The Bermudez Triangle
Not a hair on his salt-and-pepper pompadour is out of place, but there are huge bags under Elias Bermudez's eyes. He's behind the microphone on a recent Wednesday morning, at KIDR 740 AM. You can catch his radio show on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 to 9. The show reaches a lot of people. The frequency is one of the oldest in town, and well known for talk radio and news in the Spanish-speaking community. The station's changed owners a few times, but today, all its shows focus on the immigrant community, which widely views KIDR as a valuable resource.
Except when it comes to this guy. It's not easy being Elias Bermudez. And he makes sure it stays that way. Today, his message to his listeners — many of whom are undocumented immigrants — is a ballsy one: Go back to Mexico.
"I'm saying maybe you are right," he says, sounding like an evangelical preacher on Judgment Day. "Maybe the United States is right. Maybe it's time for us [Mexicans] to leave."
That is not a sentiment shared by other immigrant rights activists. But Bermudez, leader of the Phoenix-based Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras (Immigrants Without Borders) has planted himself firmly to the right of other Hispanic activists. Like similar groups, Inmigrantes holds demonstrations to protest anti-immigration laws, and Bermudez has staged, with mixed results, several labor and hunger strikes to grab attention. The group also holds information fairs where Bermudez teaches immigrants what to do if stopped by police, and he reminds them he runs a business that will prepare immigration documents — for a price. Currently, the group is pushing Arizona employers to resist a sanctions law that goes into effect January 1.
When Bermudez talks about giving a voice to the undocumented, he becomes misty-eyed. But not everyone is convinced of his sincerity. So he works alone, or with strange company.
Bermudez is not afraid to announce his support for Republican Senator Jon Kyl, and he boasts that he campaigned for President George W. Bush. Twice. He's been quoted calling Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio a "friend" (the two used to share a cordial public relationship, though they've never interacted socially) and, on one occasion, his group marched in support of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
In the Spanish-speaking community, it's no secret that Bermudez has left a bad taste in the mouths of other activists. Former Democratic state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez has publicly criticized him on his own talk show on Radio Campesina 88.3 FM. Gutierrez complains that Bermudez isn't organized and doesn't help the community. When Bermudez does something other activists think is wrong — kneeling before the sheriff, for example — Gutierrez is sure to bring it up on the air.
Gutierrez declined an interview for this story, saying he prefers to talk about things that are positive, and that therefore, "I have nothing to say about him."
Privately, Bermudez's critics say he's hard to work with, he's egotistical, he's financially corrupt, and his past is a problem.
His past is checkered. If his story weren't a matter of public record, it would be impossible to believe. At 56, Bermudez is the former mayor of the Arizona border town San Luis. He's a convicted felon. And he claims to have the ear of the president of Mexico.
As much as his enemies — and members of the Spanish-speaking media — hate him, the English-speaking news media love Bermudez. His antics are outrageous, and he's incredibly quotable.
Recently, he grabbed headlines as the brains behind an alleged plot to murder his "friend" Arpaio. Nothing came of an investigation into the supposed plot, but it says a lot that no one is accusing Alfredo Gutierrez, Hector Yeterallde, Isabel Garcia, or Roberto Reveles — other prominent immigrant organizers — of trying to off the sheriff.
(The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office declined to talk to New Times for this story.)
Bermudez's visibility irks his critics, but the immigrant rights movement needs Bermudez — or someone like him. Today's undocumented immigrant has few people to look up to, and the English-speaking community, or at least the portion of it that continually votes in favor of anti-immigration laws, has few people to change its mind about immigration.
There is no César Chávez rallying the undocumented, no Martin Luther King Jr. calling for a higher moral standard.
Bermudez is in a position to become that leader. He's incredibly charismatic; when he speaks, it's impossible not to give him your full attention. A clever politician, he has the potential to become the strongest leader of a movement in desperate need of a potent national figurehead.
There's just one problem, though, and it's a big one. His own people don't trust him, and among his critics there is a general feeling that Bermudez does the movement more harm than good.
It's not just his dodgy past that makes people uneasy. There are considerable questions about what he's up to these days, as well, especially when it comes to the financial management of Inmigrantes.
Bermudez says he is not surprised by the criticism. He sees himself as a martyr for the cause.
