Monday, Aug. 18, 2008 | 11:17 p.m.
Sun Expanded Coverage
Beyond the Sun
The Minutemen want you to know they are humanitarians, and they can be quite persuasive.
They say they are not vigilantes or racists. They understand the impulse to come to America, to feed a family. They might do it themselves if they were Mexican.
Dr. Eugene Cafarelli wants you to know. He is Arizona state director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which has 1,500 state members and 10,000 nationwide, according to Cafarelli.
For several years, the Minutemen have gathered at spots like this one, on a private ranch near the border, to “observe, record and report” illegal immigrants, or as the Minutemen call them, illegal aliens, or IA for short.
The Minutemen are, in a sense, a not-surprising reaction to this peculiar American dilemma. A rich, developed nation shares a long border with a developing nation that has wide income disparities, systemic political corruption and a robust drug smuggling route north.
Toss in a certain xenophobic strain from American history as well as its long tradition of civic-minded volunteerism, and this is the result: masses of people crossing the border, and a group of enraged patriots trying to stop them.
It is a cultural battle for the future of the Southwest, which until recently was one of the whitest regions of the country. The political ramifications, long-term, aren’t entirely clear. Hispanics increasingly vote Democratic, and more so since Republicans have aligned themselves with immigration hard-liners.
One day last week, Cafarelli and about 15 other Minutemen gathered for a “muster” — an old word for gathering troops and assessing their station.
The border fence can be cut or dug under. Once illegal immigrants get across, they are picked up by cars and trucks on the American side. But they must avoid the frequent Border Control checkpoints, so they get dumped near ranches such as this one, where they navigate the desert lands to get past the checkpoints, at which point they are picked up again.
The Minutemen use a night-vision tool and thermal imaging devices, which detect heat, to search for IAs. If they spot some, they call in the Border Patrol, with whom they have friendly relations.
“An important function we serve is to offer humanitarian help when we can,” Cafarelli says. About a year and a half ago, Cafarelli came upon a young boy, a woman and two men.
“Where’s your water?” he asked. They had been drinking from cattle tanks, which have bacteria that can lead quickly to diarrhea, which can lead to death in the desert.
Cafarelli says of that day, “I think we saved a life.”
Cafarelli may seem like an odd state director. None of his grandparents was born in the United States. He hails from Princeton, N.J., and has a bearing like the late George Plimpton’s, with the same head of white hair.
He explains his empathy for IAs. “There’s a difference between how we may view the process and the individual.”
Cafarelli moved from New Jersey into a house south of Tucson in 2001. There, like many Americans stirred by illegal immigration, he was motivated by personal experience. Houses of his nearby neighbors were broken into, and food and water disappeared. He joined the Minuteman corps in 2003.
Despite the military trappings, the Minutemen have no rank or real hierarchy. As for the guns most of the men carry, Cafarelli notes it is hardly alarming or surprising that a group of men in the Southwest wilderness would have guns.
His first night, he was scared. “You don’t know how you’re going to react,” he says. “About the third time, the night is yours. The night becomes your friend.”
Despite this kind of paint ball bravado in the field, the group’s focus is mostly political. Most members don’t keep watch in the desert. They write letters to the editor and to their congressmen and go to demonstrations.
“We share basic values, respect for the law,” he says. “And a belief that citizens can take action.”
The Minutemen can be quite reasonable. “If it was easier for people to come here legally, that would be good,” James Bulman says. “We all (immigrated) once upon a time.
“We’re not smart enough to know what the impacts of all this are going to be anyway,” Bulman says. “Illegal immigration might be perfectly all right 50 years from now. But for now it doesn’t seem like a good idea. It’s a strain on our educational resources. Strain on medical resources. Strain on police resources.”
Cafarelli laments the morality of a system that encourages the impoverished people of Mexico and other Latin American countries to come north, and risk extreme sickness and death at the hands of nature and the (often literally) rapacious instincts of the “coyotes” who bring them across.
With the sun setting, the Minutemen break up into pairs. They drive their vehicles, mostly trucks, to their posts. They park. They have camping chairs and coolers filled with food and water. Each post has a radio. They wait.
Dale Laudenslager says many Minutemen were reared in a tradition of quiet patience. “Most of us grew up hunting, and deer hunting when we were kids, so you sort of learn how to sit and be quiet. And you learn to observe and listen.”
Mike Vyne says this work reminded him of Vietnam, where he was wounded in the Mekong Delta, he says, before spending a year at Walter Reed.
“It’s almost a classic invasion of one country from another,” Vyne says of the Mexico border crossings.
None of the invaders, as Vyne calls them, has a uniform, few of them are armed, they aren’t organized, and their political goals, if they have any, are unknown. But the way Vyne sees it, they might have some shadowy, secretive agenda driven by Mexico City or drug cartels. Either that or their presence is like a bacterium, infecting the body politic.
The conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly has made this argument, citing statements by Mexico President Vicente Fox that Mexico extends beyond its borders and the use of the word “reconquista” to describe the movement north.
Vyne continues: “Because most of them are Catholics, they overpopulate their country, so they have extremely poor living conditions. So people want to get out of there and they want something better. So they move into their neighbor’s country. And eventually they overrun the neighbor’s country.”
It’s night now. Waiting in silence and darkness but for a bright moon.
The Minutemen peer through a night-vision device, passing it around, allowing their eyes to adjust to the darkness.
About two hours after sunset, a call comes in on the radio: A group of IAs is walking north along the railroad tracks. Vyne and Tim Trosper spot them first through heat-seaking devices.
They radio north one post to tell them what is headed their way. The next post waits until the IAs are near and shine powerful flashlights. The IAs scatter and hide in the tall grass.
It’s futile. The Border Patrol arrives and takes 12 men into custody.
About 30 minutes later, another call on the radio: Another IA. He had been hiding in the grass and thought it was safe to come out. He was wrong. The Minutemen are waiting for him with their bright lights. They cannot detain anyone. They stand near him and offer him water. The Minutemen speculate he is a “coyote” because he hid first and away from the rest, like someone practiced and seasoned.
The Border Patrol puts the man in a truck and searches his bag. They find what appear to be prescription drugs in a clear plastic bag, plastic cutlery and a cigar.