08/22/2011 05:35 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2011

Man who saved New Mexico girl at center of immigration debate

By Zelie Pollon

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - When Antonio Diaz Chacon jumped into his car and chased a man down to rescue a 6-year-old girl he had seen snatched from a New Mexico street, he said, he was doing what any parent would do.

Chacon was hailed as a hero by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, who declared August 19 Antonio Diaz Chacon Day in Albuquerque. A smiling Chacon, 23, accepted a Spanish language plaque honoring his bravery.

Not mentioned at the ceremony was that Chacon, a Mexican citizen married to an American woman, has been living in the United States illegally for the past four years.

Chacon, a father of two, revealed his undocumented status to show that most immigrants are law abiding and want to do what's right, he told local media, pushing him to the center of the immigration debate in the United States.

For days, internet and mainstream media sites exploded with arguments hailing Chacon as a hero for his bravery in pursuing the blue van until it crashed into a lightpole and he was able to rescue the little girl. The driver, 29-year-old Phillip Garcia, fled but was later apprehended by police.

Others, however, have said Chacon's actions to rescue the girl did not erase that he was in the United States illegally.

The story has gained extra leverage in New Mexico as the state's Governor, Republican Susana Martinez, has been fighting to repeal a state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

Immigrants involved in criminal activity have been cited as examples of the dangers of the law, instituted under her Democratic predecessor. New Mexico is one of only three states that let illegal immigrants obtain driver's licenses.

In Chacon's case, the governor issued a statement lambasting what she described as radical special interest groups for "shamefully exploiting" the immigrant.

These groups "cannot ignore the litany of well-documented cases of this policy that put the public at risk," she said.

Marcela Diaz, Executive Director of the immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, doesn't know Chacon but said his actions were proof of a current system where immigrants, regardless of their status, feel safe enough to interact with law enforcement officials as "heroes, witnesses or victims."

"Studies have shown that it's better for public safety all around when you integrate immigrants into your community instead of alienating them," Diaz said. "If you make them too afraid to interact with police, what Chacon did is exactly what people won't do."

Somos Un Pueblo, in collaboration with some New Mexico law enforcement officials, is responsible for fighting back the repeal of the license law in the most recent legislative session.

Asked why he took the risk to save a child, Chacon told one news channel, as his wife Martha translated: "It could've been us on the other side as parents, longing for her to come home."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)