The California-Mexico Border, earlier this fall–There’s an ad campaign dotting the freeways of Los Angeles: signs pitching the crystal-blue waters of the Baja peninsula, beckoning Californians to “Just Drive South.” Yet just as Angelenos can’t wait to head to Mexico for a weekend of sun, cerveza, and shopping, many on the other side of the border can’t wait to cross in the opposite direction. Some do so legally, but others don’t–crossing deserts, ranchland, and ravines illegally to enter the U.S. According to a 2003 Immigration and Naturalization Service report, the country’s estimated “unauthorized resident” population doubled from 3.5 million in 1990 to 7 million in 2000, and more than one third of that increase was absorbed by California and Texas.
Just who is coming across the border? Why is it so porous? Why isn’t the federal government doing more to secure it? It’s just these questions–along with concerns about the threat of terrorism–that have inspired groups of civilians to grab their lawn chairs, sunscreen, and binoculars and take watch along the border. Drawing inspiration from the Revolutionary-era colonials, this highly symbolic civilian border patrol born in Arizona took the name “Minutemen.”
The separate border-watch efforts in California include Mike Chase’s California Minutemen, Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project, Andy Ramirez’s Friends of the Border Patrol, and Tim Donnelly’ s Minutemen Corps of California (this last is the state branch of Chris Simcox’s Minuteman Civilian Defense Corps Inc.). Are these watchdogs possessed by a vigilante mindset, armed to the teeth and trying to pick off Mexicans, as some of their opponents claim? Or are they just public-spirited citizens frustrated by a broken system, and providing invaluable assistance to the Border Patrol?
On the drive south on Interstate 5, past the seaside nuclear-containment domes at San Onofre and just before the Border Control checkpoint, one is reminded of this border insecurity by the large yellow “caution” signs showing a shadowy family dashing across the road. Turning east on Interstate 8 in San Diego, one encounters more dangers on the lonely road to El Centro. As I drive to meet his civilian border-enforcement group on a cool, sunny October day, Tim Donnelly tells me via cell phone to watch out–a group of five crossers jumped out into this highway one recent day as he was driving to the Minutemen encampment.
WELCOME TO CAMP CALIFORNIA
The turnoff point to get to the Minutemen is a gleaming Indian casino in the middle of nowhere. I drive south to Highway 94, a winding two-lane route that stretches east-west just north of the border. Maneuvering onto a dusty lane, I find the RV park where many of the Minutemen have made a temporary home. Turning down a bumpy, shady road past permanent park residents, I arrive at the back corner of the park and “Camp California.” In addition to a handful of campers and trucks, a white canopy adorned with red and blue streamers and American flags welcomes new arrivals. Tables hold plastic bins neatly stacked with snacks and Cup-o-Noodles.
Camp California is deserted right now: The Minutemen have already left to set up “the line,” and I’m to wait at the park’s front office for that day’s leader to come and get me. I sit and chat with the park manager as she knits a Christmas scarf. In the hour I’m there, she fields a couple of calls from people interested in getting a space to take part in the upcoming–and final–weekend of this Minuteman operation. Last-Minutemen, we dub them. A couple more men–new volunteers–enter the office to get parking passes. The Minutemen aren’t just men, though–in fact, it’s the women who put the star-spangled decorations on the camp.
Before long I’m back on those windy roads, heading bumpily to the border fence with Greg Kranz, an Orange County plumbing contractor who was inspired to come volunteer because of how he’s seen the flow of illegal immigrants affect his trade. “I’m seeing a big change in the quality of work being done and the ethics of work being done,” he says. “I can’t compete.” He is quick to add, “I understand why they’re coming across, but at the same time they need to realize there’s a right way and a wrong way.” He’s one of the Minutemen balancing border patrol with a day job–one reason the volunteer force balloons by the dozens on weekends.
Kranz tells me that at the beginning of their October operation, the group tried to keep their front-line location as secret as possible to avoid conflicts with protesters. Yet some protesters waited in their cars outside the RV park to follow the Minutemen to their watch site. The Minutemen would take circuitous routes to try to shake them, but by the second weekend the protesters had discovered “the line,” a two-mile stretch of valley south of the tiny town of Jacumba dotted with cacti, stubby palms, and manzanita trees, east of Tecate on the Mexican side and Campo on the California side. Kranz stresses that despite provocation, the Minutemen’s policy is to step back from protesters.
The border fence in this valley, as I’m warned beforehand, is a joke. “It doesn’t deter anyone at all–it says, ‘Here’s the border!’” says Kranz. It consists of posts placed three to four feet apart, with a rusty beam welded across. The only practical purpose the fence serves is to keep vehicles from driving through. The fence, which is technically three feet inside the United States, stops at either end of the valley as the terrain ascends into rocky peaks.
On the American side of the fence is a wide frontage road along which the Minutemen are camped at regular intervals. Most have canopies and hats to shield them from the relentless sun; most clutch binoculars with which they regularly scan the valley and mountain ridges on the other side. On the first weekend of this operation, I’m told, there were 13 stations representing each of the original colonies, with corresponding flags. Behind the Minutemen’s line is a barbed-wire fence that marks Bureau of Land Management territory. Each night, after the Minutemen leave, Border Patrol agents sweep the soft dirt to wipe away footprints–to make it easier to spot the trail of crossers in the night’s peak shift.
Kranz’s truck pulls up to each Minuteman post. “How are things?” he asks the volunteer sitting in a beach chair under the first canopy.
“You wanna know?” the Minuteman drolls back.
Daytime, it happens, is the slowest time for crossers. And just as weekdays draw the lowest number of Minutemen volunteers, they also draw few protesters. There is one now, over on the Mexican side; he showed up at the beginning of the operation, I’m told, in his little blue pickup with a huge Mexican flag flying from the back, and drove back and forth on the Mexican side of the fence blasting mariachi music from speakers in the bed of the truck. As we drive past the Minutemen outposts, I see the red, white, and green flag fluttering in the distance, parked a short distance into Mexico, the front of the truck pointed toward the U.S. I ask Kranz to drive to the end of the fence.
A NORTH-SOUTH DIALOGUE
Less than a foot from the fence, I stand up and peer through my binoculars at the little blue truck. I wave to the two men inside and motion for them to come forward. They take a few minutes to decide, then with a puff of desert dust from the tires the pickup slowly approaches. I greet them in Spanish but find it’s unnecessary–the driver not only speaks perfect English, but, he says, he’s a dual citizen. Vicente Rodriguez is a member of the activist group Gente Unida; he crosses over to protest by day and usually goes home to the U.S. at night.
“We’ve been tracking these Minutemen,” Rodriguez tells me, offering papers detailing allegations of Minutemen misconduct from a folder he’s clutching. “We don’t like what they do.” His reasons are myriad: He believes that racism is behind the movement, and claims he’s seen Confederate flags and “KKK hand signals.” He says that Mexicans are just trying to cross for work, and that the government’s Operation Gatekeeper has pushed crossers into canals or deeper into the desert and thus caused deaths. Isn’t it dangerous, I ask, to encourage them to cross through this harsh territory in the first place? He pauses. “I killed a rattlesnake the other day,” is all he offers, gesturing to a spot behind him.
I ask Rodriguez about homeland security–the main concern of many of the Minutemen. “You could not secure this border unless you put one person every ten feet,” he says, leaning against the porous fence. The civilian militia is “going back to the old shoot-’em-up days,” he adds. Rodriguez’s protest partner, a man from Calexico, stands several feet back from the border, laden with a video camera, digital camera, and binoculars–to document the activities of the Minutemen, I’m told. Perhaps it’s because they’re three weeks settled into the operation, but all I see this day is détente.
Rodriguez tells me that on the weekends the larger number of protesters includes members of the Tecate city council. “We’ll be here as long as they are,” he says. “We hope they leave. We hope they don’t come back, and solve this in Congress in a humanitarian way.”
While chatting with Rodriguez, I notice that a Border Patrol SUV has rolled along the road behind me. The agent is passing by to do a scheduled head count of the Minutemen. I hear him and a few of the Minutemen occasionally laughing; I join them in time to hear the agent share a story of catching the same group of crossers three nights in a row. Later, out of earshot of the volunteers, I ask the agent (who asked not to be identified) about his relationship with the volunteers. “I have no problem whatsoever with the Minutemen,” he says. “None. The more the merrier.”
“Have you seen guns out here?” I ask him.
Not personally, he says, adding, “It’s a dangerous area.”
This is a dangerous area. It’s about more than human smuggling: This is drug-running territory. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, methamphetamine labs south of the border are increasing, Mexico continues to dominate the cocaine trade, and increased security at the ports of entry after 9/11 forced smugglers to find other ways across the border.
On this day, I hear tales of parents unwilling to leave their teenage children at home alone on border ranches, whose guard dogs go into barking tirades every night as unwelcome visitors come through in the darkness, leaving everything from broken gates to running garden hoses in their wake. I’m acutely aware of the situation as I scan a ridge through binoculars, keeping tabs on a small group of men dressed in black; the glint of sun off a scope on the otherwise-deserted ridge reminds me that we’re being watched, too. Then, with a distant puff of dust, the men in black are off on dirt bikes, out of the desert wilderness and headed in the direction of Tecate.
A MIXED CREW
Kicking up dust of their own are volunteers Paula James and Anna Ford, walking their dogs along the dirt frontage road. James, who drove six hours to join the patrol, is quick to contradict the Latino activist’s claims about the Minutemen. “Dead wrong,” she says. “This is a very peaceful organization.” Her purpose in being there is clear: “The fact that we need to secure our border I think is the No. 1 problem our country is facing.” Ford, cradling a Chihuahua and wearing a T-shirt that reads “Undocumented U.S. Border Patrol Agent,” echoes the sentiments. “Ever since 9/11, I have been worried about who’s coming across the border,” says Ford, who came down from San Jose. “I’ve got eyes and ears and that’s about it, but I can do that.”
Gesturing into the BLM land, the women tell of the items found in that stretch of desert: water bottles appearing overnight, lined up as if a directional guide; shirts and backpacks under manzanita trees; cheap felt shoe covers that obscure tread tracks. Scouting along the barbed wire fencing off the BLM property, I spot a large navy-blue torn piece of sweater. I also see lots of trash spotting this otherwise pristine desert land–and it’s not being tossed in there by the Minutemen.
Shattering the stereotype of the right-wing Republican civilian border watcher, Minor Collinsworth declares himself a member of the Sierra Club and the NEA. And he has the most dramatic views of any Minuteman I meet this day. “This is not a conservative Republican issue,” Collinsworth says, adding that illegal immigration is “fueling a serious separatist movement in the United States.” Homeland security is a big concern for him, but the former economics teacher is concerned that the influx of illegal immigrants is only trapping more people in poverty. “It just breaks the bottom of the ladder so they can’t climb out,” he says. How do his Sierra Club pals respond to his Minuteman duties? Collinsworth grins: “Horror, shock, surprise.” The self-described “liberal to moderate” doesn’t agree with his watch-mates in many campfire political discussions, but that matters little in the task at hand. “I never met a group of people as committed to democracy as this one,” he says with admiration.
The descent of the merciless sun means that it’s time to pack up and head back to camp, just when the action heats up and the Border Patrol gets ready for another busy night. On the way back to the campground, I meet a couple of border property owners who agreed to let Minutemen on their private land to watch for crossers. They’d rather their neighbors didn’t know that they’re inviting the Minutemen in–you never know, a volunteer tells me, which of your neighbors are on the take from drug dealers or human traffickers. “Most people in surrounding towns are supportive but don’t want it to get out because of fear of repercussions.” That trepidation is palpable when I meet the property owners.
After leaving the Minutemen I head west on windy Highway 94. I pause at the turnoff for Tecate, a mere two miles to the south, but decide against traipsing across the border. It’s getting dark, and Californians know that Mexico isn’t safe after the sun sets. And neither is the border.