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."
Tancredo turned illegal immigration into a national-security issue. He spread word that Islamic prayer rugs and a diary written in Arabic had been found in the border scrubland. "Can anybody explain to me why we shouldn’t be paranoid?" he asked a reporter for Fox News. He began appearing regularly on conservative talk radio, and with Lou Dobbs on CNN. He complained about open borders to the Washington Times editorial board, and said that "the blood of the people killed" by a second terrorist attack would be on the hands of President Bush and Congress. That prompted a phone call from Bush adviser Karl Rove, one so rife with vulgarity and vitriol that Tancredo, who was driving to work at the time, had to pull his car to the side of the road. Rove called him a "traitor to the president" and told him never to "darken the doorstep of this White House." Unbowed, Tancredo went on to raise money last year to defeat several House Republicans he considered soft on immigration, earning the ire of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "I will never be a chairman of any committee around here," Tancredo said, cracking a smile. "I will never be in the ‘in’ crowd."
But Tancredo did not come to Washington to climb the rungs of power. He came to draw the battle lines in a clash of cultures. "You have to understand there is a bigger issue here," he told me, finding his rhetorical rhythm. "Who are we? Do we have an understanding of what it means to be an American, even if we are Hispanic or Italian or Jewish or black or white or Hungarian by ancestry? Is there something we can all hang on to? Are there things that will bind us together as Americans?" He continued into a monologue about the identity crisis in America, the "cult of multiculturalism," schoolkids ashamed to love their country, and textbooks that say Christopher Columbus "destroyed paradise." Tancredo believes that many immigrants today, unlike his grandparents, who came over from Italy, no longer feel the need to assimilate. "You have, at least, divided loyalties," he said.
Republican leaders strictly forbade such sentiments during last year’s presidential campaign, when both candidates spoke Spanish on the stump to appeal to Latino voters. There was a "bite-your-lip caucus" when it came to immigration, Tancredo said. "As of November 2, it dissolved." Just weeks after the polls closed, he led a coterie of insurgent Republicans in a revolt against the White House. They delayed passage of the intelligence reform bill because it failed to include a provision called Real ID, which would make it far more difficult for illegal immigrants to get state driver’s licenses. In February, nearly two-thirds of the House, including 42 Democrats, voted for the Real ID measure, which was later endorsed by the Senate and signed by the president. This is only the beginning of what Tancredo hopes will be a series of legislative victories this year. He plans to derail a bipartisan effort, supported by the president, that would allow illegal immigrants to find legal employment in the U.S. He’s reintroducing a bill that would suspend legal work visas, increase fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants, and deploy the military to protect the borders. He is also helping groups in seven states push new initiatives or laws that would deny government services to illegal immigrants. Last fall Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, a ballot initiative nicknamed "Protect Arizona Now," which requires government workers to report undocumented residents who seek out government aid. The law garnered 56 percent of the vote, including, according to one exit poll, more than 40 percent of the state’s Latino voters.
Riding the elevator back up to his office, Espinosa talked about the popular support for Tancredo’s views. Like his boss, he cast the nation’s current political leaders as the only thing standing in the way of a historically unprecedented crackdown on immigration. "Now you have a lame duck," Espinosa said, referring to President Bush. "Rove is probably going to go the way of any strategist. He will host a TV show."
THE MINUTEMEN set up their operational headquarters in the run-down dormitories of the Miracle Valley Bible College, a faded compound near Hereford built in the late 1950s by the Reverend Asa Alonzo Allen, a faith healer famous for exorcising demons before tent crowds of 20,000 until he died of alcoholism at the age of 59. At the front gate, an armed guard screened cars. Inside was a communications center, equipped with ham radios and topographic maps of well-known immigration trails. For security, all registered Minutemen wore orange badges. The men slept four to a room. A surplus of American flags festooned the front lawn.
Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant, seemed thrilled by the layout and its trappings. He’d served as a Marine outside of Khe Sanh during Vietnam, and took easily to the role of commanding general, always talking up the enemy and warning of possible ambushes. He leaked rumors to the conservative press, claiming that a Latin American gang called Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, was planning to attack his volunteers. During a desert patrol one day, he received a tip from an informant he would not identify suggesting an imminent armed assault from across the wire. "Do whatever you want with that," he told a skeptical Los Angeles Times reporter between drags of a cigarette. "I didn’t personally gather this info. It was couriered to us, and that means it’s like top priority." He wore a bright floral shirt, a crumpled straw cowboy hat, and what appeared to be a brand-new military equipment belt, to which he affixed his cellular phone and water bottles. When volunteers came to him with concerns that their walkie-talkies were being intentionally jammed by human smugglers across the border, he announced, with some elation, "This has been like a real war."
