Patriots on the Borderline
Toting guns, cameras and mighty convictions, small bands of Americans are patrolling the Southwest in search of illegal immigrants
By Dan Baum
Special to The Times
Chris Simcox won't stop fooling
with his gun. He paces his tiny office, bouncing on the balls of his feet,
and every 15 seconds his hands go to the
gun on his belt--hiking it up, adjusting its angle, checking its safety. It's a big gun, a two-toned .45 in a hard plastic holster, and whenever he is
photographed by the media--which is often these days--Simcox makes sure the pistol is in every frame.
Simcox speaks of sovereignty, the
Pledge of Allegiance and the rule of law, but his body language is all
about the gun. Sooner or later he's going to
use it, he wants everybody to know, in a showdown with the illegal immigrants and Mexican drug dealers he believes are ruining the United States.
"These are enemies who are wrecking our economy," he says, his eyes shiny with emotion. "This is about national security." If Simcox dies in a
blaze of border gunfire, so be it, he says. "Damn them. That's how much I care about my country."
Simcox would be naught but an anonymous
zealot with a death wish if, in October, he hadn't flamboyantly demonstrated
the dictum that freedom of
the press is best enjoyed by those who own one. At 42, he is owner, editor and publisher (and reporter, ad director and circulation manager) of the
weekly Tombstone Tumbleweed, circulation 1,200. His Oct. 24 issue bore the headline: "Enough is Enough! A Public Call to Arms!" The paper
invited readers to join a "Citizens Border Patrol Militia" whose function, Simcox says, will be to "shame the government into doing its job" of
controlling the nation's border with Mexico. "We need some good old-fashioned discipline in this country," Simcox explains as he fitfully circles the
one-room Tumbleweed office. "I invite someone to come up with a solution."
The Tumbleweed doesn't circulate
beyond Tombstone, a hamlet of 1,400 amid the vastness of the southern Arizona
desert about 25 miles from the
border. But the Internet took Simcox's article global, and about 100 people, he says, have since signed up to join him. Simcox says the only
requirement for his Civil Homeland Defense Corps is an Arizona license to carry a concealed pistol. "That will screen out the criminals and loonies,"
he says. Hundreds more people are e-mailing messages of support, he says, and "thousands" of dollars in contributions are pouring in. Simcox is
vague about what exactly his volunteers will do. For the last few months, he and a handful of friends have been offering, in their spare time, to serve
as private security guards for ranchers, and when his militia gets off the ground, it will probably do likewise, he says. If an illegal immigrant is found
on private land, "We challenge [them], detain them for 15 minutes and evict them," Simcox says. "We hold them any more than that and we can be
charged with kidnapping." He says he hasn't yet had his gun out of its holster.
He has, however, attracted a lot
of attention. Reporters are pouring in. Simcox can't meet at 4 p.m. because
he has an interview with the Chicago
Tribune, and then another at 5 p.m. with the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a German newspaper. Perhaps predictably, two other border militias are
edging into his spotlight. Ranch Rescue of Texas has been quietly organizing armed volunteers to visit private spreads around the Southwest since
2000 to repair damage caused by illegal immigrants and, less commonly, run them off.
"I have them through my property
all the time, every day," says Gary McBride, who ranches in Arizona about
30 miles north of the border. "They
leave stock fences open so the cows get out. They damage water tanks. They leave behind an unbelievable amount of trash, which my cows
sometimes eat and get sick. We're damned tired of it."
So far, no one has been reported
hurt in a confrontation. Another new outfit called American Border Patrol
is planning to send volunteers equipped
with Webcams and satellite uplinks to the border to stream live online video of immigrants crossing illegally into the U.S. The groups differ in
tactics, but all three share an apocalyptic vision of an America under siege. "We cannot let [the Mexicans] export their failures," says Glenn
Spencer, the 60-something organizer of American Border Patrol, based in Sierra Vista, Ariz. "They are a threat to our entire culture."
None of these organizations can
produce more than a handful of supporters, and an informal poll--in restaurants,
gas stations and on the streets of
southwest Arizona--turns up few ready to strap on a gun and join them. Illegal immigrants "come through our land all the time, but so what? They're
not doing any harm," says Cathy, who declines to give her last name when I meet her at a Chevron station in Bisbee, four miles from the border.
She then uses a popular obscenity to describe Simcox and others like him.
