Vigilantes or Civilian Border Patrol? A Debate on the Minuteman Project

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In Arizona, a group calling itself the Minuteman Project has stationed scores of men and women along the Mexican border in a controversial effort to track down undocumented immigrants. We host a debate with the media liaison for the Minuteman Project and the executive director of the Border Action Network. [includes rush transcript]

In Arizona, a group calling itself the Minuteman Project has stationed scores of men and women along the Mexican border in a controversial effort to track down undocumented immigrants. The Minutmen take their name from a militia group during the American Revolutionary War.

The group’s founder, James Gilchrist, says the project has attracted some 450 volunteers from around the country. On Monday, Gilchirst said they aided in the arrest of 146 undocumented immigrants.

The Minutemen have staked out across a 23-mile stretch of border northeast of Nogales for the month-long action. Many use binoculars and night-vision goggles. Some are armed with guns. Over 20 pilots with aircraft are also surveying the area.

Organizers call their effort a peaceful protest over the government’s failure to secure its borders. Both the Mexican government and the Bush administration have described them the Minutemen as vigilantes. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has sent observers to keep tabs on the Minutemen to ensure they don’t take the law into their own hands.

Today we host a debate.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us on the line from Arizona is the Minuteman Project’s media liaison, Mike McGarry, and Jennifer Allen is with us, the Executive Director of the Border Action Network. Why don’t we begin with Mike McGarry of the Minutemen. Tell us why so many people have gone to the border. What are you doing there?

MIKE McGARRY: Well, first of all, the reason should be obvious. I mean, if you believe Time magazine’s report last October, we have something in the neighborhood of three million people from all over the world breaking into the country. And we have an out-of-control — by any definition could be termed an invasion. So the Minuteman Project is — I mean, this show is called Democracy Now! — this could not be a more democratically inspired project. It is people from all over the country, United States citizens, naturalized citizens and legal immigrants who have assembled here to peaceably assemble to petition the government for a redress of their grievances. The principle grievance here is that the Congress and the President will not adequately enforce the border. Poll after poll shows that 75% to 80% of Americans want this done, and they want it done now. So that’s the essence of this effort.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Allen of Border Action Network, what’s your response?

JENNIFER ALLEN: Well, what we’ve been seeing over the last two years is that Arizona has become the hotbed, sort of the staging ground for a larger anti-immigrant movement that is playing on the fact that immigration routes have been concentrated in Arizona. This is a direct byproduct of U.S. Border Patrol strategy to first hit California and Texas with walls, lights, surveillance equipment, thousands of Border Patrol agents. So, yeah, of course, immigration routes are going to be concentrated and funneled through Arizona. But what we don’t need is civilians taking arms up and out patrolling the desert for immigrants themselves. No additional amount of men with guns is ever going to solve the problems of failing immigration and border policy. What we need to see is comprehensive immigration reform, not vigilantes.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike McGarry, your response?

MIKE McGARRY: Well, I have a lot to say about that. I’ll try keep it concise. Let’s get our terms straight. An immigrant is an invited guest into the American home. The illegal alien is someone who kicked in the back door and commits multiple misdemeanors and felonies to entrench himself here. Any suggestion that this is anti-immigrant is pejorative. We have immigrants, legal immigrants here as part of this project. Unless you think they are calling themselves anti-immigrant, that would be a bit of a contradiction. This is the kind of stuff we run into all the time. Our opposition tries to characterize this movement — it’s a grassroots movement — as being anti-immigrant. That’s just a pejorative. They know what they’re doing. They play this game all the time, and we reject that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Allen?

JENNIFER ALLEN: Well, we need to be clear about two things, about who the players are. The reality is that immigrants that are coming across the border are coming here to either join their families, or they’re coming here to fill some jobs, or to just improve their quality of life. The only folks that we’re seeing committing criminal acts are the vigilantes that are out patrolling the border. We have four civil lawsuits right now that are pending other vigilante activities. The Minuteman Project is not the first time that we’ve had people out patrolling, looking for immigrants, detaining them at gunpoint. And what we have seen, too, is that what happens is the folks pull out their gun. Folks are getting shot at. Folks have been kicked. Folks have been dragged around. Folks have been yelled at. Folks have been bitten by dogs, thrown on the front of ATVs and dragged through the desert scrub. You want to talk about criminal activities, that’s first and foremost.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Allen, you say that this is a logical extension of the policy around immigration, yet the Bush administration has condemned the Minutemen.

JENNIFER ALLEN: Interestingly, yeah. What we have seen, too, is that as immigration routes and as immigration enforcement and border strategies have built up in California and Texas, the routes have been concentrated. Everybody comes to the area then where there is less enforcement. And so people have been concentrating in the Arizona region. Yeah, we’re really happy that the Bush Administration has come out in labeling this project as vigilantism and condemned it. It’s the first time the White House administration and President Fox as well out of Mexico have directly condemned this type of activity.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike McGarry, your response to the Bush administration saying you’re vigilantes? What do you think of President Bush?

MIKE McGARRY: Yeah, well that’s — yeah, this is all part of the attempt to castigate this. The Bush immigration policies are failures and just nonsense. He apparently would rather satisfy the whim of the President of Mexico who apparently encouraged him to use this pejorative. We reject that. I mean, we are being vigil, of course. But anything but vigilante is just nonsense. I just caution your listeners to listen how the language is manipulative. I mean, it’s treated as a foregone conclusion that this is anti-immigrant, that this is vigilantes. They just kind of use those terms matter-of-factly. And what I just heard Jennifer say, talk about filing lawsuits, we expect all of this kind of stuff. This is the kind of stuff the open borders lobby, this kind of hyperbole that so characterizes everything they do. It is all a bunch of dopey nonsense.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike McGarry, let me ask you — again, Mike McGarry, media liaison for the Minuteman Project, Jennifer Allen with us of Border Action Network. But Border Patrol officials are saying that the Minutemen have been peaceful, but have still been disrupting U.S. Border Patrol operations by unwittingly tripping sensors that alert agents to possible intruders. Agents have to respond to the false alarms which pulls them off their normal patrols. So that you’re defeating your own purpose.

MIKE McGARRY: Sure. Let me just make two observations about that. Number one is that, you know, this is like two college roommates moving into their room the first couple of days. Instead of having to decide where each other’s stuff is in the refrigerator, and you’ve just gotta respect that. But the second thing is if you had been out here, would you have seen — because this is an international media event. Press from all over this country and all over the world is here in droves. As a press member yourself, you’ve probably experienced how those are real feeding frenzies. And there are a lot of these press people sort of willy-nilly tramping around the desert and trying to get their stories and their angles and their scoops. We attribute any — at least most of this kind of stuff to them. But it’s a realistic concern. It’s something that has to be adjusted to. Everybody’s mindful of that. And this is about cooperating, not impeding, so just a day or two of getting used to each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Allen, what do you think is the solution?

JENNIFER ALLEN: Interestingly, what the Minuteman Project is asking for they’ve already got. They have been calling for more militarization of the border when, in fact, the manpower, the number of agents on the U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol has tripled within the last 10 years. The Bush administration just put out a proposal to increase the technology budget by $2.5 billion over the next five years. In 2004 with the passage of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations it was just approved to double the size of the U.S. Border Patrol. We already have massive border militarization. So in fact, no amount of additional enforcement or no amount of men with guns, whether they’re vigilantes, Border Patrol or U.S. military troops, is ever going to solve the complex problems that have compelled people to make the difficult decision to leave their families, to leave their hometowns behind them. What in fact we really need to see is comprehensive immigration reform, policies that acknowledge and recognize the economic and political realities of this country and of immigration and of immigrants themselves. We also need to see on a more smaller and intermediate sense is that the local officials from the Cochise County Attorney, the county in southern Arizona where most of these vigilante activities are happening, to the Arizona Attorney General and the Arizona U.S. Attorney need to step up, do their job and prosecute these vigilante groups for their criminal activities, which is the everyday activities of rounding people up, detaining them illegally, impersonating law enforcement, organizing militias. These are all crimes at both the state and federal level. The fact that these officials have done nothing in spite of massive community mobilizations over the last two years has created this climate of impunity, where Mr. Gilchrist and other people from around the country think that they can just come into southern Arizona and do what they want.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike McGarry, that charge?

