The Bermudez Triangle

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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.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin