The man who chased down an alleged child abductor and saved a 6-year-old girl from what could have been a horrible fate will be 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 a Mexican citizen 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, who works in Albuquerque as a mechanic, revealed his immigration status to the Spanish-language Univision TV network this week, prompting chatter on the Internet and social networking sites that his case underscored immigrant rights positions in two ongoing political debates.
"I came to work, to work hard," he told Univision. "The only problem is I entered the country illegally and now we can't afford a lawyer to file the immigration papers."
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, "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 foreign nationals, including 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.
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 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.
"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.
"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 it's position was unchanged and accused immigrants rights groups of exploiting Diaz Chacon.
"The Governor believes foreign nationals here legally, whether through work pemits or visas, should be able to receive driver's licenses, but is opposed to giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants," Martinez's office said in a statement.
"The radical special interest groups shamefully exploiting this man, who may or may not be here illegally, to further their cause cannot ignore the 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 admit 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 said.
For his part, Diaz Chacon, a father of two, 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."