MIKE McGARRY: Wow. There’s a lot there. Jennifer — I’m sorry, whatever her name is — just made up a whole bunch of stuff about detaining. This is a civilian neighborhood watch gone national. Excuse me. There is no detaining of anybody. It’s absurd, and report and stay the heck out of the way, so this image that she’s trying to manufacture here is a chimera. The second thing is that — let’s see, where are my notes? — is that, oh, she talked about technology. Technology does not apprehend people. Any supposed technology to come to the border is not going to be the same as manpower. The third thing, there is no militarization of the border. By this definition, militarization means the military. The military is not there. As far as the 9/11 Commission Report, they strongly recommended and the Congress approved for 2,000 additional border agents that are needed according to every grassroots border agent actually out in the field says that they need. And what the Bush Commission did — I mean, excuse me, the Bush Administration did, of those 2,000 that the Commission recommended — 2,000 per year for five years be trained and placed along the border — in President Bush’s budget he slashed for this year 1,790 agents out of that. That left 210. That isn’t even covering the attrition rate. That is to say, people who retire, transfer out or just get fed up.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike McGarry, there’s an interesting piece in the front page of The New York Times today entitled, “Illegal Immigrants are Bolstering Social Security With Billions.” It says, “As the debate over Social Security heats up, the estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the U.S. are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year. While it’s been evident for years, illegal immigrants pay a variety of taxes, the extent of their contributions to Social Security is striking,” the newspaper says. It says, “The money added up to about 10% of last year’s surplus, the difference between what the system currently receives in payroll taxes and what it doles out in pension benefits. Moreover, the money paid by illegal workers and their employers is factored into all the Social Security Administration’s projections that illegal immigrants in this country are providing a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.”

MIKE McGARRY: Okay, well, The New York Times misreported that. This is, by the way, a little bit beyond the scope of the Minuteman Project, but I do know a little bit about it. Let me just give you two facts. First of all, research shows that about one-half or 50% of illegal aliens pay taxes. And what that research also shows is that most of the non-assignable contributions into the Social Security Fund are not — are from other sources, other than illegal immigrants. In fact, the research suggests that about a quarter of that difficult to define — those difficult to define contributions comes from illegal aliens. So The New York Timestook the position that isn’t consistent with the research as I know the research.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Allen, we end with you of Border Action Network.

JENNIFER ALLEN: Clearly, as The New York Times article shows, as have many other reports and studies, that immigrants are the economic backbone of this country. Even just looking locally in Arizona, the Yuma, Arizona Growers Association just put out about three weeks ago a call to the Border Patrol to back off on their checkpoints because they weren’t able to get the lettuce pickers that they needed, and the crops were going to suffer. Yuma provides the majority of the lettuce for the country. Similarly in the business section, a study was done looking at the increasing retirement rates of the baby boomer population, and the predictions are that there’s going to be a massive glut within the work force and that many employers right now are looking at ways to accommodate their hiring practices and their general practices to accommodate an aging and encourage an aging work force because, in fact, there is a big gap. Those are realities of this country. What is not a reality and what is not matching is our border enforcement strategies, which includes armed civilians taking upon themselves to go down and hunt down immigrants.

MIKE McGARRY: Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. None of that is reality. You’re making up a lot of stuff, lady. If we ever have a chance to debate this where we actually have some time, I would like to do that, because you’ve got to stop this.

JENNIFER ALLEN: I can tell you what we have seen. You know, the organization is a community organization based out of Douglas and Nogales, communities [inaudible] on the ground. So what we have seen for years. You know, what you all are doing is absolutely nothing new.

MIKE McGARRY: You’re right. You know something?

JENNIFER ALLEN: And what we have seen time and time again is folks that are out rounding people up at gunpoint, threatening, intimidating and harassing the immigrants.

MIKE McGARRY: There is no rounding up people at gunpoint. You’re making that up. You’re right, this is nothing new. Because my mother and father who were born and raised in Bisbee, Arizona, told me as a child that civilian patrols along the border during World War II is a long and staid tradition. We didn’t have an invasion then. We have one now. This is the most appropriate thing we can do. And it’s a demonstration to the United States government, the President, the Congress to get off their butts, stop advocating and do their job that they are required to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike McGarry and Jennifer Allen, I want to thank you for being with us. Mike McGarry, media liaison for Minuteman Project, Jennifer Allen, executive director of Border Action Network.

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