Jim Gilchrist truly believes he's an American hero. Gilchrist—a co-founder of the Minutemen Project, a now-defunct civilian border militia—insists it was his group's actions that led to the conservative fervor over cracking down on illegal immigration. He traces the current Republican discourse on the issue—Donald Trump's infamous wall, the renewed interest in revoking birthright citizenship, and the calls for mass deportations back to his movement, which mobilized hundreds of armed vigilantes to fend off migrants at the US-Mexico border back in the spring of 2005.
"We had one thousand two hundred people show up that April, manning thirty-six makeshift outposts on twenty-three miles of the border in Arizona. They set up tents, homemade lean-tos, sleeping bags, and RVs. Half of them were armed, with pistols and revolvers and some rifles," Gilchrist said, reminiscing on his group's 30-day border campaign that drew national media coverage. "It attracted many more people than I thought—it grew legs of its own."
Gilchrist, who is now 67, drove between the outposts in his green army vest, blue jeans, and hiking boots, carrying PowerBars, water, and his Colt 45 handgun.
Between 2004 and 2009, Gilchrist's Minutemen were a powerful force in the anti-immigration movement, drawing in thousands of members who believed the government was doing too little to stop border crossings, and subsequently felt they should take enforcement into their own hands. The coalition against the Establishment—composed largely of veterans and retirees—tried to cover the border with "outposts," sometimes as barebones as lawn chairs, to block immigrants from coming into the US from Mexico. The movement fell apart after a few prominent members were arrested on murder and sex abuse charges, but their mark on conservative ideology had already been made, resulting in the passage of stringent anti-immigration legislation in several states.
Now, years after the movement's disintegration, the Minutemen are making headlines again—this time, in the 2016 presidential race. During a primary debate in Miami this month, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton accused her opponent, Bernie Sanders, of supporting the group by voting for a 2006 amendment that prevented the US Department of Homeland Security from "providing a foreign government with information relating to the activities of an organized volunteer civilian action group," including the Minutemen.
According to Clinton, the vote amounted to tacit support for the vigilantes, who at the time were circulating a conspiracy theory that American border officials were tipping off the Mexican government to their "patrols." Unsurprisingly, Sanders has vehemently insisted that he "does not support vigilantes." But the attack has nonetheless become a central part of the Clinton campaign's argument against Sanders's immigration record, and it has been repeated often by the frontrunner's surrogates in the lead up to Arizona's presidential nominating contest Tuesday.
While Democrats have used the Minutemen as a symbol for anti-immigration extremism, the Republican presidential candidates seem to have embraced the movement's message, if not the vigilantes themselves. In fact, Gilchrist thinks his group deserves credit for informing the GOP field's positions on the topic of immigration.
"My mission has been accomplished, and that was to force national awareness of the immigration issue," Gilchrist told me. "Now every political candidate has a platform on immigration. The Minutemen even inspired the Tea Party."
But while the legacy of the Minutemen may be imprinted on the Republican Party platform, the group itself has largely disappeared. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said this dissipation was largely because the movement's message was co-opted by the Conservative Establishment, which began pushing increasingly extreme immigration measures toward the end of the last decade.
"We saw even more radical legislation coming out of Alabama and Arizona than what was proposed by the Minutemen," Potok said. "When more extreme legislatures around the country began to take up this cause, there was not really a purpose for the Minutemen."
The grassroots movement also splintered into rival factions, according to Harel Shapira, who embedded with the border vigilantes for years while writing his book Waiting for San Jose: The Minutemen's Pursuit of America. At its peak, Shapira said, the Minutemen Project had 12,000 official members. But when Gilchrist and his fellow co-founder Chris Simcox ran for political office, many of those members felt alienated from the movement. (Gilchrist ran for a congressional seat in Orange County, California, in 2005, winning 25 percent of the vote, and Simcox ran for US Senate in Arizona in 2010. Neither bid was successful.)
"Even though they didn't win, politicians started referencing members in speeches, so the Minutemen entered the public discourse and started getting much more money," Shapira said. "But for rank-and-file members, this was precisely what they didn't want. Part of the appeal [of the Minutemen] was that it was anti-government."
The group was further splintered when two prominent members, including Simcox, were charged with horrific crimes: In 2009, Minutemen member Shawna Forde was charged with killing a girl and her father in an Arizona home invasion; Simcox was arrested in 2013 for sexually abusing three young girls, including his daughter (his trial starts next month).
But while the Minutemen Project may have fallen apart, many of its former members have found other vigilante pursuits, founding new civilian militias. Some, like Arizona Border Recon, continue to focus on patrolling the border for illegal crossings. Founded in 2011, Arizona Border Recon is mostly made up of veterans and ex-law enforcement, and has the stated mission of protecting America's "back door." Others groups operate like bounty hunters, traveling around Arizona to serve people with arrest warrants, or in an attempt to protect the border from terrorist threats.
"People who were original members of the Minutemen in Arizona are still down on the border patrolling," Shapira said. "The discourse is the same in that they're defending America from invasion, but now the focus is ISIS."
Former Minuteman member Pete Lanteri, who became well-known for organizing the Long Island, New York, chapter of the group, now runs his own "school," a sort of training course in vigilante justice that prepares civilians for combat and other emergencies. Lanteri told me his group has "firearms, medical, and communications training, in cases of active shooters."
Most recently, Lanteri ran the conspiracy-infused civilian operation known as Counter Jade Helm, which surveyed the US military exercise Jade Helm in the Southern US last year. These days, he makes trips to patrol the border as often as he can. "A lot of us are still doing border operations, just under other groups," he told me.
Despite this continued enthusiasm for monitoring the border, Gilchrist has struggled to organize further actions. He told me he was forced to cancel his latest planned mission, something he called "Operation Normandy," after failing to rally sufficient troops.
"People didn't want to show up to fight when there was so much infighting about who is better to conduct this kind of operation," Gilchrist said of his fragmented movement. "We had about two thousand two hundred responses, but realistically, only ten percent of responders show up to fight—so around two hundred, which would be just a drop in the bucket."
Though many former members have long since turned on one another, Howie Morgan, a former Minuteman who ran Gilchrist's congressional campaign, maintains that the group has already done fulfilled its original mission, forcing American politicians to steer more resources into beefing up law enforcement and security at the southern border.
"We wanted them to hire more patrols, to build a bigger wall and let's face it—immigration has been the number one, two, or three issue in Republican politics in the last decade," Morgan said. "Why is that so? Because Jim started this and said, 'We're not taking this anymore.'
"What is the thing that took Donald Trump to the front of the race?" Morgan demanded. "He said we still haven't fixed the border. To say we're not relevant is ridiculous."
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