why Julio had come to the United States in the first place in 2007. He was only 20 back then. At that age, many of his peers who are privileged enough to go to college in America get routinely drunk and behind the wheel. They do it because they are careless; they do it because they think they are invincible. In other words, they do it because they are young and stupid. Sometimes, they end up paying for their mistakes. A guy, White, I knew ended up killing someone. He spent one year in jail and then was left to deal with his guilt for the rest of his life. In many cases, young White kids get away with DUIs… And it’s not just about the youth. Have you ever got behind the wheel after having had a couple of beers? Most of us, whether we admit it publicly or not, have. My husband, who is also White, was recently stopped by a police officer near Tuscaloosa because he was speeding (doing 83 on a 65). We were driving back to Montgomery after a football game. My husband was never tested, and he was actually let go without even a ticket. He would have probably got a DUI if the officer had tested him. They were probably after people who were hammered, he said. He called himself lucky.
Looking at Julio in chains, I thought about the many injustices that people of color are subjected to in this country. Where does racial profiling begins? Where does it end? The Trayvon Martin case had the entire nation pondered these questions. It has had me reflect on the issue and its subtleties. Would my husband have received the same treatment if his last name had been Martinez or Mendoza? Ten days prior, I had been stopped myself for speeding on I-65. Even though there was no one else on the road (no one I had put in danger, say), the officer gave me a ticket. Incidentally, I was driving with two Mexican friends and a kid to an immigrant march in Birmingham. Incidentally, I have an accent as well. He didn’t let me off. Perhaps being a silent passenger in a driver’s seat ‘whitened’ me. Driving with Brown friends and verbally interacting with a police officer somehow highlighted my own difference.
I paid a $224 ticket to Chilton County. After all, I was doing 83 on a 70. I didn’t have any ground to contest the ticket. I was guilty of speeding. Yet, I debated until the last minute whether to go to court or not. I did want to tell the judge that charging someone for speeding less than 15 miles over the limit such amount is a total rip-off: it is, because in Chilton County for speeding 25 mph over the limit the ticket is only 20 bucks more ($244), and 10 more ($234) if you’re driving the wrong way. C’mon!
I didn’t know Julio before this morning. I went to the Montgomery federal courthouse in support of someone I was told was an ACIJ leader in the Dothan community.
On Nov. 15, Julio made a mistake. To celebrate the end of school—he had just gotten an accounting degree online—he had a beer or two. As someone who is not accustomed to drinking, he tested positive. Julio is 26, works two jobs—he waits tables and singlehandedly cleans a movie theatre—, and volunteers with a variety of community-based organizations. Based on the many people that have testified in front of the judge today, he’s definitely a role model for the youngest, an inspiration for the DREAMers in Dothan. Someone who is not afraid to speak up; someone who has empowered younger kids.
ACIJ executive director Ingrid Chapman put it best in her testimony: If we keep Julio in jail, someone who is a much needed interpreter for the Guatemalans who often don’t speak Spanish but only their indigenous languages, someone who teaches Spanish and about life in Guatemala to underprivileged Black kids, someone who has been an important liaison, pivotal for starting a dialogue among Latin@, African American and White churches, lastly, someone who does not routinely drink, but is a responsible, trustworthy member of the community who is here to work and provide for his family back home, “if we put in jail someone like him, what kind of message are we sending back to the Dothan community?”
Julio’s story is not exceptional. It is an immigrant’s story. It is an American story.
Judge Moorer didn’t rule on the case today. He had to decide whether Julio poses a threat to the community and is at risk of flight before his trial. After thanking the numerous witnesses and supporters in attendance, the judge uncommonly said that he needed more time. He needed to review similar cases brought up by both the defense attorney (Nicole Ramos) and the U.S. attorney office (Todd Brown).
The judge seemed sincerely moved by the many people who had taken time off from work and/or travelled hours to be supportive of Julio. Julio was privileged too today, perhaps for the first time in his life, as he was publicly recognized for all he does for others. He had the rare privilege to listen to his eulogy while alive. I wish him to have the necessary peace of mind while he is waiting for his sentence. But judging from his serene demeanor while in court, I think he already has. Good luck.