Released 29 November 2005  By TERRY MCCARTHY - Time
Stalking the Day Laborers
Border-patrolling Minutemen turn inland in their fight against illegal
immigrants. What's the real goal?
By TERRY MCCARTHY
Monday, Nov. 28, 2005
The Minutemen could be heard before they were seen. First came the bullhorns
barking "This is America, not Mexico" and "No work today. The Minutemen have
arrived." Then the group of two dozen men and women, holding U.S. flags and
cameras in their hands, turned the corner and started bearing down on
Hispanic workers waiting for jobs outside the Macehualli day-labor center in
northern Phoenix, Ariz. Sensing trouble, some took refuge behind the gates
of the center, and others melted away down side streets. As the laborers
fled, the protesters tried to take pictures of their faces. "This is our
country!" shouted a Minuteman. "We are under invasion."
Salvador Reza, 54, a project coordinator for the center, called 911, and
several minutes later the police arrived and defused the confrontation. "It
was starting to become dangerous," he says. "They wanted to create violence
and then blame it on the laborers."
Although the demonstrators denied having violent intent, they surely had
plans for any photographs they could take of laborers being hired on the
street. The pictures would have been sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and posted on websites
like wehirealiens.com The hope was that doing so would put the heat on U.S.
employers who hire some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and
on the immigrants themselves, forcing them out of business.
The campaign, Operation Spotlight, is a new--and some fear dangerous--tactic
by the self-named Minutemen, the anti- illegal-immigrant group that in April
began standing watch on the Arizona-Mexico border to intercept people
crossing into the U.S. The group has caught few border jumpers but generated
lots of attention for its cause and is now turning its focus in from the
border, staging Operation Spotlight protests not only in Phoenix but also in
the California cities of Laguna Beach, Lake Forest and San Bernardino as
well as Herndon, Va. There are plans for demonstrations at day-labor centers
in Alabama, New York and Tennessee.
"We will be expanding these protests," says Jim Gilchrist, 56, a retired
accountant who is a founder of the Minutemen. He is running for Congress in
California, waging a single-issue campaign against illegal immigration. "We
are even getting inquiries from countries like France and England."
With President George W. Bush's scheduled visit to the Southwest raising
anew the issue of the porous border and with Congress planning to take up
several bills in December to address the problem, the Minutemen's timing, at
least, is deft. But vigilantism is a risky business, particularly when it
carries an odor of race baiting. The more the tension builds, say the
Minutemen's critics, the greater the risk that violence, avoided in Phoenix,
could break out. "The Minutemen are getting stronger precisely because Bush
and Congress are addressing immigration," says Tamar Jacoby, an immigration
expert at the Manhattan Institute in New York City. The question is, Can
Washington reach a solution before somebody throws a punch--or worse?
The kind of day-worker center that the Minutemen target is an unusual
bureaucratic creation made possible by loopholes in the immigration and tax
codes. Cities with big illegal-immigrant populations have been setting up
such centers lately to lend some organization to what had been an
underground marketplace. At the centers, laborers can drop in and earn from
$7 to $10 an hour doing jobs such as construction and landscaping. The law
does not require the day-labor centers to check the legal status of workers.
It allows employers to hire them without informing federal and state
agencies if the workers perform casual, nonrecurrent jobs like babysitting
or gardening on the employer's property or if they have a special skill like
carpentry and can work without supervision. In those cases, the day-labor
centers can legitimately--if not very plausibly--argue that the workers were
legals. The practice plays cute with the law, to be sure, but since people
get paid and work gets done, just about everyone involved with it has
something to gain from it. What's not to like?
Plenty, insist Gilchrist and his ilk. "Illegal aliens are invading this
country and are killing us," he says. Anyone who hires them is a "morally
cheap slave employer."
That's not the way Michael O'Reilly, mayor of Herndon, sees it. O'Reilly had
been receiving increasing citizen complaints about crowds of up to 100
illegal immigrants congregating on a conspicuous corner in front of a
7-Eleven, where locals in need of day labor knew they could go and pick up a
worker or two. O'Reilly created a day-labor center, which cleared the
sidewalk and created jobs. No sooner did he do that, however, than Herndon
resident George Taplin, a software engineer and Navy veteran who is the
local leader of the Minutemen, began organizing volunteers to videotape
laborers going to the center and even follow them to their work sites.
Taplin then handed over the information to the IRS and state licensing
agencies. "The laborers hide their faces when they see us coming, and the
employers don't stop [to pick them up]," Taplin says. So far he is not aware
of any government agencies acting on the information he has given them, but
he is hopeful that they will.
O'Reilly, who says he has received hate mail and crank calls since setting
up the day-labor center, wonders if the Minutemen even care whether they get
an official response. "Several of the national groups had an interest in
making us a test case when we were trying to solve a local issue," he says.
The real goal for the Minutemen, he argues, is creating nationwide publicity
for their cause.
The group is trying a variety of tactics. Gilchrist is running in a special
election to fill a House seat that became available when Bush appointed
Christopher Cox, who represented Gilchrist's district, to head the
Securities and Exchange Commission. Although Gilchrist decided to enter the
race only three weeks before the October primary, in which 16 other
candidates were running, he won 14.8% of the vote. That earned him a place
in the runoff on Dec. 6 against Republican John Campbell, who got 45.5%.
Mark Petracca, a professor of political science at the University of
California at Irvine, says Gilchrist has made illegal immigration a "fulcrum
issue, around which revolve most of the other issues people care about,"
such as education, taxation and health care.
If so, the Minutemen have a way to go to sell their message--or at least
themselves as its messenger. In a recent CBS News poll, 65% of respondents
said they oppose the group's border patrols. But in the same poll, 75% of
respondents said the U.S. government is not doing enough to keep illegal
immigrants out. Says Jacoby: "The Minutemen are a small group, but they can
be the tail that wags the dog."
How vigorously they try is what concerns immigrants and their supporters.
Tisha Tallman, a regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and
Educational Fund who has been monitoring the Herndon situation, concedes
that U.S. immigration law is "broken and does not correspond with our
current reality." The bills that have been circulating in Congress take
different, sometimes overlapping approaches to the problem. The most
divisive issue among them is whether undocumented immigrants should be
required to return to their home country before applying for a work visa or
whether they could get guest-worker status without leaving the U.S. The
second, more lenient option has been attacked by the Minutemen and other
conservative groups as tantamount to amnesty.
Until Congress decides, the Minutemen are likely to keep showing up at labor
centers to take pictures, and the immigrants will keep coming to look for
jobs. What happens between them will continue to make witnesses queasy, not
just because of the looming risk of violence but also because of a sense
that the system is badly broken. "This is America," says Keenan Strand,
owner of the McDonald's restaurant across the street from the Macehualli
center. "You can't just walk up to someone with brown skin, photograph them
and demand their papers." For now, it appears, you can.