Elias Bermudez, a force among Arizona’s thousands of Spanish-speakers, quickly is gaining notice from the rest of the population.
Being at the center of a series of massive protest marches will do that to a person.
Bermudez serves as president of Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, one of the local Hispanic advocacy groups shaping the discussion on national and state immigration policies.
The charismatic radio talkshow host and businessman is a key figure in the planned march from the State Fairground to the state Capitol on Monday, an event projected to draw as many as 100,000 people.
However, he prefers to give credit to others and is quick to point out that he’s just one of hundreds of volunteers and that Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras (Immigrants Without Borders) is just one of 43 groups involved in the effort.
“What’s going on is activism on the part of a sleeping giant, which is the Hispanic community,” he said.
To be certain, Bermudez has done plenty to awaken that giant.
He has met with federal and state officials to push for immigration reform measures. He promotes peaceful activism on his radio show and frequently serves as a spokesman for Hispanic causes, including last month’s 20,000-person march through central Phoenix.
During the middle of the March 24 march, unable to hear well on a cell phone because of the crowd noise, he practically interviewed himself for the benefit of a reporter on the other end of the line.
The marchers seek a guest worker program and a path to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the United States, he said.
Likewise, a flurry of other activist groups has emerged to influence immigration policy.
On the immigration side: Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, Arizona Interfaith Network and Radio Campesina, among others.
On the anti-illegal immigration side: Arizona Border Watch, Mothers Against Illegal Aliens and The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
Several factors have charged the debate in recent years, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
“If the numbers are right, if you’ve got 10 million or 15 million illegals in the U.S., that obviously creates a certain saliency,” he said.
Most estimates peg the figure at 11 million to 12 million. Perhaps more important, illegal immigrants are moving well beyond the border states and are appearing in significant numbers in the Southeast, Northeast and elsewhere.
Plus, Camarota said, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks raised public awareness about the weaknesses of the immigration system, and President Bush has pushed for immigration reform.
Last, advocacy groups are forming to oppose one another. “That creates a very real contentious political debate and it makes the public discourse kind of incoherent, as well,” he said.
Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras supports debate, Bermudez said. “It’s democracy at work. It’s the greatest thing about this country,” he said.
In general, the group advocates a guest worker program for immigrants and a path to citizenship for immigrants already here, he said.
The group specifically has not endorsed any of the competing proposals being considered in Congress.
Bermudez, 55, has personal insight into issues associated with immigration.
He’s a former illegal immigrant who is now a U.S. citizen. He’s a former agricultural worker, mayor, prisoner and current businessman.
In addition to his earlymorning radio stint on KIDR (740 AM), he’s the founder and executive director of Centro de Ayuda, a Phoenix-based immigration document preparation firm.
He is a Republican whose office on East Thomas Road is decorated with photos of his family and sculptures of elephants.
He said he has never stood in an unemployment line and he opposes welfare programs because they limit the upward mobility of minorities.
Bermudez works to keep followers on-message, which means never demeaning political opponents, even when his side endures insults from others.
“Talking bad about somebody else doesn’t make you any prettier or any better. You can attack anyone you want to create the atmosphere of animosity, but it’s better to join hands and say, ‘We have a problem,’ and recognize that problem is a mutual problem,” he said.
Bermudez was born in San Miguel de Bavispe in central Sonora. He is the oldest of 12 children and first came to the United States on a student visa in 1966. He lived in California for 18 months, before his father, a minister, brought him back to Mexico because he was becoming too “Americanized.”
In fact, he was. After four months back in his hometown, he returned to the United States. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry, dad. I just won’t make it here. I can’t make it here,’ ” he recalled.
Bermudez arrived in east Los Angeles at 17 years old as an illegal immigrant and worked a number of restaurant jobs. He became an activist during a riot in Los Angeles in 1968, he said.
He was standing on a street corner watching the melee when a sheriff’s deputy pulled up in a squad car. From the open window, the deputy said, “Come here.”
When Bermudez neared the car, the deputy grabbed him by the belt, pulled him against the car and with his free hand, searched Bermudez’s pockets, Bermudez said.
“Then when he found out I had no weapons, he just goes — Boom! — and pushes me back and throws me on the ground and they just drive off,” Bermudez said. “I said, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ I think I became an activist in that moment.”
He obtained legal permanent residence status in 1973 and moved to San Luis in Yuma County to be near family who lived across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, in 1975.
He drove a produce delivery truck, then opened a building materials sales business. He also became active in the drive to incorporate San Luis. He became a U.S. citizen in 1978 and was appointed as the town’s first vice mayor a year later.
He became the first elected mayor in 1980 and served two years. He became involved in the 1986 immigration reform measure and started his first immigration document processing firm the following year.
Bermudez’s jail stint was the result of trying to help a brother-in-law, who was dealing drugs, he said.
“It was a shame on our family to have someone in the family dealing with drugs, after a very heated debate with this guy, I said to him, ‘Look, you stop or else.’ He said, ‘Well, who’s going to feed my family?’ ” Bermudez said.
Bermudez gave him a job. Things went badly and Bermudez reported his relative to the police, he said. The brother-in-law implicated Bermudez in money laundering.
Bermudez fought the charges for five years, then plea-bargained to Class 4 felony money-laundering, he said.
He served 16 months in jail and a Phoenix halfway house in 1996 and 1997. His incarceration led to prayer and serious introspection, he said. “I said to God, ‘God, is this what you do to people who do good to other people?’ ” he said.
The experience humbled him and gave him a greater appreciation for the opportunities and freedoms available in the United States, he said.
“Before I went to jail, I was this big guy, I was out doing things. I was doing that and I was doing this. I was the mayor and I went to Washington and I went to Mexico City and I was all over the place,” he said.
“When I went to jail, I realized, ‘Guess what? You’re absolutely nobody.’ That has really changed my life,” he said.
After he was released, he launched Centro de Ayuda and has since opened offices in Tucson and Casa Grande.
Immigration reform would strengthen the United States because it would legalize a huge segment of the work force, allowing people to open businesses and buy homes, he said.
The first step requires undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows to and speak up, he said. “Either put up or shut. Either show your faces and say, ‘I love this country because it gives me a job’ or leave it,” he said.
The 20,000-person march in Phoenix and similar marches around the country last month has made an impact on federal lawmakers in Washington, said Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow for The Brookings Institute, which studies the effects of immigration.
“A lot of people were surprised with what they saw in the past couple of weeks,” she said.
Lawmakers reactions, like the advocacy groups themselves, were divergent. “It cuts both ways — it’s upsetting to a lot of people, and other people go, ‘Oh wow. That’s a lot of support,’ ” she said.