Colorado Immigrants Right Coalition's Julien Ross discusses his "spider-bite moment"

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Editor's note: This is the latest profile in Kelsey Whipple's ongoing series highlighting local political activists.

For his first job, a preteen Julien Ross sold lemonade and lied about it. Or at the very least, he didn't tell the whole truth about it. The juice came from freshly squeezed lemons, Ross told customers -- but it also happened to include quite a bit of Country Time powder. And while that first gig taught Ross the basics of business, his next stretch, waiting tables, taught him the groundwork of humanity.

The founding director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition grew up in Santa Fe; the evidence decorates his sparse office walls, which are spotted with photos of his hometown. Through high school courses, Ross learned Spanish from his teachers, but he learned how to pronounce it from his restaurant coworkers, a group dominated by Hispanic immigrants. And he put it to use on trips abroad, saving his tips for Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico. Each time he returned, he related more easily to his fellow kitchen staff.

"I'll never be able to forget one night when we were taking out the trash around 10 p.m. and Miguel told me his family member was lost in the desert," Ross says. "He had been crossing over from Mexico, and they feared he had died. That planted the seed in me that this wasn't right."

Today, Ross calls it his "spider-bite moment" -- the realization that the United States immigration system could not bring Miguel's family over safely. Every year, between 400 and 450 people die crossing into the United States, he learned, and the fact drove him to pursue public policy and Latin American studies in graduate school at the University of Austin. While there, he took a job with Casa Marianella, a shelter for migrant immigrants that has developed a vast reputation through word-of-mouth.

"If you can imagine it, it came through our doors," Ross says. "People escaped from Iraq, from violence, from family, from whatever you can think to come here, and that's only half of the battle. After a while, we noticed a trend in Americans taking advantage of them."

During his years at Marianella, Ross joined the nonprofit's staff and developed classes on how to survive in the United States -- opening a bank account, finding a job, applying for a driver's license, etc. Before long, his students opened up to him, telling Ross that their employers regularly refused to pay them for menial labor.

So Ross founded the Workers' Defense Project, which works to recover wages and rights for immigrant employees. Today, the offshoot 501(c)(3) is ten years old, and the 37-year-old has spent the past five on his next step, direct action. Although CIRC began in 2002 as a loose coalition, it cemented its status as a civil rights force in the community in 2006, a tense year for Colorado immigration and the one in which Ross became its first full-time staff member.

With roughly sixty organizational members and 6,000 supporters, CIRC employs eight people in Denver, Montrose, Longmont and Glenwood who work to advance the state's immigration policies -- and occasionally, says Ross, just to stop them from moving backwards. "The dialogue around immigration here was really being driven by people other than our members, and we had to change that," he says. "It was being driven by talk-show hosts."

In 2010, the organization's greatest achievement came out of its greatest conflict. Supporter Edgar Niebla name appeared on an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement list while his immigration status was stuck in limbo, and he was handcuffed and taken into custody at 6 a.m. Over the next 36 hours, members of CIRC petitioned state and national figures to speak out in favor of returning Niebla to his family, spreading updates through Twitter, Facebook, phone calls and faxes across the country.

"It was like one of our own was attacked," Ross says. Fewer than two days later, the same group celebrated Niebla's return. It is this story, and others like it, that Ross returns to when CIRC's efforts are less successful -- when the Dream Act failed and, later, when ASSET did the same. Today, Niebla is member of CIRC's board of directors and an example of the ten-year-old coalition's staying power.

"I would never compare the immigrant rights movement to the Civil Rights movement because I think they each deserve their own place in history," Ross says. "But that's what it felt like. And it felt important."

Can you think of any other political activists we should profile? E-mail suggestions to kelsey.whipple@westword.com.

More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."

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