A grassroots citizens’ group takes its fight against illegal immigration directly to the border.

Springtime on the Border: Line Item: (left) A US Border Patrol vehicle, seen from across the fence in Naco, Mexico, monitors a stretch of border in Arizona that has rapidly become the busiest in the Southwest. Armchair Vigilantes: (right) Volunteer Minutemen scope out movement along the border, prepared to call any action in to border patrolmen via cell phone. Andy Isaacson

The warm, breezy summit of Coronado Peak, in Southeast Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains, offers a fine view of the seemingly endless arid grassland below, a high desert plain of brown earth accented by a fertile strip of green willow and ringed by gentle mountain ranges. A faint dirt road slicing the plain marks the division between the United States and Mexico. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado once ambled exhausted through this rugged terrain with a legion of soldiers, Indians and priests on a “missionary undertaking” seeking the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold” to the north.

Every day, more than 450 years after that historic expedition, the scene continues unabated. Under the hot daytime sun and the dark cloak of night, quiet squadrons of drug runners march right through the meager barbed wire cattle fence marking the US-Mexico border, and through the Huachucas. Indians from the Central American highlands trudge for days up dry washes lined with bramble bushes, some told that the ocean lies only a day’s walk ahead.

Church groups supply water to these migrants, hoping to stem the deaths that claim more than 100 lives annually. And Mexicans, finding no trace of gold in their homeland, flow illegally north seeking the fabled 7-Eleven, or just about any job that will pay.

Cochise County, Ariz., is evidence of how illegal immigration is hurting the United States at the very same time it seems to benefit from it. The intense enforcement effort concentrated on the California and Texas borders has shifted migrant flow into Arizona, and the Tucson sector has bore the brunt of that redirected stream. In 2004, approximately 350,000 migrants were caught along the Arizona border. This sits uneasily with locals here. In the wake of streaming migrants and smugglers come littered belongings, damaged property, strained social services, an enforcement presence and a violent edge. It’s a reality that local resident May Kolbe calls “living in a war zone.”


Situated blissfully in the middle of the valley, two miles from the border fence, is the Miracle Valley Bible College, where the Minuteman Project has set up its headquarters.

Two months ago, hundreds of volunteers from across the nation heeded a call put out over the Internet by a loosely organized coalition of anti-immigration activists to join a grassroots gathering that would spend the month of April here, patrolling a 23-mile stretch along the nation’s most penetrated section of border. The volunteers, calling themselves the Minutemen, included retired military, teachers, and construction workers. They brought a modest air force, communications equipment, guns, lawn chairs and sunscreen to perform “the job the government won’t do.”

Not easy to typecast, the volunteers who descended on the desert represented a spectrum of backgrounds and views but were united by a core sentiment. They are indignant at an illegal invasion that sees immigrants, drug smugglers and possible terrorists streaming across a porous and undefended border, unchecked, by the thousands. Many are “Pat Buchanan Republicans” who feel “Bushwacked” by a president who looks the other way while lining his political pockets with the support of employers who profit off the exploitation of cheap labor. They see a corrupt Mexican government flagrantly assisting the illegal flow, washing its hands of impoverishment while collecting remittances from migrant workers who send back their wages in amounts that have now surpassed domestic oil revenues. And they arrived out of concern for the changes in their communities, the violence they feel is a byproduct of impoverished immigrants seeking economic opportunism and the demographic changes they view as threatening the American way of life.

They included Cindylou Dampf of Denton, Texas, whose job at Andrews Corporation ended last year when the plant closed and moved to Mexico. A displaced worker and single mother, she took fast food and housekeeping jobs. When she learned about the Minuteman Project, she quit her two jobs and drove the 900 miles to Cochise County. And there were those like Curtis Stewart from San Antonio, Texas, who felt they were the vanguard of a silent majority frustrated with the government’s ineffectiveness.


“How many demonstrations have we had in the United States for women, lesbians, blacks—minority demonstrations, right? Never have you had the white, right wing say ‘I’ve had it.’ This is the first demonstration since the Boston Tea Party,” said Stewart, driving a truck with a “Liberal Hunting Permit” sticker on the windshield.

What made this act of civil disobedience different from marches on Washington was that rather than bring an issue to Washington, it succeeded in bringing Washington to the front door of an issue—here at the border—enabled by the throngs of media that surrounded the volunteers in what seemed, at times, to be equal numbers.

“What we’re doing right here is First and Second Amendment, plain and simple,” said volunteer Greg Coody of Waco, Texas. “There’s not any insurrection or vigilantism—except to the extent that President Bush was said to be ‘vigilant’ after 9/11. We’re trying to close this sieve that’s called a border. If you don’t want it to be against the law—then get rid of the law. But if you’re going to have a law, then enforce it. What part of ‘illegal’ don’t they get?”

What also made the Minuteman Project different from other demonstrations was its Anglo-Saxon tapestry, inciting accusations of racist intentions. But volunteers here cloaked their racial and cultural views under a legal banner. They said it’s not about who comes in, but how.

“If I’m in my house, and I see my neighbor’s house being broken into and call the police, I’m not a racist just because the burglar was black, brown or some other color besides white,” said Coody. “A burglar is a burglar. This is not a race thing, it’s a law thing.”

While officially there to assist law enforcement, the Minuteman Project walked the fine line between civilian watchdogging and vigilantism perilously. Local residents and authorities there eyed the arrival of these outsiders suspiciously, mostly out of a concern for the potential violence they would usher in, fueling an already raging fire.


Aware of the intense scrutiny and the high stakes for success, Chris Simcox, publisher of the Tombstone Tumbleweed and an organizer of the event, made clear to volunteers at an orientation meeting on April 1 in Tombstone that their job was to observe illegal activity, make no contact with “illegals,” and report to border patrol.

“Hold the line, but put your ideals before any instant gratification,” warned Simcox, whose group Civil Homeland Defense is one of a few civilian border groups that have operated controversially in the region for years, tracking down and reporting migrant and drug smuggling activity.

After the first orientation meeting, Simcox downplayed the project’s paramilitary resemblances. “If you want to talk about training for volunteers,” he quipped to reporters, “I guess that would consist of knowing how to unfold a lawn chair, how to look into camera monitors, and how dial a cell phone.” The group seemed to hold to standard operating procedure. A week into the watch, a volunteer was sent home because, although he had offered a distressed migrant a bowl of cereal and $20, he had shaken the man’s hand, thereby breaking the “no contact” policy.

Indeed, it soon seemed that the hysteria over the armed and dangerous Minutemen was much ado about nothing. Retired men and women sitting on the backs of pickup trucks in six-hour shifts, concentrated along a two-mile stretch of border fence eyeing the vacant desert, appeared more like a group on a bird watching excursion than a paramilitary force.

The kaleidoscope of overlapping characters that swirled around them, however, created a cultural circus. A flurry of reporters and camera crews watched young ACLU representatives in white “Legal Observer” T-shirts watch over middle-aged Minutemen. The Minutemen kept watch over the desert for migrants, some of them retired military communicating in command speak through walkie-talkies with a grain of self-importance. Border Patrol agents cruised by, responding to remote sensors planted in the brush that all these onlookers had tripped.

For a time, the Minutemen found themselves amidst the multiplicity of interests that define life along America’s most active stretch of border. With their arrival, they brought out the wide panorama of contradictory voices that characterize the debate over illegal immigration.


On a hot afternoon, a mile south of the border fence, Sergio Medrano peered through binoculars, combing the Mexican desert. “No hay migrantes,” he said. “They’re intelligent enough not to cross here.”

He shifted his focus to the 40 vehicles and handful of satellite TV trucks stationed along the fence. “Why does this have to happen for people to find out really what happens on the border?” he asked. “Why do there have to be these activities of racist and anti-immigrant groups? I don’t know why there are groups of people that don’t like us—every person has the human right to better himself, in any part of the world.”

Medrano is a former “coyote,” a migrant smuggler who was caught 49 times shepherding illegals across the border before records-keeping technology caught up with him and forced him out of the game. He turned to drugs, became homeless, and later checked himself into a drug rehabilitation center in Mexico, which he now directs. His organization operates Agua Para Vida, a humanitarian program supplying water and food to migrants on their path north.

“So many people have died here in the desert in past years; why does it take all this?” Medrano said, pointing to the media circus across the line. “They come here, see what happens, and then they’ll just forget about it. We’ll keep fighting for our people so that they don’t die trying to realize the American dream.”

After checking on the water drums his group leaves under shady trees across the desert, Medrano and a couple of volunteers from the center decided to walk up to the border fence. Curious media and Minutemen alike clustered around Medrano, at first excited that he might have been a migrant attempting to cross, but then engaged him in what might truly have been the only cross-border dialogue both sides will see during the month-long confrontation.

“Mexicans that work in the United States send their money back home—and they use the doctors and hospitals here. President Fox tells them to come here because he wants us to pay for their health,” an elderly woman said to Medrano in Spanish, holding an American flag in each of her hands.

“I think if the US didn’t have any Mexicans it would have serious problems,” Medrano replied. “Is anybody hungry?” he asked the volunteers and media congregated around, handing them a Ziploc bag packed with snacks he has brought for migrants.

“What do you think of the Minutemen?” asked a reporter.

“They do what they do. But there are people appointed by the government with this job. It would better if [the Minutemen] were home taking care of their families instead of being on the border and getting in the way of the border patrol.”

“When Mexicans come to the United States why don’t they want to learn English? If I was going to live in a different house I would learn that language,” said the woman with the flags.

“For me,” replied Medrano, “English is difficult.”


Douglas, Ariz., sees a steady flow of Mexicans who come over the border for the day to shop. Along its historic main street, cars with Mexican license plates are stuffed with items purchased from stores up and down the strip. On the other side of town, icons of American consumerism—McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Radio Shack—feed south-of-the-border appetites. Walk down to the international border gate, past a cluster of shopping carts left by Wal-Mart shoppers, and the scene suddenly changes. Dusty streets with potholes, taco trucks, music shops and ice cream stores line a main street.

Agua Prieta, Mexico, used to be a sleepy town with a population equal to its American sibling north of the fence, but this staging ground for drug and human smuggling has burst into a sprawling town of 135,000.

In the main plaza, Hispanic organizations from Southern California were rallying in solidarity with Arizona civil and human rights organizations to denounce the “racist” Minuteman Project.

“What we’re simply saying is give workers access to globalization,” said Christian Ramirez, who directs the US/Mexico border program for the American Friends Service Committee. “Why is it that the borders have come down for transnational corporations but it has become more deadly for working people on both sides?

“It’s been 11 years since NAFTA was introduced, and the issue of labor movements has not been resolved. Allow workers the same rights that we have allowed products.”

Jose Jacques Medina from the Los Angeles-based Comite Pro Uno dismissed any idea that undocumented migrant workers, while boosting domestic product, cost the system.

“In order to be productive you have to be at least 15 years old, right? You have to feed, educate, and raise this worker from the day they’re born. This is money the people of Mexico have invested in any given individual ready to work. The United States doesn’t invest a single coin in this human being, but it is ready to exploit and take all the production out of their body. That’s a free thing that is given to the US economic system.”

A mile from the main plaza, Javier Rodriquez, 20, and his two friends from Guadalajara have arrived in Agua Prieta. They sit bleary eyed and travel weary in the courtyard of La Iglesia Sagrada, a church that provides shelter to those migrants en route to a better life north, or those freshly deported.

Flyers with depictions of crossed shotguns have been distributed by church groups to migrants warning them of the Minutemen’s presence on the line and the increased attention on the border that has followed in its wake. The three of them saw this first-hand when they snuck up to the line earlier in the day but retreated, discouraged.

They sat in near silence in the courtyard.

“I want to go to New York because I hear the wages are better. But I’ll work wherever—at a factory, car wash, pizzeria—whatever pays,” said Rodriguez, whose father died last year, leaving him the eldest son in a family of five.

At dusk, after eating a meal the church will provide, Javier and his friends will set out.

Between mile markers eight and 12 on the Geronimo Trail east of Douglas, Border Patrol agents sit in waiting. The dry washes that meander up from the borderline and cross this dusty road are frequent migrant trails, and with the Minutemen and increased patrol presence concentrated west of Douglas, more migrants have begun traveling these remote routes. The agents are expecting them, and drive their trucks along the shoulder with their eyes peeled for footprints and other signs of traffic.

By 10pm, the night had gotten busy. Agents came across a young Mexican man and his sister—the rest of their traveling group had been caught earlier that day, and the couple had waited in the brush until dark. Shortly afterwards, a group of 14 young Mexican nationals were apprehended, and they sat orderly along the side of the road, illuminated by the glow of patrol headlights. Agents say that when they are spotted, migrants stand still rather than run and risk injury, while their guides turn tail back across the border.

The processing that takes place on the roadside is cordial and routine. The migrants’ items are gathered and searched, their bodies are frisked and paperwork is signed. They will be brought back to the border gate in Douglas, temporarily detained, and sent back to Mexico.


Those who sneak past agents on Geronimo Trail will soon find themselves walking across Warner and Mary Glenn’s cattle ranch, a breathtaking 15,000 acres of sensitive mountain desert habitat home to white-sided jackrabbits, pronghorn, mountain lion, and black bear. The Glenns have joined with other ranch owners to form the Malpai Borderlands Group, an innovative grassroots project—one of the largest “ecosystem management” experiments in the country—that is protecting 800,000 acres of contiguous open space ranchland stretching into New Mexico.

Mary Glenn has seen a lot of traffic through her property over the past decade. There was a time, she said, when they would recognize almost half the people coming through every year because they were returnees, like the “spiffy-looking” man who would walk through their pasture on his way to a job in Chicago carrying a briefcase and wearing dark glasses.

“But boy, I’ll tell you, they’re all different now,” she said. “They’re from way south, and there are more of them.”

Almost every landowner in the area confronts incredible stories of human struggle, like that of the migrant woman who gave birth in the Glenns’ pasture. The woman cut the umbilical cord with broken glass, tied it off with an unraveled sweater and sought help on the Glenns’ porch holding the new American citizen in her arms. Others arrive on their porch hungry, injured and lost—some have spent four days walking the desert in circles, devastated when told they have only journeyed five miles from the border.

But in their wake, the migrants have laid waste to the pristine landscape. They defecate near water sources, leave toilet paper, sanitary pads, piles of food containers and discarded clothing. Some neighbors’ cattle have died ingesting plastic bags left in the pastures. The Glenns secured a grant from the Bureau of Land Management to hire someone to clean up the garbage. “But what a waste,” she said. “It’s good money that could go to improving the land, but instead we’re picking up trash.”

As policymakers debate the economic equation of illegal immigration, and consumers across the nation benefit from a lifestyle of cheap goods and services, residents on the front line bear most of the costs. Among those who stand to gain the least while sacrificing the most from the influx are those living in border communities, like Don and Grace Wiggens.

One afternoon, the Wiggens’ granddaughter arrived from school to an empty ranch house. No sooner had she walked into the living room and locked the front door when four migrants banged on the door, demanding that she open it, feed them, and drive them to where they needed to go. Rattled, she called her grandmother, who called border patrol.

Many local residents in Cochise County share these horror stories of borderline life. The Wiggens were so fed up with repairing damages to the barbed wire fence surrounding their property that they installed a section which migrants could take down and secure behind them to aid their passing. Don Wiggens arrived home from his job as security head at the local airport to find his horse tangled up in the barbed wire fence which migrants had removed and left on the ground. They coughed up the $1,000 in veterinarian fees. Other neighbors have found migrants butchering their newborn calves, opening water lines to drink, leaving them flowing, and stealing their trucks.

Although locals recognize these crimes as the doings of only a minority of passing migrants, their outrage gets to the emotional heart of what angers those calling for tougher border security: the government is not doing what it should be to protect the safety and honor the rights of its legal citizens.

This feeling has hit home for the Wiggens. Their daughter, now living in California at a military base, at one time was a single mother and applied for government assistance to help raise her child.

“Here was a someone who had served her country, but the office turned down her application,” said Grace Wiggens. “They gave food stamps to the man in the next cubicle, who couldn’t speak English, had no proof of address—and may have even been illegal.” A few months ago, their granddaughter sprained her arm, but none of the county hospital emergency rooms in Douglas or Bisbee had open space. Illegal immigrants had taken up the beds.

The Wiggens say they are compassionate people, but their emotions—like those of the majority of Americans who polls show favor a crackdown on illegal immigration—run high as they weigh the opposing forces of compassion and practicality.


After a week along the border, it appeared as though the Minutemen were finding enemies in those who stood to profit from the status quo. Volunteers around the Minuteman compound stepped up their internal security, installing guards and ground sensors around the perimeter of the compound. The violent Central American gang MS-13, they said, had jammed their communications and, rumor had it, were planning attacks.

A Coca-Cola delivery truck entered the compound, and Cindylou Dampf radioed to the communications center through her walkie-talkie. “It could be Al Qaeda in the back,” she said. “I’m joking, but you never know.”

Jim Gilchrest, a retired accountant from Orange County, Ca., who organized the project along with Chris Simcox, arrived to say the FBI had just passed along credible death threats against his family. “I have to go, I have a family to protect,” he yelled, driving off.

According to the Border Patrol, apprehensions for the first 10 days in April in the corridor where the Minutemen were posted decreased by almost 6,000 from the same period a year ago. But a Border Patrol spokesperson said that whenever Mexican authorities are out in greater numbers on their side of the fence—which have assembled in the wake of the Minuteman presence and media attention—”our numbers plummet.” The enforcement presence had been beefed up on the US side as well. Not coincidentally, the Bush administration deployed 500 more border patrol agents just days before the Minutemen arrived—locals said they had never seen so much government law enforcement in the area.

Whatever the reason, Minuteman volunteers are calling the project a resounding success. Emboldened by the turnout and the attention it garnered, there is talk about staging similar protests along the borders of New Mexico and Texas, and even one in June against employers who hire illegals, another target of their frustration.

“The thing about marrying up a willing worker with a willing employer, that these people are doing jobs that ‘Americans won’t do’— you need to further that sentence. It’s the jobs that Americans won’t do at that price,” said Minuteman volunteer Greg Coody of Waco, Texas.

From the summit of Coronado Peak, the San Pedro River below flows through a contiguous landscape that only recently saw a barbed fence dividing north from south. Despite the efforts of the Minuteman, and those of the border patrol agents in the evening, several hundred migrants will have reached US soil by daybreak.

The Minutemen, in demanding the enforcement of laws and the preservation of a more unified culture, might be waging a fight in futility, as the forces that have governed the flow of human beings across lands since time immemorial—wealth, greed, power and human survival—are very deep and historic phenomena.

What’s to stop those now?

• • •

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