Thursday, May 8, 2014
Guest blogger: Jess Weinger, second-year law student, University of San Francisco
“Minutemen” – a term that generally conjures up images of the Revolutionary War and the fight against imperialist rule over the American colonies, has taken on a new meaning over the past ten years, especially in states along the southern border of the U.S. There, radical anti-immigrant groups have literally taken up arms to prevent people from crossing the border, while creating and perpetuating a culture of xenophobic fear. These groups are essentially citizen militias which patrol the border, engaging in activities that violate human rights and aim to propagate a “Wild West mentality” and anti-immigrant sentiment in their communities.
While other such groups have existed in the past, the Minuteman Project and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps were founded in the early 2000s by private individuals, to fill what they perceived to be a gap in the government’s border enforcement capabilities. The groups exist in several states, but their most extensive and notorious operations have taken place in California and Arizona. Originally, the groups’ stated objectives were to monitor areas of suspected border crossings and report their observations to U.S. Border Patrol agents, and let them decide what to do. However, that quickly devolved into not only “monitoring,” but actually apprehending, sometimes violently or through false imprisonment, people whom they suspected of being undocumented.
These Minuteman groups actively recruited new members with their rhetoric of anti-immigrant fear, claiming that the country was under constant threat of “invasion” and making additional false claims about the negative economic impact of undocumented immigration on U.S. communities. Leaders of these extremist groups play on the communities’ fears of smuggling, human and drug trafficking, and even terrorism, to create images of migrants as being dangerous and violent in an attempt to justify their militant actions along the border. While they have gained some support from a few hardline right-wing organizations, these militias have been closely monitored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and others concerned with human rights and the safety and dignity of migrants.
Political reactions to the Minutemen have been mixed. When the Minutemen organizations were still in their early foundational stages, they were not only praised by then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he even made statements welcoming them into the state. However, in these early days, the groups were harshly criticized by President Bush for their vigilante tactics and extra-legal operations. Members of the U.S. Border Patrol have also expressed concern about the groups. One of the reasons for their concern was exemplified in an incident in Arizona in August, 2013, when a member of the militia pointed a rifle at an undercover Sheriff Deputy. The deputy was patrolling the area when he was stopped by a man, armed and dressed in camouflage, who claimed that he thought the deputy was a drug smuggler. The deputy later stated that it was a “small miracle” than neither man was shot, pointing out why it is problematic for the militia to pass themselves off as legitimate law enforcement officials.
This same concern has been voiced numerous times in reference to the false imprisonment of people along the border. Often, militia members dress themselves in military camouflage, are armed, and carry with them equipment such as binoculars for scouting the terrain. If a man dressed this way appeared to be a law enforcement official, even to a Sheriff Deputy, he would almost certainly appear that way to someone migrating from another country who is likely unfamiliar with the uniforms of U.S. law enforcement agents. This appearance of official authority contributed to the prosecution of several Minutemen for false imprisonment, on the basis that a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave when faced with a group of armed, seemingly uniformed militia members.
While the membership and activities of these groups has declined in recent years, the culture of fear they perpetuated still exists in some communities, and some smaller vigilante groups still patrol along the border. Organizations like the ACLU and SPLC still work to monitor the actions of these groups, gather and release reports on them, and advocate for the inherent human dignity and human rights of each individual, regardless of their immigration status. Efforts by pro-immigrant groups, as well as individual efforts, must continue to be made in order to advance human rights by exposing the truths of immigration policy enforcement and reducing the fear and stigma against migrant people. The abuses committed at the border by groups like the Minutemen must end.