Longform

The Bermudez Triangle

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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.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin