Tombstone, Arizona; Apr. 15, 2005 – A mile from the Mexican border, Jim Gilchrist strode through the makeshift headquarters of the controversial Minuteman Project. Located on the campus of the Miracle Valley Bible College, individuals wearing Minuteman nametags posted maps of the border terrain, fidgeted with electronic equipment, and installed numerous antennae on the roof, all under the watchful eye of Gilchrist, the Projectâ€™s primary organizer. Outside, a white flag fluttered in the wind, bearing the emblem of a coiled rattlesnake and two messages for visitors: "Donâ€™t Tread on Me" and "Liberty or Death." As armed guards prepared to patrol the area, the church was beginning to resemble a military compound; volunteers suddenly referred to what was previously the cafeteria as the "mess hall"; the church grounds became "the perimeter."
Standing 6 feet 6 inches and dressed head to toe in desert camouflage fatigues, a Minuteman volunteer named Mike explained that he had just flown in from Peru. Originally from Georgia, Mike, who like most volunteers refused to give a last name, had recently married a Peruvian woman that he met while vacationing, and hoped to soon begin the process to have her come to the US. "They say it can sometimes take many years," he mentioned. "But I just think that you have to follow the rules and come here legally."
Mike explained that he had heard of the Minuteman Project through a Yahoo! email discussion group while in Peru and that he would be staying at the Bible College for the entire month of the Project. When asked what had motivated him to leave his wife back in Peru, he expressed the belief that Mexicans were "taking over" Georgia, and that he felt it important to secure the border. "Mexican are coming over right now," he said, emphasizing the last two words, an intense look on his face as he peered out into the desert. "That, more than anything, is why I decided to join."
A â€˜Blocking Forceâ€™ Against â€˜Invading Aliensâ€™
While groups condemned the Minutemen as ignorant about the realities faced by immigrant families, the Project became popular among white supremacist websites and Internet discussion forums.
The meandering reporters in Tombstone, Arizona and the buzz of activity on the dusty church campus were the fulfillment of a dream for Gilchrist, 56, a retired accountant and Vietnam War veteran from southern California. Last October he sent out what he now calls the "email heard round the world," asking for volunteers to come to Arizona and become "part of a blocking force against entry into the US by illegal aliens [in order to] protect our country from a 40-year-long invasion."
After months of forwarded emails and a number of appearances on cable television, Gilchrist eventually claimed to have more than 1,000 volunteers ready to monitor the border and notify immigration officials when they spotted migrants crossing.
For Gilchrist and his local connection, Tombstone Tumbleweed publisher Chris Simcox, the decision to focus the efforts of the Minutemen in Cochise County was an easy one. Located within the Tucson Sector, Cochise has now become the busiest smuggling route on the US-Mexico border. Though Cochise only includes 83 border miles, it receives 43 percent of the Tucson Sectorâ€™s immigrant interdiction resources. According to the Border Patrol, 71,282 undocumented immigrants were apprehended in Cochise County from October 2004 through February 2005.
As much as has been made of the vigilante-like attitude of the Minutemen, most simultaneously claimed victimization at the hands of undocumented immigrants.
As the border-crossing capital of Arizona -- a state that last year saw the apprehension of more migrants than California, New Mexico and Texas combined -- Cochise is the figurative front line of what many conservatives characterize as an "invasion." Indeed, just a few days before the Minuteman Project launched, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would be adding 500 additional border patrol agents in Arizona, a move Gilchrist and Simcox dismissed as a public relations event that was far from adequate.
Vigilantes â€˜Half Awakeâ€™ to Hate
Gilchrist and Simcox both balk at the notion that they are encouraging vigilantism, citing the orders given to participants to maintain a strict "no contact" policy in their dealings with migrants. In what quickly became a favorite sound bite, they described their campaign as simply the largest "neighborhood watch" effort in the country.
In addition to aiding Border Patrol agents in spotting migrants, Gilchrist stated in his recruitment email that he hoped to highlight through media exposure what he sees as the need to secure US borders by dramatically increasing the funding and staff for the Border Patrol and Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, both of which fall under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.