Joanne Young, who tends bar at
the Crazy Horse Saloon in Tombstone, says "Simcox doesn't have 10 people
in this town on his side." Tombstone
lives on tourism, she says, "and visitors are down this year from last. People are calling and saying, 'I don't want to bring my children there; it isn't
Still, few in Arizona dismiss the
border militiamen. While reporters are drawn by the photogenic firearms,
fiery Rambo quotes and a morbid
certainty that sooner or later somebody's going to get killed, locals know Simcox and his allies are on to something. In their half-baked,
xenophobic, scary-screwball way, they've identified a real problem: The U.S.-Mexico border is a disaster.
Consider the small town of Douglas,
Ariz., which hunkers near the dividing line 50 miles southeast of Tombstone.
Last year, the Border Patrol
station there arrested an average of 150 illegal immigrants a day. That's more than 54,000 border jumpers in a town of only 14,000 residents, and
it doesn't count the ones who get away. The total coming through might be three or five or 10 times more. Nobody knows.
Operation Hold the Line
What turned the stampede of illegal
immigrants through this corner of Arizona was a Border Patrol policy shift
in 1994. Until then, Border Patrol
agents concentrated on catching illegal migrants. They'd hang back and hide behind boulders until the migrants crossed in front of them, or spend
hours and even days tracking them across the desert. They chased them at high speeds through the streets and back yards of El Paso and San
Diego. Agents polished their careers by catching them, and the only way to do that was to let them cross first.
In 1993, the chief of the Border
Patrol's El Paso sector, Silvestre Reyes, turned that policy on its head.
He decided to put all his men right on the
line to deter migrants from crossing in the first place. And he built the Border Patrol's first Berlin Wall-type fence along El Paso's southern border,
dividing it from Ciudad Juarez. He called his new strategy Operation Hold the Line, and he measured success not by how many were caught, but,
in a sense, how few. Reyes, who now represents El Paso in Congress, didn't want any crossings at all. The Border Patrol in San Diego quickly
followed suit, and the strategy of hardening the border in and near populated areas spread. As it became increasingly hard to cross the border in
cities, migrants had no choice but to venture farther into the desert, where the risks are tremendous. Since the fortification of the cities, more
migrants die each year on the U.S.-Mexico border than died trying to cross the Berlin Wall during its entire 28-year history.
But the strategy change also has
been hard on rural Americans living near the border. All three militias
have been drawn to Cochise County, Ariz.,
because this is the most popular new migration route. Depending on how you estimate the ratio of unlawful immigrants captured to the total who
cross, it's possible that 10 times as many pass through Cochise County--a million or more--as there are Americans living there.
"They come through town here sometimes
like locusts, taking anything that isn't nailed down," says Lynn Kartchner,
who owns a down-at-the-heels
safe, alarm and gun store in Douglas. Though Kartchner's insect allusion is harsh, it makes sense that some of the 500-odd desperately poor people
scrambling through Douglas every day are sticky-fingered. To a marginal businessman like Kartchner, and to others in this economically depressed
region, that may indeed feel like a plague.
"The rights of a U.S. citizen shouldn't
be contingent on where they live and how much income they've got," says
David Stoddard, an angry Cochise
County resident. "What the Border Patrol is saying is: 'The rights of the people in [the cities] exceed those of the ranchers." To this, Carlos X.
Carrillo, the Border Patrol's assistant chief in Tucson, shrugs. "We go out to cover [the ranches] and we open up everybody in El Paso and San
Diego to a high level of crossings," he says.
During the summer of 2001, when
President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were talking about making
immigration "safe and legal," the
problems of the border were Page One news. Then came 9/11 and the issue vanished, leaving people like Kartchner and McBride feeling
abandoned once again, hostages to a border policy that few in power seem interested in correcting. So while the militiamen's diagnoses are hateful
and their prescriptions toxic, their presence isn't altogether unwelcome in southern Arizona. By their very extremism they've found a way to attract
the public's attention away from Al Qaeda and Iraq and back to the problem in their backyard--the tide of illegal immigration.
The attacks on the World Trade
Center and Pentagon figure in the rise of the border militias in more ways
than one. Simcox and his allies talk
almost as much about the terror attacks as they do about Mexican campesinos hogging American jobs and welfare checks. The Border Patrol says
it hasn't yet detected any evidence of Middle Eastern terrorists trying to sneak through the southern border. But last year, the Border Patrol of the
Tucson district--an area the size of Minnesota--caught illegal immigrants from 51 countries. However, only 1.2% of migrants arrested are from
countries other than Mexico, and only 0.2% are from outside Latin America.
Watching for Al Qaeda
At the Border Patrol station in
Douglas, the agents clearly have one eye on the possibility that Al Qaeda
will try to sneak in through the southern
border. When migrants are captured, they're held in three chain-link cells while agents process them for return to Mexico. It's a dreary,
fluorescent-lit scene with a world-weary air about it. The migrants sit patiently in their unlocked cages looking neither distraught nor worried. In a
few hours, they'll be politely driven back to the border, to probably try again.
The agents are relaxed and good-natured,
going through an oft-repeated process neither hurriedly nor brusquely.
They keep a sharp eye on their
computers, though, as they run the migrants' digital photos and index fingerprints through a computer to look for repeat border-jumpers, drug
dealers and fugitives of all kinds. On the wall are photos of known coyotes, the guides who lead groups of migrants through the desert. And taped
above the bank of computer terminals are six grainy photos of young Middle Eastern men with a hand-lettered sign: Suspected Terrorists. The
Border Patrol has just been folded into the new Department of Homeland Security and deterring terrorism is now at least part of its rhetoric. Still,
it's hard to deny that if Osama bin Laden himself wanted to cross the desert into Arizona, he'd stand a good chance of making it.
In the militiamen's Armageddon
worldview, the United States is in a kind of liberal trance, drowsily mouthing
globalist claptrap while letting hordes
of shiftless, malevolent brown people sap its resources, corrupt its greatness and plot its destruction from within. While our leaky Mexican border
has had its opponents for decades, Simcox, Spencer and their allies are a distinctly post-9/11 phenomenon. They're worth getting to know because
they advocate the most extreme bunker strategies in the uncertainties of the post-9/11 world. In a word, they speak for America at its most freaked
By his own account, Chris Simcox
went a little crazy after 9/11. Once a "liberal and pacifist," he says
his worldview changed after he was mugged
twice in New York many years ago by people who didn't speak English. He moved to Los Angeles, and for 13 years he taught young children at
the private Wildwood School on Washington Place, all the while growing increasingly annoyed at what he calls the liberalism and lack of discipline
in Southern California, particularly toward illegal immigrants. "You see what rampant illegal immigration has done in L.A.," he says with a visible
shudder. "The gangs, the people standing on the street corners."
Then came the terror attacks on
New York and Washington, and Simcox's equilibrium snapped. "For a while,
I wouldn't talk to anyone if they
couldn't recite the Pledge of Allegiance," he says. "I got very aggressive about my views, like, 'I'm not going to talk to you until you agree to talk to
me about my constitutional rights.' " His behavior grew so wacky that he lost joint custody of his 15-year-old son. In a rage, Simcox left Los
Angeles for the Arizona desert a month after 9/11. For 2 ½ months, he camped alone among the mesquite and cactus, trying, he says, to "reinvent"
himself. In that time, he says he saw five "paramilitary groups of drug dealers"--pickup trucks packed with dope and moving at walking speed,
flanked by men holding automatic rifles. "I saw this with my own eyes," he insists.
Simcox tried to join the Border
Patrol and the military, he says, but was turned down because he was too
old. He drifted into Tombstone, got a
job at the Tumbleweed, and eventually bought it for $50,000. Simcox, who rarely sleeps more than four or five hours a night, and looks it, is vague
about exactly where he'll deploy his vigilantes or how he'll manage them. "What I really hope is that the government wakes up and makes all this
unnecessary by doing its job and sealing the border with troops," he says. But Simcox also itches for action. "If we see one of those [drug]
convoys, we'll stand strong," he shouts, punching his chest. "If they fire on us, we'll fire back. We want to go up against those drug dealers."
Twice during our hourlong conversation
he refers to himself as Paul Revere. "This has gotten so big even I can't
control it," he says. Which raises
the question: What if his call brings to the border members of the 26 "state militias" he says have contacted him? What if some racist yahoo takes
the "call to arms" seriously, opens fire on a group of migrants and kills someone? "I realize we've awakened a sleeping giant," Simcox says,
lowering his voice for the first time. "It's on my conscience."
And then the interview is over.
Rising to go, he punches his arms into a black woolen jacket embroidered
on the back with a colorful movie logo:
Lost in Space.