"We have a saying in Spanish: He who wants to be a redeemer ends up on a cross. [This] is exactly what happened to Jesus Christ," he says. "He tried to be the savior of the world and he ended up crucified."
But the martyr has some questions to answer.
At an event in August, aimed at letting workers know what could happen to them under Arizona's new employer sanctions law, Inmigrantes has a table set up where people can fill out and file what's known as a G-28 form, which gives legal representation to immigrants. Filers are asked for a $10 donation, which goes to Inmigrantes, and the paperwork is filed by Bermudez's for-profit document-preparation business, Centro de Ayuda (The Help Center).
Bermudez is a tall and imposing figure, dressed head to toe in black. As he works the room, shaking hands and cracking jokes, it's easy to see why people trust him enough to pay to file this form with him. He's friendly, he remembers your name, he seems to care.
But he also makes money off the immigrants that join his organization. He calls it smart business, pointing out that he'd turn a profit whether he actively campaigned for reform or not.
His critics say it reeks of exploitation.
Luis Avila, a Spanish-language radio personality whose show "Dos en la Noticía" (Two in the News) broadcasts from the same station as Bermudez's, says there isn't a clear enough distinction between Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras and Bermudez's private position on the air. (Though he won't label himself an activist, Avila is one of the youngest, yet most vocal players in Arizona's pro-immigration scene. He previously worked at La Buena Onda 1190 AM, and is the founder of the youth-oriented talk show "El Break.)
"He uses the radio to ask people for money, and a lot of us in radio don't think that's a good thing to do. Before, he had a history of fishy behavior with money; everyone knows he has a background that is not good with financial organization. We have a saying in Spanish: 'Don't do good things that seem to be wrong,'" Avila says. "When you are listening to the radio show, you can't draw the line between Centro de Ayuda and Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras. So, even though this is paid by Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, it's a good tool to get people to go to his business — hence his making money off the same people who are donating money."
Part of the problem is that Bermudez is not shy about admitting that if immigration reform ever becomes federal law, he stands to make a huge profit. He files paperwork for immigrants seeking legal status and citizenship.
"If the reform comes through, I will generate all kinds of money," he says. "Obscene amounts of money, even though I am going to charge a reasonable rate."
No kidding. Hundreds of people show up at events like the one in August. Thousands more listen to his radio show. And each hears about the Centro, which is housed in the same building as Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras. Each immigrant that comes in contact with one organization is pushed to become part of the other. Each is encouraged to donate to the cause and to donate often, though where the money goes is murky.
For this story, New Times interviewed Bermudez, his associates, and his critics. Hundreds of pages of court documents pertaining to his felony arrest, a series of federal lawsuits filed against him by Community Legal Services and his role in the false plot to kill Arpaio were examined. The IRS had no documentation of Inmigrantes' financial records; Bermudez did make thousands of receipts, bank statements, and other financial documents available, but it's impossible to know what is legitimate.
Recently, the State Bar of Arizona issued a cease-and-desist order against Centro de Ayuda, the for-profit document-preparation business, claiming Bermudez is not licensed or qualified to provide immigration services, following a complaint by one of his clients. He denies the charges.
On the nonprofit side, Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras does not have 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. Though Bermudez incorporated under nonprofit guidelines with the Arizona Corporation Commission in November 2005 and has accepted more than $200,000 in donations (at least, that's what he's documented) for the group since May 2005, he has yet to complete the tax-exemption paperwork and file with the IRS.
Bermudez gave time for this story, even opening his central Phoenix home. But when asked about his relationship with the IRS, vis-à-vis Inmigrantes, Bermudez uncharacteristically loses his composure for a moment. It's disconcerting to watch a man usually so sure of himself grasp for words. But, with a politician's skill, he pulls it together.
Though he initially told New Times that his group was a 501(c)(3), months later he has admitted he hasn't actually filed the paperwork.
"We have not gotten the certification from the IRS, and, and, and that's why you won't see corporate donations," he says. "I'm in the process right now. We need to do that. We need to do that."
He adds that many of his donors don't worry about claiming deductions anyway. Most don't pay income taxes because they are undocumented. He says he's donated his own money to the group, but he considers that money a loan, not a charitable donation, so he doesn't care about a tax deduction either.
If his group were a 501(c)(3), Bermudez and Inmigrantes would not have to pay taxes on the income generated by donations. It's not clear what benefit he's getting by not filing the proper paperwork, but he has his excuses.
