Citizen patrols try to shed vigilante image
Groups tap into mainstream concerns, but critics say message hasn't changed
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News
FABENS, Texas – Radio talk-show host J.C. McClain could hardly contain his excitement as he recalled the time he had to pull his pistol in front of an illegal immigrant whose pants were still wet from splashing across the Rio Grande.
The exasperated man told Mr. McClain to get out of the way, "the Border Patrol has already been through here." When a member of the man's group picked up a rock, Mr. McClain pulled his gun and held it in front of his belt, pointing at the ground. The man dropped the rock, and the group trudged back into Mexico.
Mr. McClain related the story to his Brownwood audience the next day from an improvised radio booth in a house a few miles from the border near El Paso.
"It just made our day," he said, laughing as he described the confrontation.
A few years ago, such armed volunteer patrol groups were almost universally considered dangerous, vigilante racists on the fringe of society. And while elements still inhabit the "Minuteman movement," more sophisticated groups – such as the North Texas-based "Texas Minutemen" – are tapping into mainstream concerns about border security in a post-9/11 America.
"They're the next generation," said Devin Burghart, who directs an anti-racism project for the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based civil rights group. "They're slightly more sophisticated, they've been able to reach a larger audience. ... The political terrain has shifted to where immigration is probably going to be the No. 1 issue in the 2006 electoral races. That's not something you saw when they got their start."
Among the evidence that illegal immigration is moving to the political forefront:
•Hundreds of volunteers from across the country wrapped up a monthlong patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border this week, hoping to show that adding agents there would solve the problem of illegal immigration. In the last six months, about 40 citizen border watch groups have sprung up in more than a dozen states, watchdog groups say. The Texas Minutemen, based in the Dallas-Arlington area, was among those formed after an April vigil on the Arizona border drew international attention.
•Border states have requested federal funds to fight illegal immigration. A bill on Capitol Hill to deputize citizen patrols and give them millions in federal funds has 46 co-authors. At least two Minutemen are running for Congress.
•Businesses that once condemned the movement – and some of which have benefited from cheap immigrant labor – now say the border situation merits action.
"The situation is out of control, and first and foremost it's an issue of national security," said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business.
Businesses have felt the crunch of illegal immigration, Mr. Hammond says, because as the number of immigrants increase, the burden grows higher on employers who face penalties for hiring them – even if they've made a good-faith effort to hire legal residents.
The Minutemen represent concerns over immigration that spread far beyond their members. Ranchers losing money when their crops are trampled or fences cut; contractors who say they're losing bids to competitors using cheap immigrant labor instead of union workers; public hospitals with strapped budgets from caring for indigent immigrants; and school systems fighting for bilingual-education dollars.
Immigrant advocates counter that workers contribute to the economy and pay Social Security taxes even though the vast majority will never see a benefit check.
For some patrol volunteers, such as Tom Bishop of Decatur, who is retired from a career in law enforcement and as a commercial airline pilot, the motivation is a better defense against terrorism.
"This country needs to tighten its borders with the current terrorist situation that we have," said Mr. Bishop, who flew a friend's plane during the just-ended El Paso border watch. "We just don't know who all these people are who are coming over."
The new generation of groups, such as the Texas Minutemen, say it's working to distance itself from predecessors, too. The new groups have no-contact policies to prevent potentially violent interaction with immigrants. They conduct background checks on members and, in some cases, they've hired public-relations specialists to help spread their message.
Critics fear that the groups have found a way to reel in average Americans concerned about immigration by voicing common worries while still proposing impractical, racist policies.
"We need to find real solutions, not stand on the border with your guns ready to shoot somebody because they were walking across the line," said Claudia Guevara who observed the Minutemen patrol for the American Civil Liberties Union. "There's already an anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, and this will just make it stronger."
Mr. Burghart added: "What they've done is created this image of themselves as being patriotic Americans, wrapping themselves in the flag and the constitution, out to protect our country from a vital security risk."
The shift has attracted more average, middle-class Americans who once shunned the Minutemen and their stark, anti-immigrant message.
Craig Williams, a retired substitute teacher in Denver, calls himself a social liberal and is often jokingly called "a commie" by his fellow volunteers. An inquisitive, soft-spoken man, Mr. Williams is concerned about national security, although illegal immigration is second on his list. October's action in El Paso was his first mission with the Minutemen.
