Rene Meza Huerta is not the most sympathetic symbol of the need for immigration reform.

Who puts four kids into a car without child seats these days? In particular, who loads two of them loose into the back compartment of a hatchback?

Tucson police pulled over Meza Huerta Sunday afternoon, then called the Border Patrol, which arrested him. Despite protests and news conferences in his honor early this week, Meza Huerta was deported to Mexico at Nogales late Wednesday.

Meza Huerta told police he had lived in Tucson for 12 years. And in that time he had a few traffic cases, including a 2003 misdemeanor DUI that led to him spending a night in jail.

If I were a Tucson immigration activist, he's not who I would have picked as my local Rosa Parks. He seems a relatively typical, imperfect person.

Yet when you peel back the layers of this case, and set aside the distasteful details, you see that it represents one of today's biggest questions about immigration: What do we do about people who are illegally in this country but have immediate family members who are citizens, especially when those citizens are American children dependent on them?

Let's be clear what this case is not about: It's not about meddling neighbors, overzealous Tucson police officers or fascist Border Patrol agents.

Meza Huerta, 30, and his girlfriend, Perla Lopez, 23, each have three kids they were raising together in Midvale Park - a total of six kids with another on the way.

The case began Sunday afternoon when Thomas Gilbert was picking through trash behind an apartment complex on North Flowing Wells Road at West Miracle Mile. An Air Force retiree, Gilbert says he's an "environmental recyclist" who collects all manner of materials, takes them home, separates the components and sells or recycles them.

He can't stand mistreatment of children. So when Meza Huerta loaded those kids into what Gilbert thought was the trunk of the two-door Mercury Cougar, he called 911.

When I talked to Gilbert on Thursday, and told him about the deportation, he still had no regrets.

"He endangered those children," he said of Meza Huerta. "It had nothing to do with any ethnicity. When I see child abuse, I'm going to report it."

Gilbert also followed the car onto eastbound Interstate 10 and off the West 22nd Street exit, helping Tucson police identify it.

It's unclear to me if it's coincidental that Meza Huerta drove past Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 W. 23rd Street, which is home to immigrant-rights activism and a day-labor center.

Tucson police stopped him just around the corner from the church and found that, beyond carrying four unrestrained children, Meza Huerta was driving on a suspended license, a Class 1 misdemeanor. SB 1070 requires that police check an arrestee's immigration status before releasing him, so they called the Border Patrol.

When the agents got there, they already had records of Meza Huerta as being in the country illegally and took him in. Neither Tucson police nor Border Patrol agents make the laws they enforce.

What was different about this case is that Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa happened by on his bicycle, heading to Southside Presbyterian. Tucson police reports are consistent in what Alcaraz Ochoa got angry about. They all show him saying something to the effect of, "You are breaking families apart."

I get why he was upset enough to crawl under a Border Patrol vehicle in an effort to prevent them from taking Meza Huerta away. I also respect the risk he took: Alcaraz Ochoa is a permanent resident alien and therefore deportable.

"I was fully aware of that, but at that moment there was an injustice taking place in front of me," he told me.

The agents eventually pepper-sprayed Alcaraz Ochoa, pulled him out from under the vehicle and arrested him, too, though they later released him.

His protest was in vain, of course. We have so many Meza Huertas in this country and still don't have a good way to deal with them.

City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich showed sympathy to the cause, attending a protest at Tucson police headquarters Monday. But she told me Thursday she also gets the bind the police are in. And she gets why this case stirred people up.

"The raw nerve that was struck is that, it's my understanding, it was dividing up a family," she said. "That resonates very deeply. Perhaps it's not about this situation alone."

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter