When he spots people he thinks are illegal “border jumpers,” he’ll alert his fellow Minuteman Civil Defense Corps members.
They’ll call federal Border Patrol agents, who will probably respond and detain the illegal immigrants.
Baker and his group find themselves in the middle of a Kansas City debate that is beginning to go national: Just what does it mean to be a Minuteman?
Baker and supporters say the group is merely trying to secure America’s borders because the federal government hasn’t.
But opponents say armed border watches and members’ harsh words about illegal immigrants make the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps dangerous and racist.
Ground zero has become Kansas City, where Mayor Mark Funkhouser appointed Frances Semler to the park board without knowing that she belonged to the two-year-old Minuteman corps.
Civil-rights groups and some other city council members blasted the choice after her membership became known. But Funkhouser has refused to remove her, saying her views on immigration have no bearing on the parks board.
Now the National Council of La Raza and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons have threatened to move their conventions out of Kansas City.
In the midst of the fight, questions arise: What is the Minuteman organization all about? Is it a vigilante group taking the law into its own hands, or is it a group of citizens banding together to work against illegal immigration?
Words and actions
Robert Baker, a retired World War II veteran from near Dodge City, typifies other Minutemen.
He joined the group about when it was created, he said. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps was started by Chris Simcox, a former private school teacher, in May 2005 after the original Minuteman organization, founded in late 2004 by Simcox and Jim Gilchrist, split into two factions. Gilchrist runs the Minuteman Project.
Baker said he wants to help people who live in border communities keep their neighborhoods safe from illegal immigrants who might be drug runners or criminals, and help outnumbered Border Patrol agents prevent people from coming into the United States illegally.
The firepower he carries is intended to be used defensively, he said, and it has never been pulled out during his border watches.
Minuteman patrols also carry extra water and salt pills for dehydrated immigrants who they fear might not survive until Border Patrol agents arrive.
“Nobody down there is going Mexican-hunting or anything,” he said.
He said he’s fervently against illegal immigration because America has become a dumping ground for thugs and bad guys, and all the illegal immigrants pose an economic burden for our country.
“Those people down there are trying to do something better for themselves, and of course we’d like to see them do something better for themselves,” he said. “But, my gosh, we can’t take everybody in the world.”
The government’s Customs and Border Protection has had no problems with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps or similar watch groups along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ramon Rivera, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said he is not aware of any assaults or unlawful detentions of immigrants by these watch groups.
He said the Border Patrol does not encourage such citizen patrols, but as long as they are in public areas or get permission from landowners before setting up, “they’re welcome to do what they’re doing.”
“We get reports from them, and we try to respond as quickly as possible, just like we do when any other citizen calls,” Rivera said.
The Minutemen claim more than 8,000 members across the United States. The group also operates a political action committee that raises money and distributes it to political candidates who share the group’s strong stance against illegal immigration.
But it is experiencing some internal infighting.
Recently, some Minuteman Civil Defense Corps chapter directors questioned Simcox about the group’s finances, and Simcox removed them from their posts.
Also, an Arizona resident who had donated $100,000 to help the group build a “border fence” on private land has sued, saying the organization breached its agreement with him by not building the fence as an “Israeli-style” barrier as he expected.
(Before he started the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Simcox himself was convicted in 2004 of carrying a concealed weapon on federal park land as he was searching for illegal immigrants.)
The corps’ Heart of America chapter in Kansas City mostly holds membership meetings, at which members share statistics and information about the impact of illegal immigrants. They held a protest rally in Topeka three months ago and picket worksites where members suspect illegal immigrants are working.
The chapter also engages in letter-writing campaigns to try to prevent the federal government from granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
The national organization operates a Web site, where their mission is stated as: “To see the borders and coastal boundaries of the United States secured against the unlawful and unauthorized entry of all individuals, contraband, and foreign military. We will employ all means of civil protest, demonstration, and political lobbying to accomplish this goal.”
But some other elements on the Web site go further.
In a recent news release posted on the site, Simcox said the group would not “allow citizenship to be granted to those who advocate exploiting, colonizing and ‘reconquering’ America. …”
Various other anti-illegal immigration groups also see illegal immigration as an attempt by Mexican-Americans and Mexico to “reconquer” the Southwest, a statement Hispanic civil rights organizations dismiss as false.
Some postings on the Minuteman Web site also contain statistics that cannot be backed up with solid data.
For example, Carl Braun, a California Minuteman founder, is reported to have said: “Given that 25 Americans are killed each day by criminal illegal aliens, whose life (lives) did we save?”
Braun was relying on information from U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican. King said he thinks illegal immigrants murder 12 Americans every day and cause the deaths of 13 more through crimes such as drunken driving.
Because the Government Accountability Office reported that 28 percent of federal prisoners are immigrants, King said, 28 percent of America’s murders — 12 a day — are committed by illegal immigrants. But the report included both legal and illegal immigrants, and no data on the percentage of murders as opposed to other crimes.
King has said that no one has shown him that the figure is wrong.
Ed Hayes, leader of the Heart of America chapter, said he tells members that 25 Americans are killed daily by illegal immigrants. He doesn’t know exactly where the number comes from, but he has seen it in a lot of places.
“I tell them it’s on the average,” he said. “None of these numbers are in stone, as you know.”
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps Web site also allows members and the public to post comments, and although forum moderators say no racist or stereotypical posts will be allowed, there is harsh language about illegal immigrants.
One posting about a fatal purse-snatching robbery in Dallas committed by an illegal immigrant included this sentiment: “I hope they stretch his neck … soon. …”
“Some days I must stay away from my computer, for fear I’ll start the war myself!” said a responder named “Patriotic Army Mom.”
Indeed, sometimes the message board contains talk of a coming race war. “Get armed. Very armed. It’s coming to a head,” reads a warning penned by “Georgia Minuteman.”
Another contributor responded: “The target is white people, it’s clear. Please get armed and have citizen meetings to come up with emergency plans.”
What the critics say
That language and posturing concerns organizations monitoring hate groups.
Leonard Zeskind, a Kansas City man who keeps an eye on such groups, said the “reconquering” mentioned regularly by Simcox and Gilchrist shows a cultural bias beyond wanting to secure the border against terrorists or criminals.
“This racist conspiracy theory that says somehow all undocumented immigrants are part of this conspiracy to retake the southwest United States for Mexico … it’s top to bottom at the core of the Minuteman beliefs,” Zeskind said. “As they’ve attempted to move from the margin to the mainstream, they’re brought this with them.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white supremacist groups, calls the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps a “nativist extremist group,” meaning it targets individuals rather than policies.
But it does not label the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps a “hate group.” The Southern Poverty Law Center does call some other border watch and anti-illegal-immigrant groups “hate groups” for explicitly espousing racist doctrines.
Hayes, the Heart of America chapter leader, insisted that regardless of what individual members might say, the group is focused only on stopping illegal immigration.
“This is not a racial thing,” he said. “We’re not against any one race. We’re against illegal immigration.”
One more complication for the Minuteman image is other groups who are also using the Minuteman name.
For example, San Diegan Jeff Schwilk has founded his own Minuteman group, which is not affiliated with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Schwilk sent an e-mail to his group about a January incident in which armed men wearing camouflage ambushed a truck carrying illegal immigrants in Arizona. The driver was killed. No one has been arrested, and authorities have not tied it to any Minuteman or border watch group.
Schwilk wrote, “In America, we call incidents like that ‘cleansing the gene ”?pool,’ according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report.
Such rhetoric has led the National Council of La Raza, which works on issues of importance to Hispanics, to reconsider having its 2009 convention in Kansas City.
Janet Murguia, La Raza’s president, pointed out that the e-mail came from the founder of a Minuteman group.
“This is about tactics and the actions that have been called …vigilantism and hate-mongering,” she said. “They don’t limit themselves to advocating stricter border security. They go after the immigrants themselves.”
Semler may not have understood the organization’s bigotry, Murguia said, but by joining the Kansas City group, she supported the group’s rhetoric.
“Joining the Minutemen because you have an issue with illegal immigration is like joining a white supremacist group because you have a problem with affirmative action,” Murguia said. “There’s no question that the view within the Hispanic community is that this is an organization that has promoted intimidation, division, hate, and, in some instances, violence.”
Semler, perhaps the area’s best known Minuteman, declined to comment, but she has said that she is not a racist.
In a previous interview, she said she got frustrated writing to her elected representatives and the newspapers to try to get illegal immigration halted, so she joined the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps last December because the group did not seem violent.
When Semler hears other members talk at meetings, she said, “I do not find them offensive. You might find some people that get a little strident, but you find that in any group. They get frustrated wanting to help and wanting action.”
As for Robert Baker, soon heading to the border, his Minuteman buddies are “all patriots, all wonderful people.”