"My wife thinks I'm crazy," he said.
The El Paso trip was also the first Minuteman mission for Mr. Bishop, who found little in common with some of the volunteers.
The laid-back and affable Mr. Bishop steered clear of a handful of "goofballs," "freaks" and "weirdos" who traded theories about a "new world order," warned of diseases wafting into the U.S. from south of the border and bashed Mexico as dirty, corrupt and crime-riddled – even though few had ever been there.
He said he loves Mexico and sailed both of the country's coasts years ago. He doesn't claim immigration has directly affected his life. Mr. Bishop supports a guest-worker program that he says would help the U.S. keep track of foreign residents and let immigrants live without having to hide.
'Weed out weirdos'
"I know we have a lot of citizens in Texas that want to participate," he said. "But we need to weed out the weirdos, and we need to weed out all the wannabe Rambos, and we just need to get down there and do the job that needs to be done, which is observe."
In El Paso last month, the Texas Minutemen were welcomed by the El Paso County sheriff, and they took advice from Border Patrol agents who chatted with them when their patrols overlapped. Hotel owners let them punch holes in the walls of their rooms to wire for radios.
The Minutemen had little trouble with ACLU observers, whose ranks thinned out after the first week or two, due to difficulty recruiting volunteers. And while some cities passed resolutions denouncing the patrols, turnout at protests were scant.
Some statewide politicians even embraced the Minutemen not only as patriots, but also as a political opportunity. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, for instance, welcomed the group and used their appearance to attack Gov. Rick Perry.
Robert Copley, Jr., a volunteer in El Paso who co-founded the Denver Minutemen group, says the groups represent a silent majority.
"They don't come out and volunteer, but I believe that next year they'll show their support in another way," he said. "They'll vote."
Still, some group leaders realize that they are one hothead away from an international incident and say they are taking pains to police themselves.
This summer, Hebbronville rancher Jack Sutton paid a $100,000 settlement to two Salvadorean immigrants who alleged that a volunteer with the patrol group Ranch Rescue pistol-whipped them in 2003. The volunteer, Casey Nethercott, was not convicted in the criminal case, but the immigrants walked away from the lawsuit with his ranch.
The incident scared Minuteman groups who had begun forming in 2004 in Arizona and California, and they publicly distanced themselves from Ranch Rescue and other questionable groups. The no-contact and background-check policies were the result, along with a ban on "citizen's arrests" that earlier patrol groups had used.
"Can you imagine if somebody does shoot somebody down here and it turns out they have two aggravated-assault-with-weapons charges?" said Shannon McGauley, president of the Texas Minutemen.
Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights law firm that tracks hate organizations, said that one potential problem for the groups is that each is independent and brings its own motives, philosophies and leadership.
In El Paso, for example, volunteers from Colorado came to help the Texas group, but philosophical differences turned off some volunteers. A few of the Texans were worried about some volunteers from Colorado who complained about being bored, wore camouflage in town and carried an abundance of knives and guns.
The Colorado men, one of whom had been to the Arizona operation, complained about a lack of organization. They eventually decided they were wasting time and returned to Denver.
Meanwhile, one Dallas volunteer had conspiracy theories regarding the military and stashes of nuclear weapons. Mr. Bishop decided that the man "revolved in a different orbit" and told group leaders that he wanted nothing to do with people like that in future missions.
He has offered to help the Texas Minutemen get organized and recruit better volunteers for their next mission, possibly in April.
"I don't want us to be sitting out there looking like a bunch of buffoons," he said. "There's no respect for an organization if people just slough you off as weirdos. Hopefully, this movement's going to clean up its act and continue on."
A recent poll found that Americans have mixed feelings on immigration and border issues:
65% say groups such as the Minutemen should not patrol the border (31% said they should).
75% say the government isn't doing enough to prevent illegal immigration (15% say it is, while 4% say its doing too much).
51% say legal immigration should be decreased (11% want it increased, 30% want it kept at the same level).
58% say immigrants take jobs Americans don't want (31% say they take jobs away from Americans).
SOURCE: CBS News poll of 808 adults, conducted Oct. 3-5, with an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points