WASHINGTON — Volunteers in the civilian-led border watch group known as the “Minuteman Project” are called vigilantes, or worse, by their critics -- patriots or heroes by their supporters. Regardless of the moniker, the Minutemen have driven the issue of illegal immigration from the margins of America’s conscience onto the national stage.
In October, the group plans to launch a coordinated border watch with its chapters located in at least eight states.
“Realistically, we’re looking at 10,000-plus volunteers being deployed Oct. 1st on the southern and northern borders,” said Chris Simcox, a chief organizer for the Arizona Minuteman Project and founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Inc.
The Arizona Minuteman Project made headlines in April for its month-long patrol along a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border. The activity consisted primarily of volunteers sitting in lawn chairs with binoculars and reporting unauthorized border crossing attempts or other illegal activity to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Headlines from the Arizona event gave the group momentum, and turned what some first believed to be nothing more than a publicity stunt into a national movement. The group has since hired lawyers, reorganized into separate corporations, filed to legally protect the name “Minuteman Project,” hired a Washington-based media consultant and started an aggressive fund raising campaign. And, representatives of the group, have been to Washington to lobby Congress and relate the lessons learned from their time on the border.
Unless the work continues “it’s going to be viewed as just a dog-and-pony show,” said James Gilchrist, one of the Minuteman leaders, when the Arizona project wrapped up. He and Simcox, unabashedly acknowledge that among their chief considerations in Arizona was getting media attention.
That attention drove more people to the movement and the group’s organizers quickly discovered they needed a way to keep the ball rolling. So it has split and grown arms.
One arm is run by Gilchrist, a California accountant, who decided to focus on internal immigration issues, going after employers violating immigration laws by hiring illegals, in an effort now called "Operation Spotlight." His group is known as the Minuteman Project, Inc. which has filed with the Internal Revenue Service to gain status like that given to a trade association.
Meanwhile, Simcox, who runs the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper in Arizona, incorporated his group, formerly known as Civil Homeland Defense, as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Inc. That group will continue to organize, train and sanction other Minuteman Project border watches, according to Connie Hair, the group’s spokesperson.
From humble beginnings
The Minuteman Project was initially cobbled together by a grassroots Internet effort and its recruits fired up by tough talking radio talk show hosts from California to Texas. What was once just a band of passionate citizens has pushed its agenda all the way to Washington.
Last month Gilchrist and Simcox met with members of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, adding to the the Minuteman momentum.
“I would like to thank the Minutemen on behalf of the millions of Americans who can’t be here with you today,” said Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, chairman of the CIRC. “You are good citizens who ask that our laws be enforced. When did that become a radical idea?”
Border watches are scheduled or are in the planning stages for Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico, Hair said. “Chris is going to Michigan in a couple of weeks to do a training session there,” she said. “But they’ve also got Idaho and Washington State and Vermont interested. In all they’ve had requests from seven states in the north,” and new requests “coming in every day.
Simcox has even started an e-mail fundraising campaign. “Contact us immediately to learn about upcoming missions,” the fund raising letter states. “We are expanding to California, Texas and New Mexico on the southern border. We also have requests from activated volunteers on the northern border with Canada -– Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington State. With new operations… this is truly an exciting time for Patriots!” the e-mailed letter says.
There are four groups in Texas alone, Hair said, some of them from landowners that have gotten together. But there’s trouble brewing on the border beyond the problem of illegal immigration: misappropriation of the Minuteman name.
What’s in a name?
Minuteman groups and Minuteman-type groups are springing up all over, some without official endorsement.
“Nobody is using 'Minuteman Project.' They are using ‘Minuteman’ in the name of their group. You can’t stop people from using the word ‘minuteman,’” Hair said, noting that the original Minuteman Project has not endorsed any of the independent off-shoots, but that Simcox will be assessing several possibilities in coming weeks.
“Endorsing an effort means we have to give them training and have assurances that they are going to stick to a no contact policy, a reporting policy, a no confrontation policy,” Hair said.
That "non-confrontation" policy, which Simcox says he developed as the guiding blueprint for the Minuteman operations, has been met with skepticism by critics leery of citizens patroling an increasingly hostile and dangerous border. Nevertheless, the Arizona patrols went off without a hitch.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner told the House Government Reform Committee last month during a hearing on border security that although patrols are better left to professionals, "there were no incidents (in Arizona), there were no acts of vigilantism, and that’s a tribute to the organizers and leaders of the Minuteman Project."
Off-shoots, disputes and dust-ups
But not everyone wearing the Minuteman moniker is waiting for Simcox or even seeking his blessing.
An Arlington, Texas group calling itself the “Texas Minutemen,” were upbraided by Simcox in an e-mail in which he disavowed any connection with the group. Simcox told them that a press release would be sent out “refuting your claims to be the official Minuteman group of Texas.”
Shannon McGauley, co-founder of the Texas Minutemen said her group has the “blessing, endorsement and support” of Gilchrist. “I never met Mr. Simcox when I was in Arizona,” McGauley said. “The Minuteman or Minutemen name doesn’t belong to Mr. Simcox.”
The dustup over name usage and endorsement “is an internal argument,” said James Chase, founder of the southern California-based United States Border Patrol Auxiliary, which will begin border watch operations July 18. “Frankly, it’s taking away from the mission of watching and protecting the borders,” he said. “I don’t’ need it... I’m one of the original Minutemen with Jim Gilchrist,” Chase said, noting his friendship with Gilchrist goes back to when they served in the same unit during Vietnam.
Simcox, however, says he's concerned that group’s like Chase’s and McGauley’s are going to “step over the line” and do something that would violate the no confrontation policy he developed. “I’m pretty nervous that it will taint everything."
Chase said he has “verbals from about 1,000” people that they will come join his border watch, which is planned for a 30-mile stretch along the California-Mexico border. “But talk is cheap,” he said, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Another California based group called Friends of the Border Patrol, just postponed its own Minuteman-style border watch that was to begin Aug. 1. The new date is now slated for Sept. 16, which happens to coincide with Mexican Independence Day.
FBP founder Andy Ramirez, a U.S. citizen whose grandfather immigrated to the U.S., said the delay was needed to better prepare for what could be an onslaught of volunteers. Currently there are 775 people signed up for FBP’s project, officially called “Border Watch,” which Ramirez says is going to be “the ultimate neighborhood watch.”
“We needed to make sure there was going to be support for all the people,” Ramirez said, everything from portable toilets to food and shelter and law enforcement cooperation.
“We’re going to work with federal, state and local law enforcement. I’ve already met with the top ranking brass at the San Diego County Sheriff’s department,” Ramirez said. He noted that some FBP volunteers will be armed, “but only former or off-duty law enforcement persons,”
Despite such pre-planning, Ramirez’s group doesn’t have Simcox’s endorsement, though his efforts have been endorsed by Gilchrist. “Jim jumped the gun and endorsed [FBP] too quickly,” Simcox said.
“We’re not telling people we’re Minuteman; we’re not a variation of Minuteman. We’re Friends of the Border Patrol,” Ramirez said. “That’s why we’re not calling ourselves “Minuteman California” or anything like that.”
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