n October of 2004, when I first heard about a citizen border patrol initiative called the Minuteman Project, it had received absolutely no media coverage. I only stumbled upon the group while doing research for a book I am working on about Mexican immigrants. I was immediately intrigued by the group, and decided I wanted to investigate them.
I knew right away that I wanted to spend an extended period of time with the group and the story. I didn’t want to fly in one night, gather a few quotes, spend a day on the border, and then call it a day. For one thing, I was curious about the people that had decided to volunteer, and I didn’t think that I’d gain their trust so quickly. In addition, I wanted to try and figure out how Mexicans living across the border viewed the project - and how prospective crossers were feeling and what had motivated them to try and cross illegally in the first place. At the time, of course, I didn’t know exactly how I would find such people, but that was my intention.
By the time I arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, the media were all over the story. Hordes of television vans and dozens of print reporters from around the country were wandering around, taking notes and asking questions. So from the beginning, to some extent my decisions regarding how to cover the Minutemen were formed by looking at what other reporters were doing, and doing the opposite. The constant question in my head was: how can I make sure I’m not wasting my time and just writing an identical story? What can I try to accomplish that the others aren’t? Who can I go talk to that is being ignored?
Most reporters covering the event followed a pretty similar format. They interviewed one of the two official leaders, Jim Gilchrist or Chris Simcox, who gave them the needed soundbite: "We’re Americans doing the job the government won’t do" or "we’re the largest neighborhood watch group in the country" were the two I heard most frequently. Then they went out on patrol with a group, described what they saw, got a quote or two from the volunteers, and filed their story.
So my first decision was to not focus on either Gilchrist or Simcox, who were constantly followed by a gaggle of reporters and were pretty careful to remain on message. Instead, I hung out with the ordinary volunteers that were doing the grunt work, many of whom actually were a bit resentful of Gilchrist and Simcox for their constant media exposure.
My goal to get a behind-the-scenes look at the volunteers was made easier when I learned that many of the Minutemen would be staying at a bible college near the border, which would become their headquarters and where they would try to "build a sense of community." I immediately booked a dorm room (for only 5 bucks a night, which was unbelievably cheap, even though the place was in many areas a disaster zone and had been uninhabited for years).
Though this seemed like a logical move for anyone trying to really understand the project, I found only two other reporters - a freelance photographer and a freelance writer - who actually stayed there. Nearly everyone else spent their nights in local hotels, which meant that they missed a lot of what was happening, in my view. By essentially "embedding" with the Minutemen, I was at times able to become invisible. People saw me everywhere: at the cafeteria, in the bathrooms, etc., so eventually many forgot I was actually a writer. It also helped, of course, that I was white and originally from California-where many of the volunteers lived. Many people assumed that I was sympathetic to their project because of these two facts, and I did my best not to stand in the way of their assumptions (I didn’t have to lie, but only do my best to remain neutral).
Before I started hanging out with the Minutemen, I thought it would be easy to keep some of my opinions to myself. Obviously, my view about illegal immigration (many of my friends are undocumented immigrants) and that of people ready to patrol the border for a month were going to be quite different. I’ve always tended towards a class-based perspective; volunteers were tending towards a citizen-alien perspective that I just don’t find very illuminating. But I figured I’d be able to keep my own thoughts out of the way, since I have pretty thick skin and hoped to just laugh off any stupid Mexican jokes.
After two days, however, of hearing certain people bitch and moan about how easy immigrants have it in the country, I found myself arguing more. It didn’t bother me as much to hear complaints about potential terrorist threats, because I could see where people were coming from-even though I myself find it hard to feel anxious about national security concerns. But the sense of victimhood that many of the participants expressed (one popular sticker read: "Kick Me-I’m a Citizen"), and the idea that undocumented immigrants get the red carpet treatment in this country absolutely contradicted what I have seen with my own eyes working with immigrants the last four years in Brooklyn.
By day three, I had the urge to slap a few of the people that keep whining about "illegals getting welfare" or "illegals getting healthcare." Instead, I’d say something a bit sarcastic like, "I guess you’re right [regarding whatever inane statement you just made], but for me, white people are so boring. Mexicans just seem like they’re more intelligent and interesting, don’t you think?" Another retort I used drove a particularly cranky woman crazy: "I actually think English is an ugly language. You should try to learn Spanish - it just sounds a lot better." This wasn’t a productive route, and I might have alienated a few people who had interesting stories to tell, but it did make me feel a tad bit better.
