Mary Ann Mendoza has been labeled the worst: racist, xenophobic, hate-filled. None of it’s true, she says. “I’m the furthest thing from it.” But as a white, politically conservative Christian, fervent Donald Trump supporter and outspoken anti-illegal immigration activist, the 58-year-old grandmother happens to fit easily into a particular narrative about white, outspoken, “build that dang wall, already” Americans. And while she says it can be maddening to be shoved into such a small box, it doesn’t really matter. Nothing, she says, is going to prevent her from railing against the fact that she lost her son “in such a senseless, preventable way.”
Mendoza acknowledges that it could have just as easily been a citizen or legal resident who killed her 32-year-old son, Mesa police officer Brandon Mendoza, on May 12, 2014. It could have been a fellow American who drove drunk at three times the legal limit; who drove the wrong way for 35 miles down the Loop 101, State Route 51 and the I-10; who smashed into her son’s car as he was driving home from a shift, killing both of them instantly. “But it wasn’t,” she says. It could have been a shoot out or a drug bust gone wrong – Brandon was a cop, after all. But it wasn’t.
Raul Silva-Corona lived in this country without authorization for two decades. The 42-year-old Mexican native remained in the U.S. despite being charged with burglary, assault and leaving the scene of an accident in 1994. He remained here still after pleading guilty to a charge of criminal conspiracy in 2002. “It was preventable,” Mendoza says. “If that guy wasn’t allowed to stay here, if he’d have been deported like he should’ve been… things would be so different.” It’s a black-and-white way of looking at things. But it is hard to argue with the logic: If Silva-Corona wasn’t here, her son might still be.
The pointlessness of it all made Mendoza’s path clear. She says she must fight against what she sees as an epidemic that’s largely ignored by the mainstream media, many politicians and most of the American public. “I never got one call, ever, from any politician in Arizona. My son was a police officer. Not one of them gave a crap about it,” she says.
Letters to then-President Obama were never returned. It wasn’t until the Trump campaign got in contact in the summer of 2015 that she felt like a politician cared, even if he may have been using stories like hers to prop up his strict stance on immigration. In January, the administration invited her to Washington, D.C., and situated her meaningfully behind the president for the signing of Trump’s first executive order tightening U.S. borders and immigration policies. “He remembers our name, he remembers our child’s name,” Mendoza says. “It made a difference to me that there was somebody… just listening and getting our stories out there.”
To be sure, Mendoza is ideally engineered to be a mouthpiece for the pro-enforcement cause: a grieving, articulate mother whose police officer son was half-Hispanic, in a state on the front lines of the immigration war. She’s aware of the optics, but rejects the notion that she’s being used as a pawn. Mendoza says she’s learned to leverage her story to achieve results she sees as positive, such as creating a new advocacy group for people affected by illegal crime. “There are people who say I’ve politicized my son’s death. I haven’t,” she says. “I’ve aligned myself in a situation where I want to see certain things done so another American family isn’t affected like I was.”
Her story isn’t singular, Mendoza insists. People “will say it’s just an isolated incident because they’re so far removed from what’s happening with illegal crime in this country,” she says. Her assessment: Distracted by practical, life-or-death concerns – “Do we have a job, do we have food on the table, do we have a roof over our heads?” – Americans don’t have the time or energy to care… until it happens to them, she says. In the years since Brandon’s death, she’s met a rash of people just like her, who lost children or spouses or loved ones to crimes perpetrated by people in the U.S. illegally.
In response, Mendoza is helping spearhead a new advocacy group for others in her situation called AVIAC, or Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime. As this issue went to press, Mendoza and several other parents planned to launch AVIAC during the last week of June in Washington, D.C. – coinciding with the Federation for American Immigration Reform’s (FAIR) annual “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” radio fair, an event in which conservative radio shows converge on the capital to talk immigration.
Her AVIAC co-directors are Steve Ronnebeck, whose son Grant was fatally shot in 2015 by an illegal immigrant over a pack of cigarettes while working at a Mesa QuikTrip, and Don Rosenberg, whose son Drew was struck and killed in San Francisco in 2010 by an unlicensed illegal immigrant who attempted to flee the scene. Of Mendoza, Rosenberg says, “We’re friends for all the wrong reasons. We’re all members of a club nobody wants to join.”
Part of AVIAC’s mission will be to steer people to the newly created federal VOICE office – or Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement – under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Another goal, Rosenberg says, is to build a network of families in similar situations across the country and make them available to testify at legislative hearings or speak with the press. Mendoza says they’ll also be active on social media. “We feel it’s really important on a daily basis to get statistics out on something – you know, X Americans are killed a day by illegals,” she says. “X amount of Americans are affected by identity fraud.”
