In mid-2005, hundreds of vigilantes organized themselves along the U.S.-Mexico border. Calling themselves the Minutemen – a designation borrowed from the militiamen of the American Revolution – they sought, sometimes by force, to prevent undocumented migrants from crossing into the United States. Though unsuccessful in their core mission, they received a great deal of attention in the mainstream press and, if only for a moment, shaped the public discussion on immigration.
David Neiwert is an investigative journalist who writes about militias, hate groups, and other organizations on the fringes of the political right. In his latest book, And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (Nation Books, 2013), he focuses his critical gaze on border-watch vigilantes. I recently spoke with Neiwert by phone about the roots and legacy of the Minutemen movement and about US immigration policy today.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Your beat for many years has been far right extremism. Some might say that fringe groups like the Minutemen do not pose a serious threat to any progressive agenda. Why study them at all?
I think a lot of people really underestimate the influence and power and impact of these kinds of groups on the mainstream right. They tend to have a gravitational effect on conservatives, pulling them farther towards the right. A lot of the positions we’re seeing bandied about now as normative—particularly within the Tea Party—were the views of radical militia types back in the Nineteen Nineties.
Rightwing extremism has broader impacts on society. It’s true that only something like eight or nine percent of hate crimes are committed by members of hate groups; the vast majority are committed by people who are otherwise considered mainstream normal kids, usually young men. But something like seventy percent of these crimes are accompanied by verbiage associated with hate groups. In other words, you have people picking up on cultural cues from the extremist right and incorporating them into their worldview, even if they aren’t necessarily adopting the broader ideology.
Anti-immigration organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) hand out these pseudo-academic studies suggesting that immigrants are using up taxpayer money, bringing in disease, and committing crime. While none of this true, it does produce a toxic effect on the conversation about immigration. Instead of focusing on the problem—antiquated laws—we focus on the supposed criminality of people who are themselves victims, victims both of those laws and of the economic forces compelling them to make these death-defying crossings through the desert.
Can you elaborate on that last point?
We have an antiqued system of laws that was predicated on 1920s xenophobic fears about America’s place in the world, when what we need is a modern immigration system built around the global reality of the U.S. being a player in a global economy. We create something like half a million unskilled labor jobs every year, and we issue exactly 5,000 green cards to cover it. That’s the source of the problem right there.
NAFTA put over a million Mexican farmers out of work in the late Nineties. Of course they were going to come streaming over to the U.S., because we had a gazillion jobs up here. One thing that the American economy doesn’t create is unskilled laborers, so we constantly need to bring them in to fill the gap, particularly in agriculture.
By the way, people who say that these guys are taking away American jobs, trust me, have never done a farming job. I have. I used to haul pipe when I was a kid down in Southern Idaho. My crew was replaced two years after I graduated high school by a Mexican crew and my old boss was happier than a pig in the mud. He finally had a crew he could depend on. We were the worst workers in the world, just awful.
There are competing narratives about who the Minutemen were and what they represented. How do most of the erstwhile border-watchers view themselves?
As heroes of a kind. They have a heroic self-construction and regard themselves as engaged in a good versus evil struggle. And, of course, part of seeing yourself as a hero requires you to construct an enemy. So for Nativists the enemy is these brown hordes coming over the border.
And this heroic self-construction then becomes self-justification for an utter lack of empathy and for scapegoating, which are qualities border-watchers share with psychopaths. Indeed, Nativist movements do attract many psychopaths. They’re almost tailored to draw in people like Shawna Forde [former Minuteman leader and convicted murderer], because heroic self-construction furnishes one with an excuse to do anything.
What gave the Minuteman movement traction in the first place?
The media. These cable networks are all running after FOX, trying to grab the senior rightwing demographic. You had Lou Dobbs running these reports on CNN about the problems on the border and hyping it up.
There was a problem on the border of course, but the media narrative focused on the criminality of the people crossing, rather than the screwed up legal system that was forcing them out into the desert. And this is the sort of thing that the extremist right is always good at: exploiting government malfeasance and incompetence.
The media has serious culpability in its utter failure to report in a realistic and honest way what really caused the problems on the border and what the solutions were. They made heroes out of people going out in their lawn chairs and supposedly watching the border. But you know where they stationed all those people; they weren’t going to catch anybody coming over the border. What they were doing was catching reporters. The media actually outnumbered the border watchers.
What influence do Minutemen groups have today?