Thankfully, I decided to cross the border and visit Mexico at precisely the point that I was getting most upset with some of the rhetoric around the bible college. That trip allowed me to blow off some steam with people that harbored similar feelings about the Project. I spent one day with a government agency called Grupo Beta, whose responsibility is to patrol the Mexican side of the border and search for hungry and thirsty migrants. When Grupo Beta found people, they would give them food and water, and warn them about the armed Americans that were in the area. Most migrants decided to take their offer and catch a ride back to the border town of Agua Prieta, enjoy a shower and warm bowl of soup, and wait for the Minutemen to go home before crossing. Grupo Beta is, in my mind, a clear example of a government agency actually playing a positive role (which in Mexico, as in the US, is not the most frequent occurrence).
I also visited a shelter in Mexico run by a Catholic Church, where people from other parts of Mexico and Latin America would stay for a few days before attempting to cross. These experiences helped me see the Minutemen from the Mexican side - both from their government and immigrants preparing to cross - and gave another dimension to the story that was frequently overlooked (especially the perspective of the migrants themselves).
There were two key insights I had about the Minutemen that were thanks to having spent so much time with them (I stayed at the bible college for a week). The first was that many Minutemen had a very intense need to feel "secure" - personally, politically, even militarily - and that this security was constantly being breached. The second was that people, by and large, weren’t what I would call actual racists, but instead hyper-nationalistic.
I was initially amazed at how much time people spent talking about the "security" of the bible college. On the first night there was an alleged "security breach" by two people that didn’t have Minutemen identification. Though they never found the people - who probably never existed - many volunteers armed themselves, strapped on bullet-proof vests, and conducted a door-to-door inventory of the facility. Some were downright hysterical that the breach had allegedly occurred.
And even though there were always people with the task of "securing" the perimeter of the bible college, I often heard people complain about how vulnerable they felt. One man explained in a frantic voice that even on day 3, with regular shifts of security detail, things were still a mess. He told me that a group of "illegals" could easily come in from one of the areas that was still unprotected and attack our group. While taking a shower one morning I overheard another man speak about wanting to set up lights that could illuminate the whole area 24-hours a day.
I couldn’t help but feel that this profound sense of insecurity had its origins in, and was somehow related to, an inability to outgrow a child’s normal fear of the dark. It also seemed that this insecurity was the principle around which many of the volunteers organized their entire lives, and that no matter what steps they took, they would never quite feel safe. I thought to myself that it must be exhausting to be in their shoes.
In terms of racism, which was a frequent charge levied at the Minutemen by critics, I found that only a few people actually seemed to be out-and-out racists. Instead, I felt that the most common viewpoint was instead a sort of hyper-nationalism - a deep sense of patriotism and loyalty to one country, the United States, and a pretty strong lack of concern for citizens of others.
In fact, the only non-white participant I met, a Cuban-American whose family fled the country prior to the revolution, was very well received by white volunteers. The key was not skin color, but a shared sense of American pride and a sense of outrage over the issue of illegal immigration. If an American citizen had come legally from Mexico, or even Saudi Arabia, and wanted to help secure the southern border and "put America first," they would have been more than welcomed by the group.
Finally, I got the sense from many Minutemen that they were actually a bit disappointed about the Project. From a political perspective, of course, it was a brilliant move, receiving tons of press and even moving the Border Patrol to assign more agents to the Arizona border. Although the Minutemen claimed to have 1000 volunteers, I estimated that they never had more than 150, and after the first weekend I figured that only about 50-75 people were still staying at the bible college. But the project would have to be considered an overwhelming success in terms of impact and exposure.
Despite all this success, the bottom line was that many Minutemen were surprised by what they actually found at the border: boredom. The email that was sent by Gilchrist to recruit people for the project spoke in militaristic, excited terms. Patriots were needed to stop an invasion, to do surveillance work, to secure our border. Undoubtedly inspired by the call, volunteers drove and flew hundreds or thousands of miles to the Arizona-Mexico border, ready to join a war of sorts. Then they pulled out lawn chairs and stared through binoculars at a bunch of shrub. Only one of the participants that I spoke to had actually seen an immigrant attempting to cross. I even thought of a t-shirt to hock at the bible college: I spent a week protecting the border under the Arizona sun, and all I got was lobster face.