But reliable statistics are hard to come by. ICE is the chief repository for undocumented immigrant-related crime data: It maintains arrest records, tracks detainers (a formal request to law enforcement agencies to hold a potentially deportable individual up to 48 hours longer), charts whether a given person was deported and notes the most serious crime they committed. But according to the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) research center at Syracuse University, which compiles and analyzes statistics under various federal agencies through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), ICE is no longer willingly supplying that information.
TRAC co-director Susan Long says they filed suit against ICE in May for unlawfully withholding records related to its immigration enforcement actions. Supposedly, the new VOICE office will provide some of that information, but only to victims’ families. “There’s a big difference between the selective release of compiled statistics that they have decided are in their interest to release versus public information,” Long says.
Meanwhile, it’s exceedingly difficult to track all crimes committed by undocumented immigrants because so much depends on which agency arrested them (local vs. county vs. state vs. federal), whether their immigration status was even noted and whether crimes were pleaded down. This leaves the door wide open for nonprofits and other agencies on both sides of the political aisle to pull numbers of their choosing and manipulate statistics to make general claims. “Somebody will take different things from different studies and come up with different conclusions,” says Lynn Marcus, co-director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Arizona. Run a quick Internet search for whether illegal immigrants commit more crimes than citizens and you’ll find 500 results that say yes, and 500 that say no.
Rosenberg, who has dedicated a large portion of his time to tracking these numbers through FOIA requests, even suing the FBI for parsed-down crime data, says, “part of the problem is [the numbers] are nowhere. I can tell you how many people from the DOJ website were convicted of pickpocketing in 2015 but I can’t tell you how many people were killed by an illegal alien.” Rosenberg says he’s spent thousands of hours and many more dollars combing through records, assessing the burden of illegal immigration on this country’s economic system and toiling through the shady court system in his – ultimately successful – attempts to make sure the man who killed his son was deported.
Pointing to a 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found the number of criminal aliens in federal prisons had increased over five years to about 55,000 incarcerated, Rosenberg says, “even if somebody said your numbers are off by half… that’s OK? We don’t need to worry about that?” Rosenberg says he hears the same refrain over and over again: “‘Don’t blame everybody because of a few…’ But you know what? I do blame everybody for the few.”
Mendoza acknowledges that the murky numbers are confusing and frustrating. “I feel like Americans are being kept in the dark as to what’s happening, and it’s all politically motivated.” She gets angry when people point to studies that show immigrants are incarcerated at lower rates than citizens. “First of all, you cannot take the whole population of the United States and compare illegal crime [to it].”
If only it were possible to look at the issue in a bubble – how many illegal immigrants are here, and how many of those commit crimes? Of course, therein lies the rub. “The government doesn’t really know [how many] exist,” she says. “Not really.”
So what does Mendoza hope to achieve with AVIAC’s spotlight on the issue? Not political office, certainly. “We’re not government, we’re not law enforcement, we’re just parents and victims’ families,” she says. But along with awareness, Mendoza says she’s also hoping the current administration will follow through on promises to secure the borders, and enforce stricter punishment for crimes, including ultimate deportation after jail time is served.
In the month’s following Brandon’s death, his mother often spoke publicly about the wonderful man he was – a police officer with a huge heart who was dedicated to improving the run down Guerrero Rotary Park area he was assigned to patrol near downtown Mesa, a wily prankster with a wicked sense of humor, a fun uncle who wore press-on nails with his young nieces, an aspiring photographer, a grown man who often invited his mother to parties and trips to Hawaii. “When it’s still fresh and you’re finally able to tell your child’s story, you grasp at anything because you want the country to know about your kid,” Mendoza says.
She saw a counselor for a while in the immediate aftermath but “found the most comforting thing was to be around his friends. The people that knew him best.” Brandon was part of a tight-knit group and she was often invited to tag along. “I was involved in [his life]. Memories and fun times and trips and laughs… [they could] recall those things with me. You know, who knows you better than your friends?”
But the tone of the TV news segments and articles took a turn once she threw her support behind then-presidential candidate Trump and spoke at several of his campaign rallies and the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. She became the oppositional voice, molded into whatever a particular outlet needed. The pro to a con in some, the con to a pro in others, in the perhaps misguided journalistic effort to constantly be “balanced.” What are Mary Ann’s thoughts on sanctuary cities? What did she have to say about the refugee crisis? What about her ideas on Guadalupe García de Rayos, the Mesa mother who was deported after 21 years in the U.S.?