While immigrant rights groups condemned the Minutemen as ignorant about the realities faced by immigrant families striving to earn an adequate wage on which to survive, the Project generated increasing controversy when it became popular among white supremacist websites and Internet discussion forums. The Arizona Republic reported in March that an Aryan Nation site linked directly to the Minuteman Project, issuing a "call for action on part of ALL ARYAN SOLDIERS."
At the same time, the Southern Poverty Law Center â€“ a nonprofit organization that monitors hate groups â€“ warned that members of the white power National Alliance organization were seeking to infiltrate the Project. According to the SPLC, one member posted his or her plans on a racist Internet bulletin board: "This is a good opportunity to reach out to people who are â€˜half awakeâ€™ and help them the rest of the way. Iâ€™m a missionary for racism and I see fertile ground!"
Reacting to the Projectâ€™s popularity among white supremacist outfits, Gilchrist claimed to have instituted a background check on all participants to weed out overtly bigoted individuals. Minutemen generally swear they and their actions are not racist.
But such measures and rhetoric provide little comfort for critics like Jennifer Allen, director of the Tucson-based Border Action Network, the members of which are mostly Latinos living along both sides of the border. Founded in 1999, BAN has been focusing on organizing affected residents to demand a government crackdown on the apparently burgeoning vigilante border patrol movement.
On the day before the Project began, when asked if she thought there was a potential for violence, Allen broke into a grin. "Well, letâ€™s seeâ€¦ a bunch of untrained men coming to the border with firearms for a month -- yes, Iâ€™d say the potential for violence is there." Allen gave a laugh. "I think you could safely say that all the ingredients are present."
Indeed, BAN has compiled numerous complaints of vigilante violence against presumed undocumented immigrants prior to the arrival of the Minutemen, and filed several lawsuits against notorious rancher Roger Barnett, who claims to have detained thousands of migrants on his properties. In addition to the regular patrols by Barnett and his supporters, and Simcoxâ€™s own Civil Homeland Defense, an organization called Ranch Rescue reportedly conducts periodic "operations" on the border, searching for migrants while dressed in camouflage fatigues and sporting assault rifles.
Most Volunteers Stay Home, While Media Turns Out in Force
On the opening day of the Minuteman Project, volunteers registered inside a former Tombstone courtroom while dozens of reporters huddled outside. The scene remained calm until noon, when anti-Minutemen protesters arrived.
A group of men, women and children adorned in indigenous headdresses and clothing danced and pounded drums, while alongside them a contingent of activists banged on pots and pans. One brown-skinned man carried a sign that read, "Youâ€™re the immigrant." Scrawled across the t-shirt of another woman were the words, "Minutemen are Racist." A white man standing away from the group, presumably a Minuteman, began to yell "Viva la Migra!" -- a popular anti-immigrant slogan, meaning "long live the border patrol."
Around the protesters, a handful of people wore red and white shirts denoting them as self-proclaimed legal observers. One of these volunteers was Caroline Isaacs, director of the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). She said the AFSC, in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, planned to monitor the activities of the Minutemen throughout the month-long operation. "We already know which roads they will be using, and so we will drive along the same roads until we find them, and set up ten to fifteen feet away," she said. "Weâ€™ll tell law enforcement anytime we see peopleâ€™s civil rights being violated."
Another group that showed up to voice opposition to the Minutemen was the National Alliance for Human Rights. Maria Anna Gonzales, one of that groupâ€™s organizers, traveled to Tombstone with a contingent from California. "We are here to show binational support for the poor people who are acting on their right to food and clothing, which is basic human right for everyone," she said. "We are in solidarity with those struggling to assert that right."
When the dust cleared and the Minutemen and protesters departed, it was unclear how many people had actually signed up; from the ground, it seemed there were more media workers than Minutemen. Although Gilchrist and Simcox refused to give a registration count, the Arizona Daily Star estimated that 150 people had enlisted, based on a review of photographs taken for the paper.
The vast majority of enlistees were older white men, but also included a significant number of white women, who also preferred to be called Minutemen. Several volunteers looked to be in their twenties. Though Gilchrist had promised that many non-white participants would be in attendance â€“ particularly foreign-born Americans who had immigrated legally -- after hours of surveying the group and speaking with other reporters, it was difficult to identify a single one.
Victims and Scapegoats
As much as has been made of the vigilante-like attitude of the Minutemen, most simultaneously claimed victimization at the hands of undocumented immigrants. Nevertheless, even among these most ardent of nationalists, a subsurface understanding of the social complexity surrounding immigration issues often peeked through.
At breakfast on day two of the project, someone placed a stack of t-shirts and stickers on a table for sale. One of the stickers read, "Kick Me -- Iâ€™m a Citizen." Those five words seem to summarize the general feelings of many participants, who regularly expressed the belief that the United States rewards "aliens" that immigrate illegally while punishing, by contrast, "hard-working" citizens. In their view, a zero-sum battle is underway, and immigrants are the variable: whenever an undocumented immigrant receives a job or even medical treatment, Minutemen seem to truly believe a US citizen, somewhere else, is simultaneously being stripped of the same benefit.
A Minuteman named Gabriel, who is from Freeport, Long Island, decided to volunteer because he said that hundreds of immigrants gathered on street corners looking for work, which in his opinion made the area feel like a slum while driving down wages of citizen construction workers. He has been a union carpenter for many years, but believes he now has less work since contractors are more likely to hire immigrants at well below the prevailing wage.
Another volunteer, Bob, a hefty revolver strapped to his belt, lamented that his son, a former Marine who had fought in the first war against Iraq, could not get a job as a police officer because he speaks no Spanish. "Heâ€™s 6 feet 4 inches, 240 pounds," Bob said, "but no one will hire him because they say he has to be bilingual. Since when do you have to be bilingual in our country?"
These are the kinds of anecdotal observations on which the Minutemen base their conclusions that Latino immigrants pose a growing threat to the United States. Yet some expressed an awareness that the problemâ€™s roots are anywhere but on the US-Mexico border.
Even for Bob, who also happens to be a longtime union member, the shrinking power of labor cannot be blamed on undocumented immigrants themselves. He explained that he wrote a dissertation while at the George Meany Labor Center on the effects illegal immigration has on union organizing. "I interviewed labor leaders, border patrol officials, everyone," Bob proudly recalled. "But I discovered that it wasnâ€™t illegal immigration that ruined the unions. It was the fact that they stopped organizing."
Another participant, Jim, was also upset about the presence of large numbers of undocumented immigrants in his state of Nebraska and has become an activist working with support from a national organization called FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been spearheading anti-immigrant legislation around the country. With FAIR providing legal counsel and the funds to gather thousands of signatures, Jim hopes to introduce a statewide initiative to target companies that hire undocumented workers, rendering them legally liable for engaging in "unfair trade practices" and subject to steep fines.
Jim outlined a three-prong solution to what he called "the immigration problem": cut off demand through tough penalties for employers that hire undocumented immigrants, cut off supply by increasing border security, and then conduct sweeps throughout the country for the people that are already here in violation of their immigration status.
Not included in Jimâ€™s plan, however, is what many analysts view as the only long-term solution to illegal immigration from Latin American: the ability of workers to earn a living wage in their home country.
Moreover, immigrant rights groups contend that the current tendency to scapegoat undocumented Latino immigrants is nothing but a continuation of a long and often brutal tradition of so-called "nativism," a nationalist ideology which has previously demonized migrants and refugees from Ireland, China and more recently the Middle East. Paradoxically, nativists have almost always been white immigrants and their descendents.
After breakfast, the Minutemen held protests at the Border Patrol stations of Naco and Douglas, two border towns in Cochise County, to highlight their view that the number of border agents needs to be increased dramatically. Under a sun that quickly turned white faces crimson, protesters lined up with dozens of angry signs demanding action.
"America First!" "No Benefits for Illegals!" "Stop the Illegal Invasion!" "Close Al-Qeada Hiking Trails!" "Illegal Aliens, Stop Destroying My Desert!" Most participants saved their harshest criticism for Bush, who had recently labeled them "vigilantes." Many Minutemen posited the belief that Bush is actually under the control of Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Though the complaints of the protesters were as varied as their signs, the unifying theme was expressed on a placard carried by Wes Bramhall, president of Arizonans for Immigration Control: "Dispatch US Army Troops to the Mexico Border." Dozens of participants agreed that a massive build-up along the border was needed. Next to Bramhall, David Pfeffer, a city council member from Sante Fe, also explained the situation in military terms.