Like many Minuteman volunteers, Gilchrist hails from Southern California, a land adrift in a demographic sea change. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of Latino residents there is set to increase by nearly two-thirds, and the number of Asian residents will increase by 40 percent. Once-lily-white suburbs in Orange County, where Gilchrist lives, will soon count whites as a minority. He says he doesn’t mind the diversity of races, but he cannot tolerate the diversity of cultures. "I saw the country change literally overnight into a foreign country," he told me over a hamburger at the Trading Post Diner on Route 92. "The Fourth of July was not being celebrated, but Cinco de Mayo was. All the billboards would be in foreign languages. It’s not just Spanish. It’s Korean. I saw the nation being segregated."
Gilchrist’s co-organizer, Chris Simcox, worked as an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles until 2001, when he moved to Tombstone and founded an armed border patrol called Civil Homeland Defense. "Where are all these gangs coming from, who don’t speak English?" he remembered thinking after he took a job teaching in South Central in the late 1990s. "We have people that came to this country saying, Your laws mean nothing, your citizenship means nothing." Around the same time, former Southern California resident Glenn Spencer, a former radio talk show host, founded American Border Patrol at the base of the Huachuca Mountains, where he launched regular patrols, some of which he broadcast in infrared video on the Internet. Another Los Angeles native, Casey Nethercott, recently bought a ranch that abuts the border and founded the Arizona Guard, a militia that he says is prepared to fight the Mexican army if the U.S. government is not.
They came to Arizona because it has all the action. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration focused its border resources around El Paso and San Diego. The efforts succeeded in pushing migrants to the less populated Arizona desert. In 1993, about 93,000 Border Patrol detentions occurred south of Tucson. Last year, agents caught nearly 500,000 people there. "We’ve always had people crossing the borders illegally," says Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever. "But we didn’t see these kind of numbers."
Many locals take the torrent in stride. They sleep with their screen doors locked and their front doors open, and if someone comes knocking late at night, searching for food, water, or a telephone, they try to help out. "I got to the point where I was buying extra bread and peanut butter for those people," said Eric Nelson, who was rolling his own cigarettes at the Trading Post. Crime against locals is extremely rare, though in January 2004, three illegals attacked Hereford resident Sandy Graham as she warmed up her Chevy Suburban to drive her 14-year-old daughter to school. The men, who had been hiding in the mesquite, stabbed Sandy with a pen, kicked her daughter, and sped away in the car. They were promptly caught and arrested, but at least one resident, Cindy Kolb, began strapping a .38 to her ankle before driving her seven-year-old to the bus stop.
Local newspaper columnist Jim Dwyer calls the anti-immigrant activists "crusading carpetbaggers," and the governments of Douglas, Tombstone, and Cochise County have passed resolutions condemning civilian patrols. Undaunted, Simcox worked without sleep for much of the first week of the Minuteman Project, cautioning his volunteers to act responsibly on the border, to phone Border Patrol, and to not engage the migrants. He wore a bulletproof vest and kept an armed guard at his side. Because he was on probation for carrying a pistol into a nearby national park, he can no longer pack his own weapon. "My family is very concerned with me taking on a multimillion-dollar crime syndicate," Simcox said after finishing breakfast one morning in a computer repair shop next to the Trading Post, a building that housed a post office until 1985, when someone placed a stick of dynamite in the outgoing mailbox. "It’s the government of Mexico in bed with the government of the United States that has created a subculture of human smuggling and drug smuggling and gangsters, and it’s a mess. This border is worth a billion dollars of business at least." Since he began his work, he said, his group has alerted Border Patrol to nearly 5,000 illegal migrants in the desert, and rescued 158 people in need of food or water. Later that day, he had an interview scheduled on The O’Reilly Factor, which would be broadcast from a relay truck parked on the border.
Locals like Herb Linn would just as soon Simcox had stayed in Los Angeles. At Johnny Ringo’s, a biker bar in Tombstone named after the gunfighter who shot a man in 1879 for refusing a shot of whiskey, Linn stopped pouring drinks when I mentioned Simcox. "He’s a self-serving son of a bitch who wants his 15 minutes of fame," said the barkeep, a former city councilor. "If the Minutemen succeed in sealing the border, are they going to spend as much time picking the crops? I don’t want to pay five bucks for a can of string beans."