'Pure orneriness' of immigrants
Ranch Rescue, based in Abilene,
Texas, purports not to care about immigration reform but only about respect
for private property. The only
assaults on property it seems to concern itself with, though, are those caused by migrants in damage to fences, pumps and water tanks. And it
doesn't take five minutes into a phone call for its coordinator, Jack Foote, to get around to some sweeping characterizations about the "pure
orneriness" of Mexican immigrants and their "churlish disdain for American private property owners." When Foote refers me to David Stoddard to
articulate the problem in southwest Arizona, he's steering me straight back to the politics of immigration and race.
David Stoddard retired in 1996
from a 27-year career with the U.S. Border Patrol. He says he knows, from
long experience, that our government
could seal the U.S.-Mexico border if only it had the will. Broad and compact, with a steel-gray Brylcreem haircut, Stoddard is affiliated with no
organization "except the Republican Party," but has been a regular face in TV news segments, giving voice to the concerns of the loose-knit
confederation of Ranch Rescue, American Border Patrol and Simcox's group. He meets me at the home of a friend, Ben Anderson, a retired Army
colonel, in Sierra Vista. The strip-mall town serves the Army's Fort Huachuca, 16 miles from Tombstone. Anderson, a rotund and slow-spoken,
sleepy bear of a man, tells me he studied modern Arabic, "Gulfie talk," at the Pentagon's prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey. As
we take seats in his living room, Anderson offers that "Islam is not a religion, it's a cult. It's bad." And so we begin.
Stoddard agrees with Simcox that
the Border Patrol has no hope of sealing the border. "It's a social service
organization. The current policy is
catch and release. And only one in five get caught, on a good day." Only the military has adequate muscle: Stoddard insists that 100 helicopters
using infrared scopes, supported by observation posts on every hill between Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego, could effectively seal the
2,000-mile border. "Give me 2,500 troops," he says.
"Look at the Iron Curtain," Anderson says. "The border between the Koreas; people don't cross that sucker."
"It wouldn't have to be that stringent,"
Stoddard. "Machine guns and tanks--that's not what I'm talking about. There
isn't even a need for
military patrols. Just the presence of the military in prominent locations would be the real deterrent."
Stoddard talks a long time, displaying
an impressive command of tactics and technology. Anderson, the ex-Army
colonel, adds that the Posse
Comitatus Act of 1878, which forbids military involvement in law enforcement, wouldn't apply. "The military controlled the border until the Border
Patrol was formed in 1924, and could again," he says. "There was a time when the border was a law enforcement issue, but at 9/11 it became a
Stoddard and Anderson produce a
much-circulated clipping from the Dec. 9 Los Angeles Times saying that
the U.S. plans to finance 177
checkpoints, staffed by 12,000 guards, on the borders of Afghanistan. "They can seal the Afghan border," Stoddard barks. "But our weak-kneed
politicians whine 'Posse Comitatus' when we want to do it here."
No troops here
In fact, the military never had
responsibility for enforcing immigration law on the southern border, according
to Marian Smith, staff historian of the
Immigration and Naturalization Service. Troops were sent to pursue Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, and were stationed near border
posts during World War I to make a show of guarding against German saboteurs. But the Army never functioned as Stoddard and Anderson
recommend, Smith says.
Stoddard and Anderson turn to the question of need. "National security involves culture, sovereignty and economics," Anderson says.
"The lifeboat is full," says Stoddard,
driving a fist into the tabletop. "America is importing poverty, and there
are only so many resources available.
The U.S. is headed into Third World conditions." The current rate of immigration is dangerous, he says. "Double the schools we'll need by 2050.
Double the sewage plants, water use, roads, housing."
He collects himself and sighs.
"These people crossing the border, they're victims," he says tiredly. "I
know that. The villains are the globalists,
Vicente Fox, who's talking about nations without borders. The European Union are globalists. The multinational corporations, NAFTA [the North
American Free Trade Agreement], and GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade]."
Surprised to hear him sounding
like an anti-corporate World Trade Organization protester, I try to get
him to explain more fully his views on
globalization. Instead, Stoddard descends into a long, angry rant that begins with his own ancestors, who immigrated as Puritans in the 1600s to a
place "that was founded as a Christian, English-speaking nation."
The new immigrants, Stoddard insists,
not only suck more out of the economy in welfare than they contribute in
taxes, they also dilute American
culture. "I am a Christian conservative," he says. "The liberal mantra is that my beliefs, my culture, my mores are no more valid than someone who
comes in from El Salvador and thinks it's perfectly all right to have sex with 13-year-old girls."