"If the Project stays calm, then it will send a very good message," Pfeffer said. "The border situation is insane, and my take is that weâ€™re at war." Although he was optimistic about the prospects of stemming immigration along the US-Mexico border, translated as the Minuteman Project presence of April 2005*, the task sounded unlikely at first: insert a group of 100 armed men and women that speak little Spanish into a "war," but "stay calm." Yet for all of the sidearms strapped to belts and the endless red-faced chants of "Hey hey, ho ho, illegal aliens have got to go!" â€“ both rallies went off without incident.
That night, the Minutemen held a meeting in the lobby of the headquarters, preparing for the first day of surveillance. Simcox addressed the group. "We have 100 people going out tomorrow," he said, acknowledging that in fact the group would be dramatically smaller than originally advertised. "The line is set. And you should all know that the Border Patrol agents appreciate what you are sacrificing." The group broke into applause, then dispersed and prepared for the first day of monitoring the border.
The official position of the Border Patrol has been anything but supportive of the Minuteman Project. In public statements, officials with the agency have repeatedly argued that the job of patrolling the border was best left to trained agents. Tucson Sector Chief Michael Nicley, referring to the Minutemen, told the Sierra Vista Herald: "I donâ€™t think it enhances border safety. To the contrary I think it detracts from border safety. I think it puts people at risk needlessly."
Back at Minuteman headquarters, the Bible Collegeâ€™s president Dr. Melvin Harter made a point of noting that the church was officially unaffiliated with the Minutemen. "Donâ€™t get me wrong, we are totally in support of their work," he continued, qualifying his disclaimer. "We have to do something about all of the illegals, the drugs, the terrorists."
Although Harter, like many Minutemen supporters and volunteers, suggested that terrorists were crossing the Arizona border, he â€“ as well as every other Minuteman interviewed for this story â€“cited no hard evidence in support of the claim.
For Harter, it is not only the alleged threat of terrorism that he finds disconcerting. He also puts forth the sense that the very quality of what it is to be an American citizen today is at risk. "Some people want to open the borders," Harter said. "But if you do that, then pretty soon what makes this country special will be lost. People keep coming and weâ€™ll be in the minority, and theyâ€™ll have more votes than us. And then weâ€™re up a creek."
Yet at the same time, Harker has his pragmatic side. With his church needing extensive renovation, Harter does see a potential role for Mexicans in the US. "Iâ€™m not saying that no one can come," he mentioned. "Even now, I couldnâ€™t hire an illegal to work here or Iâ€™d get in trouble. If we could give them work permits, then they could come here and help fix up this place," he noted, referring to the Bible College. "And then when the work is done, they go home."
All Quiet on the Southern Front
During the first week of patrols, most groups saw little that could be considered "action." But the lack of sightings probably owed largely to the Minuteman Projectâ€™s widely publicized presence at the border. The operation received extensive coverage in the Spanish language media on both sides of the border. Media-driven awareness was coupled with the efforts of a Mexican government agency, Grupo Beta, which during routine patrols to assist would-be border-crossers passed out flyers warning against entering the United States in the Cochise County area during the month of April.
As a result, volunteers spent the majority of their time seated on folding chairs, occasionally peering through binoculars at the vast desert, spotting more birds than immigrants.
But not all attempts to stop desperate Latinos from crossing the border were fruitless. During one patrol near the Bible College, freelance videographers and Minutemen volunteers Diane and Lawrence Headrick discovered a migrant sleeping in a tunnel beneath a highway.
Diane, an adhesive bandage on her chin, recounted the panic the event inspired: "I was just looking around and saw the illegal laying down over there," she said, pointing toward the tunnel. "I couldnâ€™t believe it, and turned around to run as fast as I could, but fell down and hit my face on the ground." After calling the Border Patrol, Lawrence filmed the alleged migrant and his eventual capture.
Despite the injury, Lawrence and Diane were both excited to have filmed the episode. "We spent three days driving to get here, hoping to film images of illegals invading our country," Lawrence said. "And we got everything we needed during our first two hours."