His main reason: "It's expensive to do that."
The IRS currently charges $700 to file for tax-exempt status. According to the agency, the group should still have filed tax returns since 2005 in spite of its pending status.
There is a 27-month grace period allowed when a nonprofit is working toward tax-exemption, and the clock runs out for Inmigrantes in January. If they miss the deadline, the group could face a financial penalty and would lose the ability to make claims retroactively to its incorporation date. Failing to file is a civil offense.
Before he was Elias Bermudez, activist, self-styled martyr, felon, and radio personality, he was Elias Bermudez, illegal immigrant.
Today, Bermudez is comfortable, established, and, if not exactly wealthy, he's decidedly upper-middle class. He owns three homes plus the building his business is in. He drives a BMW. His Bluetooth is permanently affixed to his ear. Over breakfast at the Good Egg in central Phoenix (two eggs sunny-side up and an English muffin, no butter — he's trying to lose a few pounds) he recalls how he came to America and then to Phoenix. His story is almost cinematic as he tells it, pausing in the right places to maximize the drama, peppering the conversation with pro-immigration rhetoric. Yet, at times he also shifts uncomfortably; he's better at painting an idyllic picture than talking details. When he gets to some of the more awkward parts of the story — his felony arrest, for example — he talks rapidly. Every sentence begins with an excuse.
In 1967, Bermudez was working at a gas station in Baja Mexico when a man from the United States pulled up in a truck. The 17-year-old Bermudez filled his tank and listened to his offer for work across the border in Los Angeles. Three weeks later, Bermudez hopped in a car and wound up in East L.A.
He worked odd jobs, in factories and then as a dishwasher.
"I wound up managing the restaurant," he says.
He tried to stay away from gangs and became involved with student activists. He's not big on sharing the details, save for one about a pivotal moment in 1968, during the East L.A. walkouts.
"I was just standing on a corner watching all the stuff going on when a police car parked near by. He said, 'Come over here.' I approached the car and he reached over and grabbed my belt with his left hand and, with his right, checked my pockets. He found I didn't have any weapons and he just pushed me on my back," he says. "That's probably why I became an activist."
But before he could become a political figure, he needed to become a U.S. citizen. In 1972, he married his first wife, Olga Chervony of Puerto Rico, and was able to naturalize within a year. The couple divorced seven years later.
He'd been taking classes at East L.A. College but dropped out in 1974 and moved to San Luis, a small border town in southwestern Arizona.
Today, San Luis is home to about 20,000 people. When Bermudez moved there, the population hovered near 1,000.
Five years later, he met his current wife, Dora. They had a common-law marriage for years and were legally married in 1990. Dora recalls a romantic courtship.
"I was working at an import-export store and he usually go there every day, and he leave me a cinnamon lollipop everyday," she says. "I have a desk drawer of cinnamon lollipops still. He was a gentleman. He opened the door for me and all the stuff ladies like. I fell in love with him."
Their time together had its rough spots.
He began working with a group of people who wanted to incorporate the town, and after they were successful, he was nominated to the first city council. Eventually, he became mayor before leaving city politics in 1986.
Even then, rumors followed him.
"I lost three businesses while I was mayor of San Luis and they still thought I stole from the government," he says of his so-called enemies. "I even declared bankruptcy and there are still a lot of people who say I stole from the city. It comes with the territory. You put yourself out there you're going to be scrutinized."
There are people around who remember Bermudez's San Luis days — even he admits he carries "baggage" — but they are reluctant to talk. New Times attempted to contact current San Luis city council members who worked with Bermudez, but phone calls were not returned.
Still, his criminal history, a matter of public record, indicates he didn't keep his hands completely clean. In 1987, he was convicted of soliciting the acceptance of a bribe when he asked the local police chief to make some legal problems "disappear" for him.
Initially charged with trafficking in stolen property and soliciting a bribe, Bermudez was able to plead down to one charge.
In 1984, a friend, former Guadalupe police chief John Guerra, asked Bermudez to drive his car across the border into San Luis, Sonora. A few days later, Guerra reported the car stolen to Tempe police and received an insurance payout. After that, he decided he didn't want anything to do with the car and gave it to Bermudez. A few years later, Bermudez sold the engine to a man in Mexico.
That same year, the car was discovered by Mexican police, who reported it to the San Luis, Arizona, police department. When Bermudez heard the car was found and was under investigation, court documents show he told San Luis police chief Michael Jenkins, who he had a well-known feud with, "If you take care of this problem for me, I will get off your back forever."
In the statement he made to the court, Bermudez says he was actually just asking Jenkins for protection. Apparently, Bermudez and Guerra had a long history and, at one point, Bermudez was present when Guerra shot a man in the line of duty. According to his statement, Bermudez feared retribution from the man's family, who worked in law enforcement across the border.
"The relatives of this suspect belong to the state judicial police in Sonora, Mexico, and have made numerous threats to my life and I know they are waiting for an opportunity to arrest me and do bodily harm," he says in the statement. "Even though I had very strong confrontations with my police chief, I had to ask him to accompany me to Mexico as protection, not to influence anyone."
His plea bargain was successful and, though the charge would normally be designated a Class 6 felony, it was reduced to a misdemeanor. He served a suspended six-month sentence and two years probation for it.
Though the probation officer assigned to the case suggested the court accept the plea bargain, he did so with reservations.
The officer, James Montgomery, wrote in his report: "This officer feels the State has shown tremendous leniency towards this defendant, and further, I feel this is all greatly to the defendant's advantage and to societies [sic] disadvantage. It appears that the defendant is an opportunist and stands to obtain personal gain in whatever ventures he may become involved in under the guise of helping his fellow man."
This wasn't Bermudez's first brush with the law in San Luis. In 1979, while working as a bartender at a place called Friends and Lovers, he was charged with aggravated assault after becoming involved in a fight that broke out while he was working. During the course of the fight, he struck another man with an unloaded gun.
Once again, he was able to plea bargain to a misdemeanor, and was given one year of probation instead of serving time.
Despite his run-ins with law enforcement, Bermudez still rose to power in the small town. In 1979, he sat on the county board of supervisors and was elected to the council in 1980. He served as mayor from 1982 to 1984 and then sat on the council again until he retired from city politics in 1986.
He then opened a document-preparation business called Centro de Progresso, similar to the one he operates in Phoenix today. He says he got the idea while working to get the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 passed. Part of the act granted amnesty to migrants who worked in the United States prior to 1982.
Bermudez found a way to generate a lot of cash via document preparation. He calls it "innovation." Others, including the lawyers at Community Legal Services, the organization that tried cases for the United Farm Workers, call it exploitation.
When amnesty came through in 1986, Bermudez began linking workers and employers. He even opened nine offices in Mexico to facilitate the process.
"I would get [the workers] the permit to cross the border and the employer would pay me. Later [the employers] began to ask me to get people for them. So that's how I began the recruitment service," he says. "I had 6,000 workers nationwide."
But work conditions were not always as promised. When workers got to their posts, as far away as Virginia or Hawaii, they'd find there were not always jobs, living conditions were sub-par, and they were not always paid the wages promised.
David Alan Dick, a former prosecutor for Community Legal Services now practicing in Mesa, tried several of the cases against Bermudez. He says Community Legal Services filed many class-action suits against farmers and labor brokers between 1989 and 1994.
"He [Bermudez] was one of hundreds of farm labor contractors that did the same thing," says Dick. "He was just one of the biggest and most problematic as far as making promises."
Take, for example, the case of Rafael Durazo, Javier Luna, and Carlos Ponce. In 1989, the three men were recruited by Centro de Progresso to work at Beaver Creek Nursery in Virginia. According to affidavits filed in United States District Court, they were told they'd find up to three months of work, that they'd work at least 10 hours a day, six days a week and receive $4.50 per hour for their labor. They were also promised transportation to and from the work site and free housing. None of the promises were realized. The men rarely worked, were paid only about $1.50 an hour when they did work, and found themselves stranded when they wanted to go home.
According to Durazo, Bermudez was not sympathetic.
"I called Elias Bermudez to tell him Jose Carlos Ponce, Jesus Javier Luna, and myself wanted to go home because we had not been paid wages, we had no food and the working conditions were not as promised," he says in an affidavit. "Elias Bermudez told us there was nothing he could do for us."
This case is typical of the others filed against Bermudez.
But Bermudez says he was the victim in these cases.
