WASHINGTON – Editor's Note: The following is the first article in a two-part series on the Minuteman organizations, their positions and objectives.
Some Minutemen guard the borders, other Minutemen ride in caravans. Some build security fences, others build political forces. They are mostly alike, but still very different.
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and the Minuteman Project evolved from the same origins, but the two groups have veered in very different directions since their leaders, Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist, respectively, first joined forces early last year.
"We built a bona fide civil defense organization assisting Border Patrol," Simcox said of his group, the MCDC.
"To me, it's an issue of sovereignty, maintaining the rule of law and preserving the First Amendment," Gilchrist said, adding that the Minuteman Project is interested in border security and building a fence, but its agenda is much larger.
"The Minuteman Project is moving into those two areas as well, but also the political arena and sending out our tentacles as far as possible," he said.
A History of Time
Both men tell the same story about the beginnings of their collective movement. Simcox, 45, is a former elementary school teacher who moved from Los Angeles to Tombstone, Ariz., where he became publisher of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, a weekly newspaper.
The paper began publishing stories about the gaping hole in border security, and the impact that it was having on the economic and social fabric of the United States. Simcox then founded a weekend border watch group called the Civil Homeland Defense Corps.
Gilchrist, 56, a former Marine wounded in Vietnam, one-time newspaper reporter and certified public accountant, had also been concerned about the borders, having been involved with the California Coalition for Immigration Reform since after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He said he listened to Simcox on a radio talk show in late 2004, liked what he heard and called Simcox to see if they could work together.
"[Simcox] was not the first person to do something like this, but was doing it the longest ... without running in with the law," said Gilchrist. He said he asked Simcox if he would "like to cooperate with me in bringing national awareness of this issue."
"[Gilchrist] came out and wanted to see how our operation worked and wanted us to manage and host a protest. He knew we had the infrastructure already built and set up," said Simcox.
The two met, and they decided that in April 2005, they would set up a month long, 24-hour-a-day border watch in Cochise County, Ariz. Gilchrist said he sent out an e-mail to about 24 people to see if they wanted to join. "Within a week, it had been dumped into about 400,000 e-mail boxes," Gilchrist said.
They ended up with 879 volunteers from all over the country for the April 1 launch. Gilchrist said about 320 other people showed up during the month. The two leaders agree that they created "the nation's largest neighborhood watch."
The not-yet-incorporated Minutemen were made up of grandparents, children, World War II veterans and other former military, pilots, accountants, doctors, teachers, cab drivers, former law enforcement and border patrol, in other words, people of all stripes, say the planners. Some of the people stayed for a weekend; others stayed the entire 30 days.
"It became a phenomenon," Simcox recalled. "At that point, we realized the time was right for America to take a look at this issue."
After a month along the border, the two men were invited to Washington to speak to the House Immigration Reform Caucus headed by Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said MCDC spokeswoman Connie Hair. Based in Virginia, Hair, a professional media consultant, showed up to talk to the men and see what she could do to help.
They had "no official outreach whatsoever," Hair said, recounting how she told the men that they needed a national media plan. "That's the only way we can even get a message to [the administration]. You can't talk to the president except through the media."
Hair said she realized during the talks that Gilchrist and Simcox were looking at different objectives. Simcox wanted to stick to border security, while Gilchrist was discussing "internal enforcement" like targeting employers and politicians whose alleged inaction they blame for the millions of illegals in the United States.
"Jim had no interest in doing [ongoing border patrols]. He was tired, he was burned out, he wanted to go home and decide what to do next," Simcox said.
A few months later, Gilchrist got a second wind and ended up running for Congress in the California district vacated by Republican Chris Cox, who became head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Gilchrist ran as an independent and won 26 percent of the vote.
"If I had $250,000 to $300,000 more and another month, I would've won," he said.
Simcox came and helped out Gilchrist's campaign for a month. Afterward, they agreed to incorporate their groups and share the name Minuteman, borrowed from the decentralized rapid response teams of the pre-U.S. Revolutionary War colonial militias.
Gilchrist thought up the name while sitting in a Starbucks, said Minuteman Project spokesman Tim Bueler.
"He thought to himself, 'What symbolizes what we're doing — the spirit (of the movement), not the issue?" Bueler said.
Both groups now have 501(c)4 pending status. The IRS designation means that the group is tax-exempt but donations are not tax-deductible. They can do some campaigning and lobbying, but not make endorsements.
"501(c)4 is tantamount to a political pandering group," Gilchrist said, laughing that not even his own group is a sacred cow. The Minuteman Project is also setting up a 527 lobbying group and has registered the Minuteman Conservative Political Action Committee.
What They Do and Why
The neighborhood watch continues to grow, said Hair. Both groups have created chapters that are doing local work. MCDC claims 29 chapters in 24 states and 7,000 regular volunteers, numbers that are growing daily. MCDC hapters in the four southern border states and the northern border state of Washington are very active, Hair said. On top of that, she said she gets about 1,000 e-mail inquiries a day. Though she is responsible only for media inquiries, her name is on the group's Web site.
The Minuteman Project claims 200 new chapters at various stages of formation all over the country. One in Minnesota has really taken off, Bueler noted. Roughly 500 to 600 people a day inquire about joining the project, he said.
On Saturday, MCDC is planning to break ground on a fence to be built on private land in Palominas, Ariz., the site of the first month long border outing. The group has raised $380,000 for the project as of Thursday, Hair said, with a $100,000 donation coming from a single donor.
"In Arizona and New Mexico, I think a fence will work fine because all they have got there now is a barbed wire fence," said Michael Vickers, a veterinarian from Brooks County, Texas, and director of the state's MCDC.
Vickers owns three ranches in southern Texas and has a fence built around the one located 69 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border. He said his fence is barely a deterrent, but is better than nothing.
"I have got seven and half miles and 220 volts of electricity. ... I have it damped down to where it don't kill anybody, but it does make them go in their pants," he said, adding that illegals no longer go over the fence, instead they dig under it.
MCDC also now has twice-yearly month long border watches, in which they notify the U.S. Border Patrol when they witness individuals or groups of people trying to jump the border. In October 2005, the "ground pounders" had 772 sightings at their locations in Arizona, Hair said. In April 2006, that number jumped to 1,502. She attributes the spike to both more border watchers and more border jumpers.
Some people have accused both Minuteman groups of vigilantism, a charge that they reject.
"They're just dead wrong. We're not vigilantes and most of the people understand that, especially around this part of the world," Vickers said.
Leah Yoon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Patrol agency, said the Border Patrol has no qualms with the intentions of MCDC, but is concerned that its efforts could do more harm than good.
"Securing the border is a dangerous task meant for highly-trained law enforcement agents — Border Patrol — who are equipped to perform official duties of federal law enforcement officials. Well-intentioned individuals in an unforgiving terrain mixed with a volatile border environment can become counter productive to securing our nation's borders," the agency offered in a written statement.
Yoon pointed out that Border Patrol agents are members of the communities they are protecting.
"There is a relationship between the Border Patrol and border communities all along the southern border. They share the same communities ... go to the same churches, their kids go to the same schools so nobody wants to be adversarial with each other," she said. "That speaks to how aware we are and the sensitivity to working around these communities."
Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, said: "The real work needs to be done by trained law enforcement." She suggested that if the Minuteman groups want to protect the border, "How about they join the Border Patrol, get trained and get paid for it?"
Hair said the MCDC doesn't fault the Border Patrol agents personally for failing to secure the border, it's the fact that not enough of them are at the border to protect it. She said even the agents acknowledge they only catch one in four of the illegals who pass over the southern line. MCDC volunteers say it's more like one in 10. She added that retirements from the Border Patrol are almost equal to the number of new trainees each year.
"The Border Patrol (in Texas) are a non-deterrent, they are only on the highway," Vickers added, noting that they are permitted to cover only so much territory.
Hair said MCDC never engages border crossers unless a would-be immigrant is deserted by a "coyote" or human smuggler, or if one approaches them "literally dying of thirst."
"If they stumble into our headquarters, we don't ask their nationality, usually they're just saying 'agua,'" Hair added.
She said members have come upon people in the desert who have been left there to starve, their money stolen by the coyotes. She said so far, the group has saved more than 200 lives by giving water and calling Border Patrol. She said group members have also come across more than 200 dead bodies.
"It's not physically possible to carry water for the trek," she said, adding that most border crossers end up walking for about four days.
Vickers said he had one man die on his property in Texas. Last September, a deceased nude woman was found 300 yards from his fence line. In a separate incident, his dogs brought home a woman's head. The rest of her body was found 200 yards from his backyard.
"We had over 60 deaths last year within 10 miles of my house, and this year, the count is already up to about 10 or 12," he said.
"These people are ... a lot of them are murdered, but a lot of them can't keep up with the group, or the coyote, and they just leave them to die," he said, adding that he has found an eight-year-old boy abandoned by his group.
Simcox said the 24/7 monthlong operations have cost about $80,000 each. The money, raised through donations and direct mailing, pays for equipment, fuel, porta-potties, tents and the logistics of putting the schedules and locations together. Funds have also been used to purchase radios and towers, repeaters, night vision equipment and thermal imaging cameras.
Members of the MCDC border patrol are rigorously screened, Simcox said. They go through criminal background checks, psychological interviews and on-the-ground training. Members are vetted thoroughly to make sure they don't provoke confrontations and can't be accused of vigilantism, a word Hair said was mistakenly used first by the media to describe their actions.
Vickers said the Texas MCDC doesn't really work with the Minuteman Project because he doesn't know what guidelines other groups follow.
"We don't have any combined functions with them, mainly because we have a strict SOP — standard operating procedure — that we stand by and follow, and these other groups don't do that and we don't want to get involved or tied in with any groups where we don't know who we're running with," Vickers said.
Bueler notes that the Minuteman Project also does background checks and psychological evaluations of volunteers, who are screened for signs of racism or anti-Semitism. Those who join take a Minuteman pledge of non-violence and follow the group's own standard operating procedure.
Gilchrist's group just finished a cross-country caravan of about 20 vehicles, led by Gilchrist in an RV. The group traveled from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., with stops in Phoenix, Crawford, Texas, and Mobile, Ala.
"People came and [swiped their] credit cards to fill up our cars. It was amazing how generous people were around the country," Gilchrist said.
Bolstered by that event, the group held a rally in Los Angeles last weekend with the Crispus Attucks Minuteman Brigade, an all-black chapter of the project. Gilchrist said the reception wasn't as warm.
Counter-demonstrators carried anarchist flags, Communist Party flags and masks and banners with the Palestine Liberation Organization, among others.
"I never saw an outpouring of such rabid hate-mongering," said Gilchrist. "As soon as they're done with us, they're coming after you," he warned.
Bueler said his group supports legal immigration and wants to get the U.S. government to start enforcing the laws. He suggested the federal government could start by telling states "you have to uphold the law or we're going to strip the funding for your states."
The Minuteman Project is also interested in going after employers who hire illegal immigrants, companies Bueler describes as "21st century slave traders."
Difference in Approaches
Gilchrist said about 75 percent of people probably think the two Minuteman groups are one and the same.
Members of each group "are the same types of people." Some people say they are members of both groups, he said.
"We have a different charter. Our focus is internal vigilance," said Bueler. But people who join "don't care if it's Simcox's group or Jim's. They just want to go to the border."
"It's probably going to become critical that we start showing" the differences between the two, Gilchrist said, in part, because it's confusing. People daily call him to get application information about MCDC.
"It's problematic in the fact that people continue to get these two movements confused with each other," Simcox said, adding, "the spirit of cooperation we attempt to nurture. ... It comes down to methodology or philosophy of addressing our government."
Both Simcox and Gilchrist acknowledge that the groups have the same agendas, but different approaches and focuses.
Gilchrist has no problem calling opponents on the issue "anarchists," labeling the drug cartels that help keep the borders open "murdering savages" and billing politicians who support a path to citizenship for illegals "weak-kneed cowards."
Gilchrist said he is interested in attending city council meetings and taking down "delusional mayors." He also has no love for the media. "My patience has run thin," he said. "The bias is incredible."
At the rally in Los Angeles last weekend, Gilchrist said people lining the street were spitting on Minuteman members, "throwing the bird at us, throwing eggs at us." He said without the police department in attendance, he and his group of about 150 Minuteman supporters, who he claims represent every color, creed and race, would have been stifled.
"Anarchists want division. We're showing them they can't have their way. This is the American way," he said. "It is pure Communism, pure Communism of a very vile kind. That accusation applies to many members of Congress and lower on the food chain."
Gilchrist notes that everything his group does is within the boundaries of the law.
"We rely on two things. The First Amendment and the rule of law. We don't believe in civil disobedience, taking the law into our own hands."
George Taplin, head of the Virginian Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, said the MCDC is "non-confrontational."
"We do not confront or discuss anything with people who disagree with what they're doing. Jim Gilchrist is more in the public eye dealing with law enforcement," he said.
"The rhetoric is becoming a little uncomfortable for a lot of us," Simcox said of the Gilchrist approach, though he agreed that the Minuteman Project caravan highlighted what they say is another downside of illegal immigration — the displacement of U.S. workers, particularly blacks, and the depression of wages.
Simcox said a myriad of social issues result from unsecured borders, but blaming the immigrant is the wrong course of action.
"I think targeting the illegals is the wrong way to go about this. The responsibility is on every member of Congress and the president of the United States."
He said anger and frustration at the illegal immigrants is displaced. "We must demand our elected officials uphold the law. ... But ... we don't need to put group against group. It's cheating" everyone out of a just solution.
Simcox added that Latinos and others who rallied in March and on May 1 are also stirring up the racial and ethnic divide, another approach he said is "going about it the wrong way."
In either case, both Simcox and Gilchrist say their missions have no expiration dates.
"The Minuteman Project will be the more effective one because we're really into all the communities and going national," added Gilchrist.
"This movement will continue for years. There's still a mess to clean up," Simcox said.