It’s negligible. The last major border watch operation blew up—finally and completely—when J.T. Ready killed his girlfriend and her family and himself last year. That lethal rampage was pretty much the final nail in the coffin of the vigilante border-watch movement, and I think the general consensus, at least down there in Arizona, is that this whole vigilante border-watch thing was a bad idea.
But their influence in 2005-06 was tremendous. The Minutemen profoundly influenced the direction of the national conversation about immigration, so it was focused on all the wrong things, on all the smears that groups like FAIR were peddling.
Would it be inaccurate to draw comparisons between the Minutemen to earlier hate groups, the Ku Klux Klan for example?
Not at all, there’s a direct line of descent there. The Klan of the 1920s, fundamentally they were Nativists. They advocated the same sort of immigration policies that the Minutemen supported, and not incidentally the sort we see championed today by the Tea Party.
We forget that the Ku Klux Klan was a national organization with chapters in every state. People think of the Klan as this southern organization, as this thing that happened after the Civil War. No, the Klan was one of the most popular national organizations at the time. Being involved was considered patriotic.
So there’s quite a bit of overlap between the Minutemen and the Tea Party?
Oh yea, that’s where the Minutemen have gone, or a significant portion of them anyway. It’s certainly where their leadership has gone. They’re all pinning their hopes on the Tea Party, because that’s a national vehicle that has brought mainstream national acceptance, and it doesn’t have the taint that is now associated with the Minutemen movement.
What would it take to placate Nativist groups like the Minutemen and the Tea Party?
To placate them we would have to erect a huge fortress around the country, mine every harbor, and have Nazi storm troopers at every port to make sure nobody comes in America except white people.
You know, we get a lot of Russians up here in Washington State and I’ve noticed that the Nativists never get upset about the Russian immigrants. Seriously, as near as I can tell, the source of their antipathy is ethnic difference.
So how do you prevent recruitment into these groups? How do you diminish the appeal of Nativist ideology?
One of the important ways of combatting extremist organizations is to shine a light on them. And that’s why I do what I do. It’s important that people understand that their scapegoating rhetoric evades the real problems.
But a lot of it just has to happen naturally. As American citizens interact more and more with Latino immigrants, hostilities will fade. If you’ve had dealings with Latino immigrants, well, you see how hard working and affable so many of them are. That’s what makes these laws such a travesty: we’re making criminals out of decent people who are, in every other respect, law-abiding individuals, the very kind of people you want to become Americans.
Now, this isn’t the case everywhere. There’s a significant amount of Latino gang crime in Yakima County [Washington State], for example, and in California. That’s a more difficult and intractable situation unfortunately.
What in your view might make for sensible immigration policy?
The border will never be secure until you resolve the issues that made it such a mess in the first place. Locking down and building a giant fortress is just unrealistic. We’ve got something like 2,000 miles of border with Mexico. The border with Canada is even longer. You’re going to build a fortress up there too? Because we actually have had terrorists come in from Canada. Well, that sort of approach is just crazy talk, but that’s the degraded state of our national dialogue.
Ultimately, the fundamental thing has to be providing a path to citizenship for these twelve million undocumented immigrants. I believe in citizenship. These people should have all the rights that American citizens have and I don’t believe in amnesty: they should have to pay a fine, but that’s it. Let’s be clear what kind of “criminals” these people are. Only about half of the undocumented here came over the border illegally. The other half overstayed their visas, which is a civil misdemeanor.
Just to play devil’s advocate, say you were to make immigration into the U.S. easier and grant the privileges that come with citizenship at an accelerated pace, could this not incentivize a lot more people to come to the U.S. and overwhelm government capacity to accommodate them, businesses to provide work, etc.?
No, I don’t think so. We need an immigration system that provides a sane flow of immigrants into the country that’s built around filling economic needs. If you can build a system like that, which is what you need in a global economy, then I think you’ll find it won’t be overwhelmed.
Even legal immigrants will tell you that the system of obtaining citizenship currently in place—all the hoops that they have to jump through—is unnecessarily cumbersome. We deliberately make it hard for people to become citizens in this country. And for what reason exactly do we do that? Do we think they have to suffer twenty lashes before they’re good enough to be citizens? I just don’t understand that impulse.
I also think we overestimate the desire of people in other countries to move to the U.S. Of course there will always those who want to move someplace better, but most people want to stay in their own countries. My feeling has always been that we’d be better off trying to help poorer countries improve their living standards than to shut down our borders.