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Seeking Justice for Immigrants

Arizona activist Roberto Reveles fights for Hispanic undocumented immigrants' fair treatment

Reveles remembers being forced to attend what he describes as a segregated “Mexican” school based strictly on skin color, while some of his light-complexioned family members attended the better-equipped “American” school. The town’s segregation policies touched every realm of life. “The Mexican kids were allowed to swim in the local YMCA pool [only] on the day before it was to be drained and cleaned,” he recalls. And going to the movies meant sitting in the balcony designated for Latinos, who were not allowed on the main floor.

Those experiences fueled Reveles’ desire to succeed. After joining the U.S. Air Force, he leveraged his military experience and connections to get into the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He went on to have a distinguished 24-year public service career in Washington, D.C., and 12 more years in the private sector, before retiring in 1992.

On Capitol Hill, he made time to press for more opportunities for minorities to serve in Congress and at the U.S. State Department. “He’s always been very driven, no-nonsense and very fair,” says Mucio Carlon, a Tucson financial adviser who worked with Reveles on U.S. Rep. Morris K. Udall’s (D-Arizona) staff. “He’s not much different now.”

In addition to being a member of the ACLU, Reveles is a long-standing member of the Arizona Hispanic Community Forum — where he got his start in the immigrant rights movement — and volunteers with Humane Borders, a group that places water containers in the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Reveles mentors other young activist leaders, including Alessandra Soler Meetze, ACLU of Arizona executive director. His lessons come from real life, says Soler Meetze, noting the time he stood before a hostile crowd of business leaders and told them to listen to boycott organizers if they wanted to craft an effective alternative for the issue at hand. “He can work a room with any crowd,” she says. “But he’s not going to compromise his principles for the sake of politics.”

Perhaps there is one compromise he’s made for the sake of social justice: He’s put his passion for art on hold. Reveles is an accomplished artist whose work has been in various exhibitions, including one at Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco and another at the Phoenix Art Museum. But one look at his busy schedule and it’s easy to discern why he’s found little time to pursue his hobby as a representational sculptor. The 1,000-square-foot studio he built in his home in preparation for retirement seems in semi-retirement itself.

Despite the challenges, Reveles is heartened by the positive changes for Latinos and others seeking social justice. “I see a lot of good constructive change, such as the participation of Latinos in the civic life of our country,” he says. “That bodes well for the future.”

A better future for some immigrants could come sooner than Reveles might have expected. In August, the Obama administration changed its deportation policy to aggressively pursue only immigrants who have criminal backgrounds or pose security risks. More than 300,000 cases will be reviewed, and some undocumented immigrants will receive the opportunity to apply for work visas “Depending on how it’s administered,” says Reveles, “this is a step in the right direction.”

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