"Politically, they were getting $5,000 from the federal government [for each person they represented] so they began suing the hell out of me," he says.
Similar claims were filed against Bermudez, Centro de Progresso and various employers five times in U.S. District Court. Of the five cases brought against him by Community Legal Services, one was dismissed, one was settled, one awarded compensation to the plaintiff and the others resulted in default judgments (meaning he failed to answer or appear in court) against Bermudez.
Maria Elena Badilla, a San Luis native, worked as Dick's paralegal at Community Legal Services. She says Bermudez was notorious for exploitation in San Luis. Attempts to locate the migrants who filed suits against Bermudez were unsuccessful.
"He's [only] interested in making money," she says.
Farm workers are not the only commodity along the border in San Luis. Like many border towns, the drug trade flourishes there — a fact that would have serious ramifications for Bermudez's future.
Behind the wheel of his car, driving between his radio station and his mortgage broker's office in Phoenix, Bermudez recalls what it was like to face kingpins and drug dealers every day. He acknowledges that he knew who they were, even stopped in occasionally for a drink at a nightclub owned by the local drug lord.
"Being from San Luis, I knew everybody. The drug cartels, you run into them on a daily basis. The only way to demonstrate to these people that you are not afraid is to be courageous enough to say I don't want any dealings with you," he says.
Bermudez says this attitude won the drug runners' respect. He tells a story that, if it's true, is just one more scene of high drama in the life of a man who is a magnet for controversy and danger.
"One of the stories in San Luis was that one of them tried to kill me," he says. "He tried to scare me by shooting at my feet. I put the gun on my chest and said, 'You are not going to scare me. This is where you need to shoot.' He had to pull the trigger; he was compromised. The bullet didn't explode, so I said, 'I'm leaving. You have bad luck.' The story carried out that I was very daring. Well, you have no choice."
But Bermudez's connection to the border drug rings was more personal than that. His former brother-in-law, Rene Wong, was deep in the trade, and this relationship would eventually land Bermudez in federal prison. Bermudez hasn't kept his time in prison a secret, though he's done his best to paint it as a positive thing, while once again positioning himself as a martyr.
He contends that his conviction was a setup by his political opponents. At the time of his arrest, Bermudez had just begun to consider running for the state Senate.
"I went to jail for doing what I'm doing. I can guarantee you if I had not been the mayor, if I was not seeking higher office, whatever happened to put me in jail would not have mattered," he says.
Actually, there was a set of very specific circumstances that led to his indictment, along with four other men, on nine counts of conspiracy to distribute drugs and conspiracy to launder money. It's all documented in U.S. District Court files.
In 1993, the IRS began to investigate Bermudez for preparing false tax returns at Centro de Progresso.
According to court documents, the IRS noticed an extraordinary number of Bermudez's clients were receiving money from their tax returns. For example, in 1992 his business prepared 2,341 returns, and 100 percent of those received refunds. Turns out, Bermudez was allowing people to falsely claim an earned-income credit for their children who did not reside in the United States (to get an EIC, your dependent family must live with you in the U.S. for at least six months out of the year).
But the trouble was worse than that.
In March 1993, the IRS was asked to join a federal grand jury investigation into Bermudez and others for drug trafficking and money laundering. According to court documents, the FBI had been looking into the case since October 1991, after a raid on a meth lab in a house owned by Bermudez's brother-in-law in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico.
A year later, the brother-in-law, Rene Wong, and Bermudez's sister, Matilde Wong, were arrested at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint with 31 pounds of methamphetamine.
Matilde admitted that her husband was a drug trafficker associated with two men, Balthazar Casillas and Rafael Tinico.
After that, the evidence against Bermudez stacked up quickly.
He'd been given money by Rene Wong to purchase property under an alias, Jesse Bermudez, and Rene Wong was listed as an officer of Centro de Progresso. According to the Yuma County recorder, "Jesse" owned seven properties, four of which had transferred ownership to Nuestro Progresso Inc. Nuestro Progresso had the same address as Centro de Progresso, and listed Elias Bermudez as the president, Rene Wong as the vice president and "Jesse" as the secretary.
When questioned by New Times about Nuestro Progresso, Bermudez simply said it was supposed to be a nonprofit arm of Centro de Progresso; much like Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras is to Centro de Ayuda today. In reality, it was little more than a front for Wong.
