Julie Colon never planned on becoming an activist. But two years ago, when her mother sent her a newspaper clipping from prison about a new group for drug offenders’ relatives, Julie, then 20, decided to check it out. She discovered that prisoners’ families were trying to repeal New York state’s strict drug laws by holding protests around New York City, and so she began attending their rallies. Carrying a poster with her mother’s photo—and surrounded by other inmates’ relatives—Julie imagined her efforts might help repeal the so-called Rockefeller drug laws.
Three days before Christmas, Julie received a far greater reward for her activism than she ever expected. Governor George Pataki granted clemency to five drug prisoners, including Julie’s 57-year-old mother, Melita Oliveira. In 1987, Melita had been arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport, trying to return to the U.S. with five and a half ounces of cocaine hidden inside her girdle. Though she did not have a rap sheet, the state’s drug laws required a judge to punish her with a mandatory prison sentence: 15-years-to-life.
Julie, who was nine years old when Melita went to prison, was ecstatic that her mother was finally coming home. Then the bad news arrived. Melita called from prison to say that the INS was planning to ship her back to Peru. It did not matter that Melita is a permanent legal resident nor that she moved from Peru to Paterson, New Jersey, more than 20 years ago. The INS routinely deports most noncitizens who have been convicted of drug crimes.
Melita is scheduled to go before the state parole board on January 24. Clemency recipients usually leave prison a few days later. But after 13 years in prison, Melita will likely be taken to another jail—the INS detention facility on Varick Street in Manhattan—while she waits for INS officials to decide her fate.
Meanwhile, Julie has dived back into the role of activist, dialing lawyers and trying to convince them to pick up her mother’s case. Last week, she found an attorney with the help of Randy Credico, head of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which organized the anti-drug-law rallies for prisoners’ families. The attorney, Manuel Vargas, head of the Criminal Defense Immigration Project of the New York State Defenders Association, is hopeful.
“If there’s any case where [INS officials] should be exercising discretion, it’s this one,” Vargas says. “Clemency is so rarely granted that you have to assume anyone who is granted clemency merits one of these immigration waivers. [But] if the immigration service does not exercise discretion, she could wind up in the situation thousands of immigrants are in now”—languishing in an INS jail while awaiting resolution of their case.
Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesperson, is less optimistic. “There’s really no leeway at all,” Strassberger says. “The kind of conviction she received would prevent her from having any form of relief—because of the nature of the crime and because it involved drugs and because of the length of the sentence.”
The INS considers Melita a “criminal alien,” and as the INS spokesperson explains, “Removal of criminal aliens is the top priority of the agency.” Meanwhile, Melita’s children cling to hope of a family reunion. When their mother went to prison, Julie and her four older siblings were separated and sent to stay with assorted relatives and friends. Now, all five of Melita’s children, who range in age from 22 to 32, reside in New Jersey. Four of them, including Julie, live together in the Paterson house their mother still owns.
When Julie first began attending anti-drug-law vigils, she was pregnant and had a fairly empty schedule. “Some of my relatives were afraid—with the careers they have—that there might be some sort of discrimination or they’d lose their jobs,” says Julie about her siblings, who include a nurse and a police officer. “So at the time, I decided—let me represent my family.” Today, Julie is a political-science major at Passaic County Community College and has Nasir, a 16-month-old baby, to raise. Still, she continues to act as the family’s public face.
Last Thursday, Julie, dressed in a black suit, was picked up and driven from Paterson to the mid-Manhattan studios of Court TV. It was to be Julie’s first appearance on a talk show. She had left Nasir with a babysitter and e-mailed a professor to explain why she was missing class. But at the last minute, her appearance was canceled. The trial of Rae Carruth, the former NFL wide receiver who was eventually convicted of conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend, bumped the segment about Julie’s mother off the air. Court TV invited her back this week.
Julie is nervous about appearing on national television, but she is convinced that her mother’s only chance at freedom depends on her continued activism. On Sunday, Julie traveled to Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester County to see Melita. “She doesn’t know much—like when she will be released, or how long the INS will take,” says Julie, who hopes her mother will soon move in with her. “I have my fingers crossed.”