Homeland security. Drug smuggling. Illegal immigration. Terrorism . These are a few of the issues that come up in current dialogue about US border protection. In one of the many responses to 9/11, a group called the Minutemen was formed. The Minutemen have chapters, or “projects,” in many US states, including non-border states, and have set it as their mission to protect homeland security and defend the United States from terrorist attack and entry. However, despite the fact that no one is rooting for another attack, the Minutemen may have an agenda that goes beyond a simple wish to protect the United States from invasion. The Minutemen just finished a month-long stint where they had 24/7 surveillance along the US/Canada border, including stations right here in Whatcom County. Though they have officially finished this watch, they supply persistent political pressure and militancy about border patrol and immigration issues, and are planning another 24/7 watch, most likely for the month of April.
“They are playing on peoples fears, legitimately, that there could be another terrorist attack, but they falsely try to paint a connection between immigrants and terrorists,” said David Cahn, assistant coordinator of the Social Issues Resource Center. “They say it’s a political statement. They want to point out how porous our borders are, and it’s worked- they’ve gotten a ton of media attention.”
But most of the media attention fails to address a critical piece in the presence of the Minutemen. Secure borders are not a bad thing, but Cahn described a disturbing trend: everywhere that the Minutemen have set up a station, splinter groups that are not officially affiliated with the Minutemen, but share many of their beliefs and ambitions, have also come. Though the Minutemen claim no relation to these groups, many represent belief systems that promote severe racial hatred and prejudice. “[The Minutemen] say they’re not racist, say that they’re not white supremacists, but everywhere they go, white supremacists follow,” said Cahn. Are the Minutemen solely intending to protect our national borders, or are they also actively working with an agenda that encompasses hatred of immigrants and racial minorities?
The presence and power of this group has very deep ramifications for racial stereotyping and scapegoating in the US. “When has there been a time in our country’s history when immigrants have been blamed for social ills that we can look back on in pride?” asked Cahn. He cited the Minutemen as a new way to enforce and drive the racial prejudice and hatred that already exist in this country.
It makes a problem seem a lot more digestible if simply placing the blame on a particular group of people is made to reveal the reason behind it; but never is an answer so simple, and historically, the people that have been pigeonholed as the root of social problems have been immigrants and minorities. With the suspicion-driven action of the Minutemen, popular fears have escalated about a border related terrorist attack, and have led to citing immigrant groups as an alleged threat to homeland security. This popular fear speaks to a distressing, yet clear, truth: America, despite its pledge to be a land of “freedom and justice for all,” is not a country where all people enjoy equal rights and liberties.
There has been progress made towards equality in the United States, but minority groups are still marginalized in many ways. Because America is run with a not-so-well-hidden social hierarchy that places white men at the top of the ladder, and everyone else somewhere below, American freedoms are not, in reality, granted to all US citizens. Though most media will not come out and explicitly state that a racial or ethnic minority is the cause of a social problem, non-white people are frequently hooked to various issues, and made the target of popular commentary about social problems in an unfair and untrue way.
Cahn recounted that one of his colleagues in the SIRC was talking to a Vancouver based activist group, trying to get them to come to Western and speak about Israeli/Palestinian relations. Eventually, the SIRC got an upsetting, but socially clear message: “Despite the fact that some of the people in this group are US citizens,” said Cahn, “they did not want to cross the border from Canada to the US. ‘No people of color want to deal with crossing the border,’ they told us.” The minutemen have changed what it means for a non-white person to cross the US/Canada border, and represent a social push towards inequality and prejudice that is just plain frightening.
It seems obvious that the Minutemen are not stationed on the northern border to stop illegal immigrants from sneaking into the US. Why would Canadians have any reason to do this? Cahn thinks that in the case of the US/Canada border, the Minutemen are primarily making a political statement. “They have real political ambitions,” he said. “A lot of people think [the Minutemen] are stupid, not actually a real threat. I think that underestimates them. They are smarter than that- they have a PR Firm and connections with congressmen.” The founder of the group, Chris Simcox, has talked about starting a political party; James Gilchrist, another key member, has plans to run for congress in California. This is not child’s play; the Minutemen have a political agenda that clearly oversteps the alleged “security” border they work to protect. They have real influence and connections with the current policy makers in this country, and plans that could up their power and influence.
“If we’re interested in social justice, we need to start taking the Minutemen seriously” said Cahn. “Border patrol and immigration issues are really tough, and I know people disagree about them. But [these issues] should be worked out in a democratic process. [The Minutemen] come in with guns and vigilante tactics. When you start scapegoating immigrants, who are so vital to our society , I can’t respect that. It’s really un-American to me. There’s got to be a respectful way to talk about border patrol and immigration issues. [The minutemen] have placed themselves outside of this process.”
“There are so many human rights abuses with border patrol in general,” said Cahn. Unfortunately, the Minutemen represent a deepening of these abuses, and a clear interest in the motivation of large-scale white supremacist political action. “The Minutemen believe that the United States is and always has been a white country, and in their fear of a changing society, they are trying to fight to keep it that way. For those of us who recognize this movement as the thinly-veiled racism that it is, it is our responsibility to fight for border and immigration policies that respect the human and civil rights of all people,” said Cahn.
In recent months, the Minutemen have changed their public image multiple times, each time in ways that make them appear less radical, and make them seem less racially prejudiced. But the reality remains that their political agenda was birthed from a place of racial prejudice, and regardless of the revamped image, that is where the heart of the group remains.
Got questions about the legitimacy of a group like the Minutemen? On Wednesday, November 16, at 7 p.m., in CF 115, the SIRC is hosting an event to shed light and focus on the issues raised by the Minutemen. They will be showing a documentary film titled “Rights on the Line: Vigilantes at the Border,” which delves into the anti-immigrant politics that form the basis of the Minutemen’s action, through interviews with Minutemen and people who live in border communities. Following the film, there will be a panel discussion with local human rights and border and immigration activists from both sides of the US/Canada border. “We need to start proactively looking for ways to include, and stop exploiting, immigrants in our community,” said Cahn. “This is the time for people who disagree with the Minutemen to step up to plate.” Come to this free, informative, and socially important event, and start getting active.