While I try to interpret this,
he forges ahead, first about a school board in Georgia that changed the
name of Christmas break to "semester break,"
and then into a complaint that students in California are studying Islam, "yet Christianity is banned from the public schools."
Turns out, the Census Bureau predicts
the U.S. population will increase by 47%, not 100%, by 2050. Even in the
1990s, when more immigrants
arrived than in either the 1970s or '80s, they constituted 13% of the American population's increase. Immigrants now make up about 6% of the
U.S. population, with naturalized citizens adding another 4%, according to the Census, though when it comes to counting illegal immigrants the
numbers get slippery indeed.
Stoddard is right when he points
out that in many immigrant communities, two or three families crowd into
a single-family house or apartment. And
he notes, correctly, that unlike immigrants from Europe or Asia, who had to cross oceans to get here, many illegal immigrants hope to work in the
U.S. for a few years and then return home. Many have no intention of staying here or becoming Americans.
Cost of illegal immigration
But as for their "sucking more
out of the economy than they contribute," Stoddard has it only partly right,
according to a National Research Council
study in 1997. Asked by Congress to study the question, the council found that overall, legal and illegal immigrants indeed receive more in publicly
funded services than they pay in taxes. But that's no more true for immigrants than for low-paid Americans; low wages are expensive to society as
a whole. And a straight services-for-taxes calculation doesn't tell the entire story. Whole industries--such as hospitality, textiles and
agriculture--"would not exist on the same scale without immigrant workers," the academy found. Immigrants add as much as $10 billion to the U.S.
economy, the study found, mostly due to their willingness to do the kind of hard, dirty, dangerous and low-paid work Americans don't want.
As the afternoon with Stoddard
and Anderson wears on I feel further and further inside the looking glass.
How odd, I think, to be lectured by
conservatives in Arizona, of all places, about how the federal government isn't doing enough. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater--father of the
modern conservative movement--is buried barely 200 miles from here, in the same rocky, thorn-strewn soil. Goldwater and his GOP descendants
made it their life's mission to reduce the size and reach of the U.S. government. It was all I could do not to yell at Stoddard and Anderson: Hey,
you wanted small government, and you got it.
"We're being sacrificed on the
altar of globalism!" thunders Glenn Spencer, organizer of American Border
Patrol. We're sitting in Spencer's
"command center," a den stuffed with three computers, four television sets tuned to various news channels, a forest of peripherals, a regiment of
remotes and lots of VCRs. The emblem of the CIA hangs on a wall, but Spencer, who has gray-blond hair falling over his collar and vaguely
resembles William F. Buckley, says he never worked there.
Spencer's words echo eerily, because
aside from a flossy "reception area" off the kitchen, his gigantic house
has hardly any furniture. The former
Sherman Oaks resident is still moving in to his new place. The house, at a Sierra Vista address Spencer rarely gives out "for security reasons,"
might once have been a funeral parlor. A semicircular driveway sweeps to the front door through a swath of brown earth where the lawn will
someday be installed. But at the moment, Spencer and a few friends rattle around the stripped-bare rooms, giving this erstwhile mansion the feel of
an overgrown clubhouse.
Spencer is retired from a career
in computer-enhanced geophysical engineering. In lieu of his past, which
also includes a privately financed radio
show devoted to his views, it's no surprise that his solution to the border problem relies more on high-tech electronics than firearms. His volunteers,
who he says number about 100, carry GPS devices and radios. When they spot illegal immigrants, they radio Spencer, and he calls the Border
Patrol. "I don't like the idea of going out in fatigues with military-looking weapons," Spencer says. "A lot of our people carry weapons, but we don't
take a position on that."
Spencer's favorite toy is not a
gun; it's a Mobile Internet Satellite Transmitter that is parked in the
driveway and looks like the little car the Apollo
astronauts drove around the moon. Soon, he says, volunteers with video cameras will photograph "suspected border intruders," beam the signal to
this uplink and put live streamed video on the Web. The purpose is not to identify individuals for law enforcement but to give a sense of human
forms entering the country, for propaganda purposes.
"People will be able to go on the
'net and see, live, people coming into their country illegally," Spencer
says. "They'll be able to download a piece of
software that, if there's live video up, will put a little American flag on their screen." Spencer is largely financing the operation out of his own pocket,
and says he has invested about $100,000.