Bermudez accepted $100,000 from his brother-in-law, opened a checking account, put him on Centro de Progresso's payroll and paid him for work that was never done.
In other words, he laundered drug money.
Bermudez says he did it to help his family and says he had good intentions.
"I was just trying to get him out of whatever he was doing," he says of his brother-in-law. "It was a family matter. It was such a shame on the family. It was a small town. Everyone knew."
Still, court documents, filed by his own lawyer, show Bermudez knew what he was doing. "He knew Rene Wong and Matilde Wong were involved in drug dealing, and . . . his involvement was with open eyes," one pleading reads.
Bermudez looks angry when asked if he's still in contact with Rene Wong. The answer is a vehement no. Then he appears to remember the softer light he's cast himself in for the past few years, and he adds that he does forgive his former brother-in-law. (He and Matilde have since divorced.)
"I offer him thanks. I would forgive the assassin of my own child," he says. "That is just the way I am. I am a follower of Gandhi. I grew up in a Christian environment. I don't profess to be a Christian because I have moved out of religion to a higher call."
Though initially indicted on nine counts that included drug trafficking, Bermudez pleaded guilty in 1996 to one count of money laundering and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Bermudez spent 10 months in prison and the last eight months of his sentence at a halfway house in Phoenix.
He calls it the best thing that ever happened to him.
"It was a great experience for me," he says. "I didn't feel guilty about going to jail because I didn't do anything to feel guilty about, but it was something I needed to experience to change my way of doing things. I ended up in better situations. If I had not gone to prison, I never would have moved to Phoenix."
When he was paroled, Bermudez decided to stay in the Valley to rebuild his life. His wife stayed married to him while he was in prison, though he does lament his relationship with his kids. He has two children: Elias Jr., who attends film school in New York City, and Vanessa, who lives in Phoenix.
"My kids grew up from under me," he says. "My oldest is a lady and my youngest is a man. My son has always resented I never took him to a baseball game. Now when my son says something, I jump."
His wife, Dora, who works with him at Centro de Ayuda, echoes this sentiment.
"He really likes to help people. Matter of fact, he doesn't do a lot of things with the family because he's always busy helping people," she says. "For a long time, I had a sadness that he never spend time with the children but at this time, I understand he wants to be a leader and I'm happy for him and me and my family because I'm very proud to be his wife."
Dora says people have the wrong idea about her husband.
"I know he have errors because he's a human being," she says in broken English. her second language. "But I live with him every day. I know how he is and he do the things he do because he feels it. I know that he do it for love. To help people."
He returned to the document preparation business and opened Centro de Ayuda, which today has four locations, three in the Valley and one in Casa Grande. He insists that he didn't set out to become a leader or an organizer of the undocumented.
"I did not want to take a leadership role," he says. "It's difficult to take a leadership role when you have baggage."
But the attitude toward immigrants was changing nationwide, especially in Arizona.
Bermudez says that by the early 2000s, he was hearing more and more cases of abuse. He decided to organize a nonprofit arm of his business to help the undocumented fight for legal rights.
"Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras was born out of the need to organize the undocumented, he says. "I began my recruitment by saying you are the problem, you need to be part of the solution."
It was a good time to set up shop.
In 2004, in spite of vehement opposition from the Hispanic community, Arizona passed Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship to vote and receive certain social services. In 2005, the Minutemen grabbed national attention with their stakeout at the border. Soon after, Congress considered legislation to make anyone who rendered aid to a person crossing the border a felon. This legislation, the Border Protection, Anti Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, or the Sensenbrenner Bill, was a tipping point for many who had already been working with the undocumented.
To Bermudez's credit, Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras was one of the first groups to demonstrate visible political action. In May 2005, he purchased the airtime for his radio show and began broadcasting his pro-immigrant, yet conservative, message. That same month, the group held its first public action, a weeklong work stoppage.
His message has always been one of compromise. He often says he hates welfare — "I don't like freebies" is his mantra.
But he contradicts himself. After all, he's asking for rights for people who are in the country illegally. He says it's not a handout he wants, it's a solution to the problem of what he calls a very broken immigration system.
"I am different because I don't ask people to claim rights they don't deserve. I ask people to take responsibility for their actions, to become a part of the solution," he says. "Show why we are here. It's not because we want to defy the laws of the United States. We are here illegally because you don't give us an option. There is no way to knock at the door and say, 'I want to come in, will you give me permission?' There is no way to come here legally."
Abel Ledezma, a telephone repairman, was one of Bermudez's earliest followers, going back to the first labor strike. Still, he has little faith that any of the group's actions have made a difference.
"At the end, after doing everything, I thought it was more like therapy," he says.
In fact, Ledezma has recently decided to move to New Mexico because his wife is undocumented.
"I'm documented but my status doesn't allow her to get legalized," he says. "We're trying to go to a safe place and hide for a couple years. It's better than being worried every day."
It's this fear and frustration that led to the first major public action by the undocumented in 2006.
On March 24, 2006, more than 20,000 people marched to Senator Jon Kyl's office to deliver a letter protesting the pending Sensenbrenner Bill.
Bermudez thought the march was a bad idea. He didn't want his group to be a part of it.
"It was not well planned," he sniffs.
Roberto Reveles, the recently retired president of the group Somos America (We Are America), a coalition that formed after the march to Kyl's office, says the march was the beginning of the movement.
"It was the first major expression of an organized movement that could bring people to stop and listen to what was happening to the undocumented community," he says. "That was very significant. Here was a group of people who felt so intimidated and harassed that they had to respond publicly. It was really spontaneous."
After the march, Bermudez issued a public statement apologizing to the mayor and citizens of Phoenix. Though he made the statement on behalf of himself, other activists like Reveles feel it made the whole community look weak.
"I considered that [the march] was very uncalled for and I apologized to the mayor and the city of Phoenix," says Bermudez. "I, as a person, said I apologize to the mayor and the people of Phoenix if we caused any hardship. I was not representing my organization. I thought it was irresponsible that we took over a street."
Since that time, Bermudez has built a good relationship with Kyl, who has positive things to say about his right-leaning leadership style.
"Elias is an enthusiastic advocate, and I appreciate that he tries to find common ground," Kyl says in a written statement. "He has been both critical and supportive of my efforts to improve our immigration system, I have always found meeting with him to be useful and constructive."
This first march was clearly the moment Bermudez began to lose the respect of his peers.
Though Bermudez was still a part of the group, the split was obvious during the second major pro-immigration march, in April of that year. This one was much better organized. A loose coalition of groups, including Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, came together under the name Somos America to plan the event. From the outside, it looked successful. At least 100,000 people showed up to raise their voices in Phoenix, joined by millions nationwide.
But behind the scenes, animosity developed among the organizers, much of it aimed at Bermudez, who was often accused of showing up when cameras were rolling, or jumping to the front of a group to get his face on television but disappearing as soon as the limelight was gone.
Even Ledezma, a staunch supporter of Bermudez, admits he's hard to work with.
"Sometimes he does get in there, but most of the time he's throwing ideas," he says. "Sometimes you need to work away from him. If you're doing something that's not pleasing to him, he'll change the whole picture."
The relationship between Bermudez and the rest of Somos America became so tense that he soon split with the organization.
Reveles says he wanted to see the good in Bermudez, but others didn't.
"It was obvious there were people who were unwilling to work with him. Unfortunately, he has a way of acting that invites criticism," he says. "Personally, he's a very appealing person. He's a charmer. But his autocratic way of acting is what offends me. He's autocratic but, at the same time, extremely articulate, and I still feel he's attempting to do more than some of the comfortable Chicanos are doing who dare criticize him."
True, it's hard to think of a prominent Hispanic politician who has had the guts to campaign for the undocumented. And the nation's religious leadership has not made a move to take up the cause on moral, humane grounds. Reveles, who came of age during the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., feels significantly demoralized when making comparisons between then and now.
"There was at least some hope there. I feel less hope here," he says. "There was some hope with moral leaders stepping forward and saying, 'Enough!' Here, where are the moral leaders? Where's my Catholic church? Where is the moral leadership from the highest level of my church?"
Without strong moral or political leadership, and with harsh laws stacking up against immigrants, the movement has been left in the hands of people like Bermudez.
But there are problems.
For one thing, Bermudez has a knack for making the other side look good, especially when it comes to his relationship with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The names Bermudez and Arpaio often end up next to each other in newsprint.
In one of his most criticized public actions, Bermudez led several hundred people on a march to meet the sheriff outside his office. When he reached Arpaio, Bermudez fell to his knees to beg for mercy on behalf of his people. The act got a violently disgusted reaction from the Hispanic community, which saw it as a sign of weakness or a publicity stunt.
"If it was a publicity stunt, I never would have caught him off guard. His face was shaking. He didn't have an answer," says Bermudez. "I wanted him to know I am man enough to get on my knees and beg for mercy. Even though I was criticized, it came from my heart."
Then there was the time Bermudez used his radio show to talk hundreds of people into trusting Centro de Ayuda with their cash for immigration paperwork. When he felt the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which would have increased border security but also granted citizenship to longtime undocumented immigrants and created a new guest-worker program, was certain to pass this summer, Bermudez told people to start a savings account of at least $300 with the Centro. He said that if the bill became law, the money would allow him to process their work permit applications faster. But reform never came, again leaving people wondering where the money went. Bermudez says he's returning it and has announced on the air several times that people should come to get their money.
That isn't the only time his business practices at the Centro were questioned. In late September he was served with a letter from the State Bar of Arizona asking him to cease and desist his document preparation at Centro de Ayuda, following a complaint by a former client.
The State Bar declined to comment, but did share with New Times the Department of Justice guidelines for rendering legal aid to immigrants. To represent an alien in immigration proceedings, you have to be either a licensed attorney or a member of an organization approved by the Board of Immigrant Appeals. Approved organizations and individuals are listed on the Web site of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Neither Bermudez nor Centro de Ayuda come up in a search.
Bermudez sees the order as another political attack. He offered to share the Bar's complaint with New Times, but as of press time, he has not made it available.
"I did not do unauthorized law. I file forms. Now they say I have to stop my business or they are going to take it to the attorney general for prosecution," he says. "It's part of doing what we are doing [with Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras]. There's a whole bunch of others who do this and they're not even bothered. I think someone put them [the former client] up to this. I'm willing to go the distance. If I lose my business so be it."
Whether or not he loses Centro de Ayuda, Bermudez is clearly not giving up the fight. A few weeks after the radio show in which he told his listeners to go back to Mexico, he changed strategies. He's no longer telling people to abandon the sinking ship. Now, he's asking them to pay to patch up the holes by donating to the organization.
This may be because the message wasn't well received. The day he announced his idea on the air, people called in to ask why he's quitting. He listened to them, making notes to himself on a legal pad as they spoke.
One thing Luis Avila, Bermudez's fellow broadcaster, does give him credit for is the fact he puts himself out there on the air for people to criticize.
"He's brave for taking on people who don't like him. It's like a politician going on the air and talking to his constituents," he says. "I give him respect for that."
This particular day, the phone is ringing off the hook with people who want to respond to his "go back to Mexico" statement. There's only one person answering phones and he can barely keep up. He answers, whispers the name to Bermudez, who keeps a list as calls come in, and moves on to the next caller.
Toward the end of the show, one man sums up the general feeling.
"I am disappointed that Elias Bermudez is giving up," says the caller. "People are looking to you."
Bermudez shakes his head, says something to the man in Spanish, and then repeats it in English off the air.
"I want him to call me on Friday with the good news," he said. "The reasons why we should be happy. My sky is not pink; my sky right now is dark."
But only a few weeks later he's changed his mind again.
He's fresh off a weeklong leadership retreat in San Diego, and he says it's changed his life. In the course of one morning, he says "I'm a changed man" at least five times.
Indeed, he projects the image of a man trying to unpack and put away years of baggage. But with Bermudez, it's so hard to tell if he's being real or putting on a show. He may mean it; he may not. Either way, he's back to his old self — a born salesman, whether he's selling labor, legal services, or the idea of immigration reform.
"I'm taking a lot of heat. I'm taking heat from the other side and from members of my own community because they don't think I'm genuine," he says. "Well, I am. I put my life on the line. Yes, I am going to receive benefits, but I don't have to do anything. If I don't lift a finger and [immigration reform passes], I'm still going to have the same benefits. I want everyone to benefit. If you come back later and you didn't lift a finger and something comes positive to us, it's not going to be worth anything to you. You're going to give it up in the first DUI you get.
"I don't like freebies. I give you this in exchange for that. That dignifies the person who receives it.
"Put up or shut up."
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