“When that woman was being deported, all the local TV stations were calling me wanting to do interviews. They came to my house, set up all this equipment, did 30-minute interviews. Then I’d watch the news that night and it’d be like a five-second clip of me and then two minutes of the illegal woman and her poor family [saying], ‘My family’s being ripped apart.’” Mendoza says. “My family’s ripped apart forever. I’ll never see my son again. I can’t make a phone call. I can’t email him. I can’t visit him. At least [they] have that option.”
Mendoza says she isn’t anti-immigrant, and – unlike many pundits on the right – touts a path to citizenship for some people currently in the country illegally.
“There’s good people, I understand that. I think we need immigration reform where people can feel like they can go into an office, they can get their [citizenship] paperwork started,” she says.
Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, an Arizona State University professor and founder of the MISS Foundation, which provides services to families dealing with the death of a child, says a huge driving force of parents dealing with traumatic grief is connection maintenance, or continuing a bond with their beloved child who has died. “How do I bring them to the world?” Cacciatore explains.
Cacciatore is quick to note that she cannot conjecture about this particular story’s subject, but says the research is clear that people search for meaning after a child’s death: “What do I do with all of this pain? With this anger and all of these emotions?”
Grieving parents are often consumed with making sure their child is not forgotten. “For about a month, [sympathetic friends and family] show up [to lend support],” she says, “then everyone goes back to their lives.”
Mendoza’s living room in her small ranch home in northwest Mesa is a shrine to her son. His clunky, scuffed police boots sit by the fireplace, his badge and certificate noting his posthumous promotion to sergeant are framed on the mantel. His dog, a goofy little dachshund named Scooter, is always beneath her feet, begging for pets.
She says her grief has evolved over the years. “It’s made me a stronger person, it’s made me more compassionate, it’s made me more questioning… I’ve become more involved in the community,” she says. Indeed, she’s carried on parts of Brandon’s legacy, including an annual Thanksgiving dinner he held at the local Boys and Girls Club, holding pizza parties at Guerrero Rotary Park and kickball games at the ballfield, renamed Mendoza Field, and charity golf tournaments. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’re scary, you’re intimidating, you’re a force,’” Mendoza says. “I never felt that way.”
But it’s hard to imagine this woman ever being anything but strong. A single mother of four – three boys and one girl – Mendoza divorced her husband, who is of Mexican descent, in 1989. She worked three jobs to supplement measly child support, even running a middle-of-the-night paper route for extra cash.
Brandon, her third son, was a peacekeeper who knew he wanted to be a police officer at 13 years old. “He kept sanity in the house when I wasn’t around working all my jobs,” Mendoza says. “I never had to give him a curfew. He would never go to parties or do things normal teenagers would do at parties [because] he didn’t want to jeopardize his future in police work.”
He was also openly gay and leaned liberal in his politics. An old Facebook post on his profile page, which remains active in “memorial” status, claimed support for Obama’s re-election in 2012. “I’ve had some of his friends who are liberal chastise me [for supporting Trump],” Mendoza says. But she believes he’d be proud of her and the fight she’s been waging in his memory. “Our political differences didn’t make a difference in our relationship at all. Everyone has a right to believe in what they believe in. But everyone also has a right to fight for what they think is right.”
On the third anniversary of Brandon’s death this past May, 20 or so people gather at his gravestone at Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery just off of the U.S. Route 60 freeway in Mesa for a memorial service. It’s sunny and warm – the kind of Arizona spring day that makes the sweat trickle down your back bead by bead.
Mendoza, clad in a T-shirt, jeans and dark sunglasses, passes out a few dozen purple balloons to the group. Purple was Brandon’s favorite color. A few people tentatively step up to offer condolences.
Mesa police Commander Thom Intrieri talks about the “passion and purpose” Sgt. Mendoza showed in his work to be a positive example to neighborhood kids. “Passion and purpose – both start with a ‘p,’ just like purple balloons.”
Ray Villa, community partnership coordinator with Mesa police, recalls seeing Brandon shortly before he died. “I remember telling him, ‘The world is right in front of you, bud’… All I can say is I miss him.”
Interim Mesa Police Chief Michael Dvorak says, “We carry [Brandon] with us as we carry on in our journeys.”
Finally, Mendoza steps forward and raises her voice over the din created by the tractor digging a new hole 100 feet away. “Today was obviously a terrible day,” she says, voice steady and unwavering. “For weeks after his death I was finding out the things my son did that I was unaware of, the kindness in his heart. He touched so many lives… It amazes me the fight and determination I’ve found in myself because of him.”
Gathering closer to the gravestone declaring the person beneath “the most amazing son,” the group shouts in chorus, “We love you” and “Miss you” as they release purple balloons into the air. Mendoza shields her eyes to watch them float closer to the sun. But it’s too bright to look too long, so she watches their shadows dancing on the grass.
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