The Immigration Issue: Mary Ann Mendoza’s Family Was Shattered by a Man Living Here Illegally

An undocumented immigrant killed Mary Ann Mendoza's son.
An undocumented immigrant killed Mary Ann Mendoza's son. Ray Stern

This article is part of Phoenix New Times' issue focusing on immigrants in the Valley of the Sun. See our full coverage here.

The call awakened Mary Ann Mendoza at 3 a.m.

On May 12, 2014, the life of the Mesa mother and Realtor changed in an instant.

It was her youngest son’s friend from the Mesa Police Department, calling from Afghanistan of all places.

“Something’s happened to Brandon,” he told her. “There’s been a crash. It’s really bad.”

She hung up and tried to call her son. She couldn’t reach him. Soon, the doorbell rang. She was taken to the Maricopa County Medical Center, where her son was undergoing emergency surgery.

He didn't survive.

Sergeant Brandon Mendoza, at 32, already had 13 years on the force. He had wanted to be a police officer since he was 13, his mother told the Phoenix New Times in a recent interview.

Coming home from his shift, his vehicle was rammed head first by a drunk, wrong-way driver on an East Valley freeway.

The other driver, 41-year-old Raul Corona-Silva, a gardener and convicted criminal, had lived in the United States illegally for more than 20 years. He also died in the crash.

“This could have been a drunk American — I understand that,” Mendoza said. “But every situation and every single parent that I’ve met who’s had a child killed [by an undocumented immigrant] — every single one of these situations were preventable.”

In Brandon Mendoza’s case and others, her point seems to hold true.

Corona-Silva had been arrested in 1994 on burglary and assault charges in Adams County, Colorado. He was convicted on a conspiracy to commit burglary charge. But he skipped his sentencing hearing, and lived off the grid for nearly a decade before the Border Patrol caught him near Why, Arizona, in 2012. The feds transported him to Colorado, where he was released after being sentenced to probation.

Mary Ann Mendoza believes that not only would a rational immigration system have deported Corona-Silva in 1994 or 2012, but that he never should have been allowed to register his car in Arizona.

She is ecstatic over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, and believes they’ll go a long way to helping solve the country’s immigration problems.

“Every person who’s here illegally is going to have a sob story about their family being ripped apart,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them if they’ve committed a crime. My family’s already been ripped apart.”

Immigration, as Mendoza’s example shows, isn’t always a positive force in Arizona.

In the land that became the 48th state, the success of various immigration policies are often in the eye of the beholder.

Still, Phil VanderMeer, a professor of history at Arizona State University and author of the book Phoenix Rising: The Making of a Desert Metropolis, believes that immigration has been absolutely crucial to Arizona’s success.

Arizona was underpopulated, in the modern view, until the conclusion of World War II. Then, government policies worked to attract people to Arizona, spurring another type of mass migration.

“The way the city grew, it sold itself on having good neighborhoods, good schools, efficient government, and attention to culture — a broadly based strategy for growth, and that worked very successfully,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that “on balance, there can be some negative things” about immigration.

Yet those also come back to policy, he said. For instance, immigrants, legal or illegal, come to Arizona for jobs. If the state doesn’t do a good job educating the workers’ children, there could be a downside, because the next generation won’t be prepared for high-paying jobs, he said.

Judith Gans, an immigration researcher at the University of Arizona, said it’s difficult to tell whether undocumented immigrants, as a distinct group, pay their own way in America. She points out that the Arizona Treasury is heavily dependent on sales tax, which “everybody” pays.

While the worst problems of immigration might be found within illegal immigration, Gans disagrees that undocumented residents can be a drain on public coffers. Even undocumented workers are “making positive economic activity that would not otherwise happen,” she said.

On the other hand, the United States only takes in about $3.3 trillion each year for every $3.9 trillion it spends. In that sense, the best that can be said of many immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, is that they may be helping to drive up the country’s deficit spending like the rest of us.

Mary Ann Mendoza was standing behind President Trump on January 25, watching him sign one of two immigration-related executive orders, when she felt Brandon’s presence.

The signing took place in a conference room at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington D.C., the orders heralding a new era of tough immigration policies. Vice-President Mike Pence was beside her, along with other people whose family members had been killed by undocumented immigrants. In front of Trump’s desk, reporters and their cameras captured the historic moment.

Mendoza, who has become an activist on behalf of her son, was overwhelmed with emotion.

“As I’m watching him do it, I felt somebody hugging me from behind,” she said. “I instantly got these chills. Tears came to my eyes. I knew it was Brandon there with me. I was sobbing uncontrollably.”

Arguably, Trump is exploiting these families for political points. But crime by immigrants and unauthorized foreigners is viewed by many citizens as just one of the negative effects of immigration in Arizona.

Whether fully justified, concern about immigrant crime helped put Trump in office. And now that he’s there, America is about to hear a whole lot more about problems with immigrants.

In the January 25 orders, Trump ordered the creation of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office (VOICE), which will compile and report information about immigrants — illegal or not — who commit crimes. The office will also make federal information about immigration detainees or suspects available to crime victims.

Gans said that Trump’s VOICE office reminds her of pre-Holocaust days of Nazi Germany.

“It unnecessarily demonizes a group, and suggests they are more criminal,” she said. “I’m not sure that’s a useful way of looking at immigration and crime.”

But Mendoza sees it differently. She plans to join other victims’ families in Arizona and elsewhere to run a new organization that will also bring attention to immigrant crimes. She believes this will help keep up the pressure against “sanctuary cities” and other soft-on-undocumented policies.

She doesn’t want people to forget the Americans who have been killed, raped, or in some way victimized by foreign nationals.

“There’s a child-rape epidemic going on in North Carolina right now,” she said. “This is the kind of awareness that I want to bring to people.”

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.