The Bermudez Triangle

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"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.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin