Border Stories

Activists Organized On The Internet Gather In The Arizona Desert To Take The Nation'S Immigration Laws Into Their Own Hands.

Andy Isaacson
22 min read
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The warm, breezy summit of Coronado Peak, in Southeast Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains, offers a fine view of the 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 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 U.S.-Mexico border. 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 a hundred lives annually. And Mexicans, finding no trace of gold in their homeland, flow illegally north seeking a survivable wage.

The intense enforcement effort concentrated on the California and Texas borders has shifted migrant flow into Arizona, and the Tucson sector has born the brunt of that redirected stream. In 2004, approximately 350,000 migrants were caught along the Arizona border, almost half of these apprehensions occurring within Cochise County. This status sits uneasily with locals here. In the wake of streaming migrants and smugglers comes 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.”

A Call to Arms

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

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 the border. The volunteers, calling themselves the Minutemen—after the Massachusetts colony militia who were the first to arrive at a battlefield—were retired military, teachers and construction workers who brought a modest air force, communications equipment, guns, lawn chairs and sunscreen to perform “the job the government won’t do.”

The volunteers who descended on the desert represented a spectrum of backgrounds and views—moderate to extreme—but united by a core sentiment. They’re 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 to the problem 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 free 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, who worked in security most of her life, but whose job as post-commander at Andrews Corporation ended last year when the plant closed and moved to Mexico. A displaced worker and single mother, she held fast food and housekeeping jobs. When she learned about the Minuteman Project, she quit her two jobs, left her 20-year-old son behind, “with resolve, to carry on the family name” if something were to happen to her, 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— for the country—since the Boston Tea Party,” said Stewart, driving a truck with a “Liberal Hunting Permit” sticker on the windshield.

“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 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—like volunteers driving around their neighborhoods observing and reporting suspicious activity—and vigilantism, taking the law into your own hands when the authorities are felt to be falling short. 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.

Tailgating on the Border

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 resemblance. “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 cellphone.” 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 violent, paramilitary force.

Cross-Cultural Exchange

On a hot afternoon, a mile south of the border fence, Sergio Medrano peered through binoculars, combing the Mexican desert for a trace of migrants. “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 what really happens on the border? Why does 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 [to call attention to the problem]?” says Medrano, 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 engaging 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 says to Medrano in Spanish, holding an American flag in each of her hands.

“I think if the U.S. didn’t have any Mexicans, it would have serious problems,” Medrano replies. “Is anybody hungry?” he asks 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?” asks 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.”

As he walked away, a volunteer from California shouted “Viva Mexico!”

Her friend then pointed to the shopping bags stuck in the shrubs on the south side of the fence left by journeying migrants. “I want to tell you something light, a little joke we talk about. See those white plastic bags? I’ve given them a new name. They’re called ‘Mexican Samsonite.’ Isn’t it true? They’re all over the place.”

From Agua Prieta to Douglas

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 the shoe, clothing and variety 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 and ice cream stores line a main street flowing with pedestrians and vehicle traffic.

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 single story buildings with a population 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 and the group’s complication of a multifaceted problem that calls for more peaceful, systemic solutions.

“What we’re simply saying is give workers access to globalization,” said Christian Ramirez, who directs the U.S./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, dismisses any idea that undocumented migrant workers, while boosting domestic economic output, 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 U.S. 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 which provides shelter to those migrants en route to a better life north, or those freshly deported.

Fliers 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, with no money to pay the coyotes and polleros that guide migrants for as much as $2,000 to far-flung destinations such as Atlanta, North Carolina and Tennessee, all of which have seen sharp rises in migrant job seekers in recent years.

“I want to go to New York because I hear the wages are better. But I’ll work wherever, at factory, car wash, pizzeria, whatever pays,” said Rodriguez, whose father died least 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, U.S. 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 Minuteman and increased patrol presence concentrated west of Douglas, more migrants have begun traveling these remote routes.

By 10 p.m., 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 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 frisked and paperwork is signed. They will be brought back to the border gate in Douglas, temporarily detained, and sent back to Mexico.

Home on the Frontlines

Since last October, agents in the Douglas, Ariz., corridor have caught 102,341 migrants attempting to cross illegally into the United States. For every one that’s apprehended, unofficial estimates are that three or four make it through. But even those migrants apprehended will usually make it through, eventually, perhaps on their 12th try.

The vast majority of those apprehended are Mexican, but a rising number are OTMs (Other Than Mexicans). While the U.S. Border Patrol does not release exact OTM figures or provide country breakdowns, citing sensitive intelligence, local residents have found prayer rugs, journals written in Farsi, and Korans littering their property. One rancher north of Douglas tells of an Iraqi asylum-seeker who walked onto his property one night crying, “Call the police!” The man’s father had been killed, his mother and sister were missing, and he had journeyed from Iraq to Turkey, Guatemala and Mexico before reaching this rancher’s front gate.

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 Glenn’s 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 says, 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 says. “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 Glenn’s pasture. The woman cut the umbilical cord with broken glass, tied it off with an unraveled sweater and sought help on Glenn’s porch holding the new American citizen in her arms. Others arrive on Glenn’s 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 says. “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 frontline bear most of the costs. Among those “losers” out of the immigration phenomenon—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.

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.

A Run for the Border

At dusk, back at the Minuteman compound, the jagged peaks of the Huachuca Mountains to the west stand silhouetted against a glowing magenta sky. A white aerostat blimp looms omnisciently above, launched from Ft. Huachuca, the country’s largest military intelligence complex. The blimp, which contains some of the most advanced military intelligence technology known to human civilization, hovers over a rampant drug smuggling route.

“It frustrates me that politicians want to have this ‘war on drugs’ yet don’t want to take the steps to stop the ones coming through our backyard,” said Terry McCormick, 37, an ex-marine from California who enlisted in the Minuteman Project not out of a concern for illegal immigration, but for the drug smuggling that flows under the noses of authorities.

Away from the media spotlight, to the west of where retirees stand watch over the desert, McCormick quietly commandeers a small group of former and current Marines that are “doing the dirty work and the ground pounding.”

McCormick, his wife, and a couple of young Marines load into a jeep in camouflage uniforms and leave the Minuteman compound, heading down a maze of dusty ranch roads toward the border fence. They want to get a closer look at “Cocaine Cabana,” a white building visible across the border which McCormick says acts as a staging ground for smuggling operations.

“These routes go from here to Los Angeles up to Canada” he says. “We figured we’d hit them hard here and see how it affects California. We’re here to do our duty, to do our part. It makes us feel good when we come out here and find out that this border is slammed and shut down, even if it’s just for a 10 mile length. This basically opens up the government’s eyes to say that this can be done, if done and implemented properly—by putting our national guard back on the line and regaining control, and by getting an immigration policy that actually works and enforcing the laws already on our books.”

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. A violent Central American gang, they said, had also 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, Calif., 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 U.S. 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 USBP 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 U.S. side as well. Not coincidentally, the Bush administration deployed 500 more border patrol agents just days before the Minutemen arrived.

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.

But the economic forces at play may be stronger. “If the market needs it, the market will attract it,” said Salvador Reza, who operates a day laborer center in Phoenix and came to the border to watch the Minuteman events unfold. “It’s like a river: You can block a river, but if the river has enough rain, it will go around.”

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

The sight of a hundred migrants trudging single file across private property indeed resembles an “invasion” on the homeland if looked at through the prism of nationalism.

But from high up in the Huachuca Mountains, the desert valley below just looks like land, not like two different national homelands. And long before Coronado marched through here—in fact, since the beginning of human history all across the world—populations have shifted across lands, following resources and seeking self-preservation. In their wake, over time, demographics and cultures have changed.

The Minutemen, in demanding the enforcement of laws, 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?

This article originally appeared at

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