JAMES "BUTCH" PERI, owner of one of the largest onion farms in Nevada, knows all about the costs and benefits of migrant labor. He pays legal immigrants around $8 an hour to stoop and shovel onions into 90-pound burlap bags, a job for which he says there are no U.S.-born applicants. At a recent meeting of Tancredo’s Immigration Reform Caucus on Capitol Hill, Peri stood before a half-dozen congressional staffers making the case that U.S. agriculture depends on Mexico. Americans, he said, have become spoiled. "It belittles them to pull weeds in a lawn. Kids don’t wash cars anymore. They don’t mow lawns."
Peri, an amiable salesman with slicked-back hair, has been coming to Capitol Hill since the mid-1980s to make the case for temporary migrant-worker programs. He’s not alone. According to the Center for Public Integrity, 257 companies, employing more than 1,000 lobbyists, worked on immigration issues in 2003. As the owner of Nevada High Desert Onions, Peri estimates that he has spent $280,000 coming to Capitol Hill. The Immigration Reform Caucus was just another stop on his rounds. No one, not even the White House, now ignores the group.
"As a Republican, I think there is room in this party for some disagreement," said Jacob Monty, a Texas supporter of President Bush who said he had been sent to speak with the caucus as an informal White House envoy. "The problem is there. It’s a homeland-security problem. It’s an economic problem."
Meanwhile, the calls keep coming in to Congress, striking fear into incumbent politicians. During the summer of 2004, the most popular talk radio hosts in Los Angeles, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, decided to mount their own grassroots campaign against immigration. Fresh from a successful effort to help boot Governor Gray Davis in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger, John and Ken began daily rants during their drive-time show against Republicans, calling them corrupt pawns of big business’ addiction to cheap labor.
Immigration as an issue, it turns out, can be great for radio ratings, creating all the impassioned binaries that keep listeners from turning the dial. It pits the working man against the lawbreaker, the common voter against the elite politician, the radio host against the mainstream media. "Our language is being destroyed by George Bush and Bill Clinton to pay off their buddies who put them in power," ranted nationally syndicated Michael Savage over a southern Arizona station broadcast one day during the Minuteman protest. "Our culture is being destroyed to the point where there is no culture. We have no common culture. They want us to become a culture of the international. That’s why I tell you that civil upheaval in this country might also not be more than a few years off, sparked by this flood of illegal aliens that both the Democrats and Republicans are foisting upon this nation."
Last August, John and Ken rallied hundreds of listeners to a meeting at a middle school in the Southern California suburb of Temecula with Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. The congressman had asked Asa Hutchinson, Bush’s undersecretary for border and transportation security, to meet with his constituents and explain federal border policy. The room overflowed, and at several points the meeting seemed as if it would devolve into a riot. Hutchinson’s rejections of sweeps to round up illegal workers were drowned out by a torrent of jeers, and Issa had to intervene repeatedly to calm the crowd.
By September, John and Ken had focused their listeners’ rage on one Republican, Rep. David Dreier, who did not advocate a quick closure of the border and whom they promised to make a "political human sacrifice." Dreier, chair of the House Rules Committee, is one of the most powerful members of Congress. He spent more than $1.3 million against a Democratic opponent who spent about $23,000. But he survived the election with only 54 percent of the vote, 10 points less than in his last race. Back in Washington, one of his first actions was to introduce legislation that would make it harder to get fake Social Security numbers. "We got the best of both worlds," Tancredo said of that race. "He didn’t lose his seat, and he got the message."
JOHN STONE thought he saw something move in the brambles. "Uh-oh," said the retired trucker, who lives outside Front Royal, Virginia. He held binoculars up to his face. "No, it’s just a bush. I’ve been looking at this landscape so long that every bush looks like a person and every person looks like a bush." The Minutemen had spaced themselves out over two miles on a stretch of dust called Border Road, which passes between the towns of Naco and Doug-las, a few feet from the tangled cow posts that mark the international boundary. Their task was mercilessly boring. They sat on chairs or in their trucks, gazing over a wide desert plain that passed five or six miles into Mexico to a distant highway where the migrants would, on a normal day, be dropped off for the long walk to the United States. No one was coming now. The Mexican government, wary of gun-toting vigilantes, had mounted its own patrols. Every few hours, on the other side of the short barbed-wire fence, you could see another group of migrants get rousted from the bush, loaded into the back of a Mexican government truck, and driven back into the country’s interior.
