He Never Flinched: A U.S. Citizen Was Detained by the MCSO and Then Testified Before Congress About His Being Racially Profiled

Editor's note: This is one of a group of individual accounts of racial profiling by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's forces. The next personal story will appear on our Web site Wednesday night, December 9.

Just about everyone in Julio Mora's family plays baseball, including his three older brothers and his dad, Julian. Mora, who turns 20 this month, played for years with Little League teams in the Valley, and he has the trophies and medals to prove how good he was.

You could usually find him playing shortstop, but he'd take on just about any position if need be. He often practiced with his elder brothers and his pop. Only his sister sat out the family games.

"My dad always set us up to play stronger guys, bigger guys," recalled Mora recently over coffee with his wife, Victoria, and their 4-month-old baby, Cecilia, nearby. "So we were never scared of the ball. We were always facing the ball, never pulled away, never closed our eyes. My dad was serious about the sport."

Lessons learned playing baseball with his father held Mora in good stead when he testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in April. Mora was the star witness during a hearing held on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 287(g) agreements with local police entities. Such agreements allow cops to enforce federal immigration law.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, one of ICE's partners in the program, has since lost his federal 287(g) street authority, but he retains it in his jails. The April hearing turned, in part, on how people such as Arpaio misuse that federal grant of power.

Before a raised dais filled with congressmen, the young Mora related the incidents of February 11, 2009, when he and his dad were detained for three hours during a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office immigration raid on H.M.I Landscaping, a firm that, ironically, was contracted with Maricopa County to do clean up around Arpaio's jails.

Mora is an American citizen and was accompanying his father, a legal resident, to his dad's work at H.M.I when two sheriff's SUVs cut them off before they arrived. Without explanation, the pair were zip-tied and brought onto H.M.I.'s property, where they had to endure a long wait.

Julian Mora, a 67-year-old who suffers from diabetes, was refused several requests to use the bathroom. Eventually, sheriff's deputies allowed him to urinate behind a vehicle parked nearby. His son Julio was allowed to go to the bathroom with his hands zip-tied in front of him, as the deputies watched and cracked crude jokes.

The Moras' ordeal is now the subject of a lawsuit filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union on their behalf. The ACLU contends that the Moras were pulled over because they're brown and because the deputies could see the elder Mora's tejana hat through the windows of his truck. There has never been an allegation that the elder Mora, who was driving, violated any rules of the road.

As the ACLU complaint reads, "The Moras were effectively taken prisoner by armed MCSO personnel without any explanation for their arrest."

Nor was there an explanation when the father and son were cut loose hours later.

Many of the congressmen who heard Julio Mora's account were sympathetic. However, Steve King, a Republican Representative from Iowa, was decidedly not.

He questioned why Mora's dad had not yet become a U.S. citizen after being in the country for more than 30 years. (Though, as Mora pointed out later, his dad has applied to be a citizen and is in the process of becoming one.)

The congressman suggested that Mora senior should have known that some of those working with him at H.M.I. were illegal, and that he should have turned them in.

King then went in for the kill, asking the younger Mora if the ordeal he experienced at the hands of the MCSO outweighed the tragic death of a young girl killed by a DUI driver who happened to be undocumented. The girl's father was at the witness table just down from Mora, there to speak in favor of the 287(g) program.

Like a fast pitch thrown during family practice, Mora didn't flinch. He said he was sorry for the man's loss, despite the congressman's asking him to compare wildly different circumstances. Mora told the congressman that he wanted local police to enforce the law, but "be smart about it."

In other words, not detain American citizens and legal residents just because they happen to be Hispanic.

"That congressman actually caught me off guard," Mora said later. "He came on strong. At first, I froze a little bit; I don't know if anyone noticed. It was the toughest moment of all."

If Mora froze, it wasn't apparent to observers. Afterward, activists and lawyers praised him for his testimony. Mora admitted he had been nervous flying into D.C. for the hearing. It was the first time he'd ever been to another part of the country.

The youngest of his father's children, Mora grew up without his mother, who died of an unknown ailment when he was 6 months old. His father raised the kids as a single dad. Mora's father hails from an impoverished little town in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Both he and his wife came to the United States in 1972.

"They had a rougher life than we did," said Mora of his dad. "They wanted for their kids, for us, to have a better life."

Mora's father put food on the table through a variety of jobs: landscaping, fieldwork, picking lettuce, irrigating farms, cleaning houses. Anything to make ends meet.

He taught young Julio to never be afraid, and to respect authority. Now he's disappointed in the police, according to his son.

"He's lost a lot of trust with the sheriff's [forces]," said Mora. "Like he says, instead of catching real criminals, they're putting hard-working people in jail."

Julian Mora hasn't worked at H.M.I. since the raid. Currently, he's looking for employment, though finding it isn't easy for a laborer in a down economy. Julio Mora now works at Moon Valley Nursery six days a week and lives with his wife, their daughter and Mora's dad in the same Avondale residence.

The junior Mora admitted that he has not been the subject of retaliation by the Sheriff's Office, like so many others who have spoken out. But he's still worried when he sees sheriff's deputies.

When the sheriff did a sweep in Avondale earlier this year, Mora was at a local church-run carnival. Once he heard that the MCSO was doing one of their anti-immigrant dragnets, he made a beeline for home.

He said he gets recognized occasionally at neighborhood eateries and gas stations. But he confessed that he's jittery about the civil action, with its depositions and court appearances

"It still makes me nervous," he said of going public against Arpaio. "Because I know that the day is going to come where I'm going to have to go through it all again with the lawsuit."

And yet he's bolstered by the memory of what he saw his father go through during the H.M.I. raid.

"I don't think any son or daughter should see his dad get arrested," he offered. "And it was for nothing. We didn't do anything wrong."