ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The man who chased down a suspected child abductor and saved a 6-year-old girl from what could have been a horrible fate was honored as a hero Friday. But he is also gaining a new kind of celebrity: as a poster child of sorts for immigration rights in state and national immigration debates.
Antonio Diaz Chacon, 23, is married to an American and has been in the country for four years. But Chacon says he abandoned attempts to get legal residency because the process was difficult and expensive.
Diaz Chacon revealed his immigration status to Univision this week and confirmed to The Associated Press that he is illegal, prompting chatter on the Internet and social networking sites that his case underscored immigrant rights positions in two ongoing political debates.
Some argue he is an example of the kind of immigrant the federal government will now largely leave alone. The Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday that deportations would focus on criminals.
"As exceptional as his story is," said Christina Parker, a spokeswoman for Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, Texas, "it points to the fact that most undocumented immigrants living in the United States are not criminals. He's more than not a criminal now. He's a hero."
Others used it to blast New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez's ongoing attempts to repeal a state law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain a driver's license. The governor has put the repeal, which was defeated in the regular session earlier this year, on the agenda for a September special session.
"Most are just working to support their families and to take away their driver's license would be detrimental to that," Parker said.
Diaz Chacon's status didn't play a role in Albuquerque's decision to honor his bravery. Mayor Richard Berry declared Friday Antonio Diaz Chacon Day in Albuquerque and held an afternoon ceremony where he presented Diaz Chacon a Spanish language plaque recognizing his bravery in jumping in his pickup and chasing the suspect until he crashed into a light pole. Diaz Chacon then rescued the girl as the driver of the disabled van ran into the desert. The suspect was arrested later by police.
Diaz Chacon, with his wife and two daughters, was all smiles at the ceremony, which was also attended by the officers who eventually arrested accused kidnapper Phillip Garcia, 29.
"He says he is really happy and content and there's no larger words for it," his wife Martha, who was translating from Spanish for him, said. "It is a real large happiness."
Asked in a telephone interview with the AP Thursday what would be the best reward for his actions, he said he had already gotten it: a thank you letter from the little girl.
In deciding to hold the ceremony, city officials said the question of Diaz Chacon's immigration status never even came up. Nor was it mentioned at the event.
"Today's proclamation for Mr. Diaz Chacon is to celebrate the heroic actions that he demonstrated when he saved the life of a 6-year-old girl in danger," the mayor's spokesman, Chris Ramirez, said in a statement. "Mayor Berry is proud of Mr. Diaz Chacon's actions and joins the community in honoring his heroism."
The governor's office said its position was unchanged and accused "special interest groups shamefully exploiting this man, who may or may not be here illegally, to further their cause."
In a statement, the governor also cited "a litany of well-documented cases of this policy that put the public at risk, one of which occurred literally a few blocks away at a Denny's restaurant in 2009 when gang members from El Salvador who had driver's licenses committed a murder."
Marcela Diaz, with the Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said the larger question was the fact that Diaz Chacon could acknowledge to being illegal in New Mexico without fear of being deported, but the same might not be the case in other states.
"The question I would ask is, 'Would this have played out the same way if we were in Arizona, or Georgia or Alabama?'" she asked.
For his part, Diaz Chacon isn't worried and said he doesn't regret saving the girl.
"I'm not worried. Why should I?" he said. "It's not like I committed a murder or a felony."
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., and Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Texas, contributed to this report.