In the absence of action, the Minutemen bided their time with the steady stream of international media who showed up to interview them. Behind them, up on a hill, sat a group of volunteers from the ACLU and the American Friends Service Committee, mostly students from Stanford Law School and Prescott College, who had given each other nicknames like Tumbleweed and Barbed Wire. They wore T-shirts that read "observadores legales." They videotaped the Minutemen, and the Minutemen videotaped them. Mexican television stations came to the border to shoot pictures of the spectacle, only to find elderly men and women sitting in lawn chairs aiming their own camcorders. It wasn’t exactly the sort of border standoff most participants had expected. For the first few days of April, this was perhaps the most well-documented piece of desert in the world. And, for once, nothing was happening.
A few miles down the road, Casey Nethercott, the militant leader of the Arizona Guard, kept watch over his border property, a place he calls "Warrior Ranch." It holds about 100 acres of dirt and tumbleweed, a few buildings, and a windmill with no blades. He keeps a 120-pound rottweiler trained to tackle grown men, and two black sport utility vehicles reinforced with steel plates to stop bullets when his militia patrols the desert. "Migration from Mexico is the catalyst that is starting the demise of America," he told me, sitting in his cramped office, which was decorated with diagrams of military attack formations. "It’s being flooded with illegals, people that are substandard humans. They don’t educate themselves. They don’t care about themselves. And if you think that’s racist, I’m sorry, you’re wrong. If a black man with a white wife and two adopted Mexican and Chinese children moved in next door to me, first thing I’d do is take over a bottle of wine and say welcome to the damned neighborhood. And if he was in the Army I would hit him up to join the organization. But these are illegals. They are illegal."
Nethercott, a large man with hound-dog eyes, had just been released after serving six months in prison, the result of a dispute with the local Border Patrol. Federal officers had tried to pull him over, but he drove onto his ranch and shut the gate. Agents feared a shoot-out, and a standoff ensued until local sheriffs arrived. A few weeks later, the FBI tried to serve Nethercott and his fellow militia member, Kalen Riddle, a warrant for threatening federal officers. The FBI said Riddle refused an order to stop moving in a Safeway parking lot, and an agent shot and injured him. Nethercott was acquitted of all charges in the case, but he still faces a 2003 aggravated assault charge in Texas. According to the district attorney there, he pistol-whipped an illegal Salvadoran migrant he found sneaking into the country during a patrol in 2003, a charge Nethercott denies.
Nethercott drove me out to the southern end of his ranch to show me Mexico, a dun land that looked just like America. There was no barbed wire to mark the international boundary, just a dry berm and a dirt road. "That’s hell," he said. He was already planning his next operation, set to begin on July 4, after his next court date in Texas. He hoped to dovetail with some of the Minutemen’s media attention. Not one for subtlety, he was calling the event "Operation American Revolution 2." "America will be closed when that operation begins," he said. "Just after the hot summer begins, we are closing the American borders."
BACK AT THE BIBLE COLLEGE in Miracle Valley, Gilchrist arrived at the communications center to prepare for another radio interview. "Let’s hear some squelch," he announced as he picked up the phone. A white-haired volunteer grabbed a walkie-talkie and began turning the dials to create background static, providing the illusion of a busy operation for the listening audience. "We’re the only ones who have any brains in this country," Gilchrist said, once he got on the air.
Outside on the front lawn, Mike Bird, a 22-year-old volunteer from Georgia, was pacing around, awaiting instructions for his night patrol up along Route 92. Bird stands 6 feet 6 inches tall, with a hunched back and a mumbled voice. He planned to spend the full month in Arizona. "You’ll never hear it from any of these guys," he confided between drags of a Dunhill, "but I have too big a gun." A .44 Magnum, the sort of cannon made famous by Dirty Harry, stretched down his right thigh. Bird was unemployed, but he hoped to get a job back home sampling air quality at the local coal plant. His new Peruvian wife, whom he had recently met in South America, had applied for a U.S. visa, which would take between six months and two years to process. While she waited for permission to enter the country, he had seen the suburbs of Atlanta fill with Spanish-speaking laborers. "Tons of them," said Bird. "Tons of them everywhere."
Word had filtered down from Gilchrist about the success that the Minutemen were having, about the waiting migrants backed up like cars in a traffic jam on the other side of the border. Bird was ready. "Tonight is the night," he told me, imagining them in the wilderness. "Think about it. They are hungry. They have been waiting two days. They are going to rush the line."