There aren’t very many Minutemen out patrolling the border in search of border crossers these days, aside from a few rogue operations that have even drawn the ire of one of their more notorious fellow nativists, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County.
But their legacy — and their ugly nativist politics — remain alive and well in the halls of Congress, and coursing through the veins of the Tea Party movement. The demand to “secure the border first” that is the favored course of hard-right conservatives, both in politics and among the pundits, is, after all, a direct manifestation of the immigration issues that were popularized by the Minutemen during their brief moment in the media sun.
Most of the would-be vigilante border-watchers vanished after 2009, when a leading Minuteman movement figure named Shawna Forde led a home-invasion robbery in Arizona, pursuing cash in the hopes of financing her border militia, that left a rural Arivaca man and his 9-year-old daughter dead. At least, most stopped using the “Minuteman” brand name, and one of the two major movement leaders — Chris Simcox of Tombstone — announced he was disbanding his organization.
There have remained a smattering of outfits doing vigilante border watches in the area, though one of these — organized by a local neo-Nazi leader named J.T. Ready, who also had a long history of association with another noted Arizona nativist, ex-Senate president Russell Pearce — ceased operating when Ready went on a shooting rampage that left five people dead, including Ready. Another small-cell operation run by a former California Minuteman recently ran afoul of Sheriff Arpaio when one of the militiamen drew a gun on a sheriff’s deputy in the Gila Bend area. Arpaio denounced them the next day at a press conference and warned that he wouldn’t hesitate to arrest them.
The coup de grace, however, was probably Chris Simcox’s recent arrest on three counts of child molestation for sexually assaulting a trio of young girls, including his own daughter. His trial is currently scheduled to begin in February of next year.
Even before these militias had faded from media view and crumbled into disarray and criminality, however, many of the movement’s leading nativists had already begun moving on to other frontiers — most notably, to the Tea Party. Several leading border-militia leaders began avidly participating in Tea Party events, notably Jim Gilchrist, the movement’s other co-founder, who told a reporter that he was moving on to Tea Party activism since he had “accomplished his mission.” Likewise, former Minutemen spokesman Al Garza says he spends his time these days advising Tea Party groups on immigration issues. And the border-watch movement’s godfather, Glenn Spencer of Arizona, has hosted Tea Party barbecues at his border ranch featuring Arpaio and Pearce as speakers.
Unsurprisingly, the Tea Party’s starkly nativist positions on immigration are essentially taken wholesale from the positions that the Minutemen established: placing the blame for the nation’s immigration problems on a failure to secure the borders, making immigration a national-security issue since terrorists supposedly were able to cross those borders, focusing attention on the illegal status of those immigrants, and insisting that anything short of mass deportation of the lawbreakers is tantamount to “amnesty.”
And just as certainly, those positions have translated into the real world of immigration legislation, particularly in a House of Representatives controlled by Tea Party ideologues. A comprehensive immigration reform bill managed to emerge from the Senate this past year, but it remains bottled up in the House, from whence most observers give it no chance of emerging in the near future. After President Obama’s recent plea to Congress to move the package forward, he was met with a swift refusal from House Speaker John Boehner. But Boehner has more recently backtracked (“I still think immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed,” he told reporters last week), indicating the Tea Party’s grip on House leadership may be slipping.
But even the bill that emerged from the Senate is laden with draconian “secure the borders” measures that are enormously expensive and of dubious value, as well as requirements that they be met before the undocumented immigrants currently in the United States can apply for citizenship. Those, of course, were largely concessions to the nativist lobby in order to simply pass a Senate bill.
So the Minutemen may no longer be out patrolling our borders very often. But their legacy is what is now driving much of our nation’s immigration policy.
David Neiwert is an investigative journalist based in Seattle and the author of And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (2009, Nation Books), as well as five previous books. He is a National Press Club Award winner for his reportage on domestic terrorism, and is well known for his work as an editor at the political blog Crooks and Liars. He is currently writing a book about killer whales.