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Scrimmage on the Border

From the Archives
Vigilantes and camera crews were amassing in the Arizona desert, but the real standoff was in Washington, as fear of immigration invaded the halls of Congress.

AT ITS SOUTHERN BORDER, where the United States of America ends in a tangle of barbed wire and manzanita bushes, the red dirt desert fills each night with thousands of men and women trudging north from Mexico. This is the new Ellis Island, the port of entry for more than a million people every year. They come because, as Alan Greenspan says, immigration helps drive our prosperity, and because, as George W. Bush says, there are jobs that U.S. citizens won’t do, and because the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, has made their migration—and gainful employment in El Norte—a linchpin of his nation’s economy. They come because American companies have an unquenchable desire for more strawberry pickers and meatpackers and dishwashers, and because few will check to see if their Social Security cards are real. They come alone or as families, cradling babies in their arms, braving freezing nights and sweltering days, border bandits and mesquite trees with thorns like knives. They pay guides thousands of dollars for the privilege of walking 5 or 10 or 20 miles to hide by the side of a desolate road, hoping their ride to Phoenix or Las Vegas or Los Angeles shows up. Every year, hundreds die along the way. Those who do make it are greeted as criminals. In the broken logic of the nation’s current immigration policy, they are enticed and needed, but illegal.

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On the first Sunday in April, five migrant men huddled in the shade under a cement culvert that passed beneath Arizona’s Route 92 in the border town of Hereford. Though it was the middle of the day, with temperatures approaching 80 degrees, they were dressed like New England schoolkids, in heavy jackets and wool caps, clothing that had kept them warm as they hiked through the emory oak of the Huachuca Mountains and down into the San Pedro River valley, where an emerald gash of cottonwood trees slices through the Sonoran Desert. They were heading north, and might have made it to Phoenix, to a new job and another life, but for a group of citizen soldiers, a ragtag bunch of men and women armed with walkie-talkies, binoculars, and not a few pistols, who were lying in wait. These self-described patriots had chosen this Sunday to do what their president and Congress would not. They’d come to stop what they called the "illegal invasion of America."

"We found them and called Border Patrol," said Marc Johannes, a 40-year-old auto mechanic from Tucson, who had been manning a post along the road. The five migrants solemnly lowered their heads as they climbed into the back of the patrol truck, saying not a word as Johannes spoke nearby. "I’m fed up," he said. "This whole country is being overrun." Johannes stands well over 6 feet tall and is built like a bundle of sticks. He wore desert camouflage pants, and in his bag he had a Russian-made, first-generation infrared scope, the better to see immigrants at night. He didn’t want to be mistaken for a racist. "I consider myself a scientist," he continued. "And I know that all people on the planet are the same. If I were living in a Third World cesspool, I would probably look for another job too. But the entire Third World is moving north on a global scale." One of Johannes’ friends’ vehicles had been stolen and recovered in Mexico. A neighbor had recently moved away so his daughter would not have to attend a largely Latino school. "I’ve been denied jobs because I don’t speak Spanish," he said. "I’m more affected by this than anybody else."

A few days earlier, Johannes had traveled to Tombstone, Arizona, for the first day of what was billed as "The Minuteman Project," a monthlong protest against illegal immigration. The idea, to recruit American citizens for border patrols, was not new. In recent years, a half-dozen groups, including fully armed paramilitary militias and local ranchers, have walked the desert searching for migrants, defying federal officials who warn against civilian bravado. But those groups have largely worked in the shadows.The Minuteman Project was designed as a national coming-out party, less an effort to capture Mexicans crossing the border than to capture airtime on the cable news channels.

"We are done writing letters and sending emails and showing up at town hall meetings," said one of the project’s organizers, Chris Simcox, before a bank of television cameras at Tombstone’s Masonic Hall. He stood next to Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), the House’s leading opponent of illegal immigration, who had come from Washington, D.C., to put his official imprimatur on the protest. Tancredo wore black cowboy boots and a pin that read "Undocumented Border Patrol Agent." In his shirt pocket he kept a fresh cigar. "For the first time in seven years," he told the press scrum, "I can actually tell our friends and supporters that we are on the offensive."

Tombstone is a tourist town, a place of reenactment, simulation. Acting troupes stage Old West gunfights every hour or two, and the stores sell period costumes and posters of Doc Holliday. It is, in many ways, the perfect backdrop for a televised passion play. Minutemen with handlebar mustaches and minutewomen in hip holsters and Wrangler shirts posed before satellite relay trucks. They’d arrived by the hundreds from every corner of the country, with a common sense of outrage and similar sets of talking points—working people and retired people, many of whose parents or grandparents had come from Europe. They’d spent their lifetimes framing houses or driving trucks or digging wells or trimming trees. Now they felt their country was changing around them. The government was allowing a trampling of the law, a dilution of American culture, and a burgeoning of the welfare state. It was turning a blind eye to a gateway for terrorists. America was being lost. And nobody was stopping it, not the U.S. Border Patrol, not Congress, not the president.

Weeks earlier, appearing at a press conference with Mexico’s President Fox, President Bush had said, "I’m against vigilantes in the United States of America." He was dismissing not just the citizen soldiers in the desert but a growing movement within his own Republican Party, for the backlash against immigration in America involves more than the fringe right. Even as the Minutemen gathered, pollsters for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that 48 percent of Americans believed that immigration "detracts from our character and weakens the United States." In a nation of immigrants, only 41 percent said immigration betters the republic. The polls are clear and the pols are listening. Senator Hillary Clinton, a presumptive presidential candidate in 2008, has begun carefully moving to the right. "I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants," she said in a December 2004 radio interview. California Governor (and native Austrian) Arnold Schwarzenegger declared in an April speech that the United States needs to "close the borders." Though the governor apologized for the remarks, a week later he praised the Minutemen on a Southern California radio show.

Outside the Minutemen’s Tombstone headquarters, Don Wooley, a retired pawnbroker with a chiseled jaw and bright eyes, was making his stand. Wooley was proud to have fought in Vietnam because "I don’t think it’s ever dishonorable to go kill communists." He’d driven down from Lawton, Oklahoma, in December to make sure the Minuteman organizers were not racists or hucksters. Now he was back to do his part. "If you and your kids are going to speak English and live the lifestyle you live today, somebody is going to have to pay the price," he told me. He didn’t live near many Spanish-speaking people, but he had heard of the problems. "There are government offices where all the clerks don’t speak English," he said. "I wouldn’t speak Spanish on a bet. I speak English." He certainly spoke with determination. "Nothing happens in Washington unless there is a crowd with pitchforks and torches."


# REP. TANCREDO’S OFFICE on the first floor of the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill had flooded with the spring rains, so his then-press secretary, Carlos Espinosa, suggested that Tancredo greet visitors in the building’s basement. Espinosa, grandson of immigrants from Durango, Mexico, had one of the toughest jobs in Washington. "Damage control," he called it—constantly parrying and rebutting charges that his boss is a bigot. But if media exposure is the measure of a press secretary’s success, Espinosa ranked among the best. In early April, Tancredo was booking at least 30 radio, newspaper, and television interviews a week. "We were sitting in the office yesterday," Tancredo told me, once we settled at a corner table in a deserted cafeteria. "All of us were just hanging around and I was telling these guys, ‘My God. Think about where we were just a few short years ago. And how amazing it is to now be on the cusp of a major shift in public policy.’"

When Tancredo arrived in Congress in 1999, no one seemed to care about Mexican migration. The Immigration Reform Caucus he founded attracted only 16 members, all Republicans, and just about the only Americans who ever heard him speak were late-night C-SPAN viewers. "I really didn’t know what else to do," he said. "Then 9/11 happened and everything changed. We got 60 members overnight."

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