"You have big corporations who
want no barriers to the making of their profit. You have the AFL-CIO that
is now advocating open borders,"
Spencer says, apparently in reference to the labor federation's call, in 2000, for an amnesty on illegal immigrants and a stop to prosecuting
businesses that hire them. "You have Gray Davis, who said, 'In the future, people will look at California and Mexico as one magnificent region.' The
power elite have decided we won't be an independent nation but are going to be folded into the global village." He taps away at a G4 Power
Macintosh and out comes the voice of former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo speaking to the National Council of La Raza in 1997. "I have
proudly affirmed that the Mexican nation extends beyond the territory enclosed by its borders," Zedillo's disembodied voice says, "and that
Mexican migrants are an important part of it."
"He declared war on us by migration!"
Spencer says. "Mexico has one national objective: to reverse the results
of the Treaty of Guadalupe
Hidalgo." That 1848 pact, in which much of the American Southwest was ceded to the United States, is certainly a thorn to Mexican activists.
Most would be surprised to hear, though, that making motel beds or picking cucumbers for minimum wage in the United States might constitute
reversing the treaty.
New Berlin Wall
Like Simcox, Spencer wants to shame
the government into sealing the border. "Why not build a 2,000-mile fence?"
he asks. "They did it in East
Berlin. There was a dividing line between one way of doing things and another." When you press him, he paraphrases a passage from a book about
Mexico by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Andres Oppenheimer: "As long as historians can remember, lying and deceit have been part of the
It's lines like this that get the
militiamen accused of being racist. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat elected to
Congress in November to represent a new
district that runs from Tucson to Yuma, says his first official act will be to ask the FBI to investigate alleged links between the militias and white
supremacist groups. "If you shine the light on the cockroaches, they don't like it," Grijalva said at a December press conference.
Mention racism to Spencer and he comes halfway out of his chair. "I'm not prejudiced!" he shouts. "I have a lot of Mexican friends!"
The new border militiamen distinguish
themselves by physically patrolling the border, but their ideas are not
wildly outside the American
mainstream. Pat Buchanan ran for president and has had a nice career as a pundit by saying many of the same things. A quick Google search for
the Ernesto Zedillo quote finds it derisively cited by dozens of columnists and anti-immigration groups. Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of
Colorado, whom Simcox, Stoddard and Spencer call their hero, is leading the charge in Congress to put troops on the border and encourages an
anti-immigrant movement that verges on being openly racist. "Consider the fact that massive immigration, combined with our own self-destructive
policies of radical multiculturalism, have helped to balkanize America," he wrote recently in the Denver Post.
When Simcox argues that government
won't stop immigration because corporations want "an unlimited supply of
cheap labor," and Stoddard says
multinationals' "sole loyalty is to the bottom line on the balance sheet," they're on to something. People in rural Mexico typically earn as little as $3 a
day, while even the worst jobs north of the border pay twice that an hour. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has told Congress he wants
more foreigners allowed into the U.S. because they eagerly work unattractive jobs that can neither be filled domestically nor exported. Migrants'
labor is so coveted by American hotels, restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, builders, landscapers and farmers that those industries lobby
Congress to make hiring Mexicans easier.
The militiamen are also right that
the labor of migrants, whether they cross legally or not, is crucial to
the Mexican economy. About 9 million of
Mexico's 97 million people live north of the border. Half of them are here illegally. The $8 billion they send to their relatives each year is, as
everybody knows by now, Mexico's third-biggest source of income after oil and tourism. Mexican President Fox calls them "the greatest asset our
Against economic forces as powerful
as these, volunteer militia patrols look pretty puny. They certainly won't
stop the flow of migrants. "The main
danger they pose is the rhetoric, stirring the anti-immigrant sentiment," says Bob Moser, who tracks the groups for the Southern Poverty Law
Center in Montgomery, Ala. At this particular moment in U.S. history, that kind of fear-mongering may be exactly what the country doesn't need.
After the trauma of 9/11, the country is already locked in a kind of xenophobic panic--forcing male immigrants from select countries to register with
the government, holding immigrants incommunicado for months, parading them before secret courts. The new border militiamen deserve credit for
reminding us how dysfunctional our southern border is, and how noxious the economic inequality of the neighbor nations. But if all they do, with
their guns and rough talk, is inspire yet more fear and hatred of foreigners, they'll have blown it.
Dan Baum lived in Mexico for two
years and writes often about border issues. He is the author of "Citizen
Coors: An American Dynasty"