It is early one Saturday in November, still dark, and Clark Kirby and his volunteers are on their way to spy on a group of Latino men waiting for a chance to paint, saw, dig or demolish.
I'll be going on this stealth mission too. I just don't know where we're going yet.
Kirby, state director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an anti-illegal immigrant group that organizes civilian patrols along the border, had sent me a cryptic e-mail a few days before. "Pursuant to our policy of not giving specific 'when/where' information to non-volunteers, I cannot divulge anything to you, yet," he wrote. "I will call you on your cell phone at 6 a.m. and give you the information with which you will be able to meet me. I cannot, until then, even tell you in which city we will meet. Wear clothing appropriate for the weather conditions. The watch will be held rain or shine, for patriotism knows no weather restrictions."
Sure enough, the phone rings at 6 a.m. sharp. Kirby gives me directions and reminds me not to be late. "We can't violate our S.O.P.," he says, using the military abbreviation for Standard Operating Procedure.
Forty minutes later, I pull into the top-secret rendezvous spot: a Krispy Kreme parking lot in Arlington. Kirby is addressing about a dozen middle-aged and elderly volunteers bundled against the chill. Sixtyish, with light blue eyes and thinning hair, Kirby wears a Minuteman Civil Defense Corps baseball cap, a black bomber jacket and an earpiece.
"We're gonna wait here until the rest of our teams are deployed, then we'll go over there," he tells me. By teams, he means the groups of three to four volunteers who will drive in a fleet of SUVs to a day labor site, where workers in search of informal jobs gather in the morning. Though Minuteman groups initially focused on the border, their ranks have grown in the last year, and their focus has expanded to include stakeouts of day labor centers far from the Rio Grande. Kirby's chapter began its patrols of day labor sites in September in Garland. "We're observing the pickups of laborers to see if any I-9 forms are being filled out," Kirby says, describing how the Minutemen videotape workers and contractors, record the contractors' license plate numbers and send letters warning they may have broken the law by hiring illegal immigrants.
The federal I-9 form is required to document employees' immigration status, and employers who don't fill it out can be fined up to $10,000. But there are murkily defined exceptions for independent contractors and workers performing "casual employment" in private homes, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement rarely fines employers anymore, focusing instead on criminal prosecutions of big-time violators.
But no matter. Kirby notes with pride that he's the only one in his North Texas chapter to have attended every local day labor watch so far. "I cannot miss one," he says. "I have a duty to my country and a duty to my family." His children, 10 and 12, recently tested positive for exposure to tuberculosis, and he's convinced they came in contact with the disease through an illegal immigrant worker in their public school's cafeteria.
The first sliver of sun casts a pinkish glow over the eastern sky, and we climb into Kirby's spotless black Cadillac sedan. A man named Jim walks up to the window. The group's "security detail" for the morning and a retired law enforcement officer, he wears a headset. He drove by the labor site on his way to this "pre-operation briefing."
"There's just six people on the curb there," Jim reports.
"There'll be more," Kirby says with confidence. "It's still early."
Clark Kirby was named after Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where he was born and where his father worked as a B-29 navigator. He's lived in Texas since he was 3, and he likes to say, "I wasn't born here, but I got here as soon as I could." Texas is where he graduated from high school, married and had two children, went into business and retired and spent countless days fishing and hunting. He's watched the state change, and what he sees is alarming enough to propel him out of bed at 5 a.m. to fight what he considers to be a lawless invasion. In his view, the steady flow of immigrants across the border with Mexico drives down wages, endangers national security and ignites crime, amounting to a constant threat against America's legal and cultural order. And judging by his rigid punctuality and immaculately clean Cadillac, order is the governing principle of his life.
"The illegal behavior is everywhere we go, and the police can't be everywhere, Immigration can't be everywhere," he says. "Since the government is so hamstrung and paralyzed in enforcing our laws, the citizens have to pick up the slack."
He pulls into a strip mall and parks in front of Kenner's Kolache Bakery in Arlington. Across the street, in the driveway of the RaceTrac gas station, 15 or so Latino men are gathered on the curb. They shift their weight and kick at the ground, fists jammed into the pockets of Adidas jackets and gray hoodies. A few smoke cigarettes. The sun is a red orb hovering above the horizon now.
"This is one of the most difficult places," Kirby says. "Our volunteers have their binoculars heading straight into the sun, but if we're gonna be here we're gonna have to tough it out."
Next to us, a couple in a Jeep watches through binoculars as a truck pulls up to the RaceTrac. Five workers jog up to the windows, no doubt asking what the job is and how much it pays. In front of Kirby's sedan, a 40ish accountant named Anne and a World War II veteran named Clyde stand on the sidewalk holding a banner that reads, "Doing a job our government won't do." A sign propped on the sidewalk says, "Illegal aliens are criminals, arrest them send them home." Nearby, a video camera rests on a tripod.
A few passing cars give friendly honks and waves, but a Hispanic man in the passenger seat of a white pickup yells, "Racists!"
Across the street, the workers are doing their best to ignore the Minutemen and their signs. Pedro Guerrero, who, like most of the workers, has heard of the group, scowls as he surveys the volunteers from beneath a brown baseball cap.
"If the Minutemen want to do my work, let them come and do it," he tells me in Spanish. The other workers laugh.
Julio Anderena, a gaunt Cuban with a mustache and spectacles, turns to face the Minutemen.
"Maricones!" he yells. Fags. Anderena has a green card, since Cubans who reach U.S. soil are automatically issued visas while most others from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America can get them only if sponsored by relatives or employers, which can entail a 10- to 15-year wait. Most of the men waiting on the curb are Mexican. Anderena points to them.
"These people have the right to be here," he says angrily. "This country has gotten rich off their cheap labor."
At one point, a worker wearing jeans and a Pittsburgh Steelers hat crosses the street and exchanges words with a few of the Minuteman volunteers.
"If all of us leave, no one will be here," the laborer says. He is a bit unsteady on his feet, as if he'd been drinking. "Do you like Mexican food?" he asks. The volunteers nod. This satisfies the man, and he turns and crosses back to the other side of the street. "I know you love enchiladas!" he calls over his shoulder.
One of the Minutemen walks over to Kirby and repeats what the laborer said.
"That just shows their mentality," the volunteer says, indignant. "He's basically saying Mexico has already taken over Texas—whites are already the minority."
Jose Jimenez rushed out of the Garland apartment he shared with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter. It was his wife's birthday, September 16, and he wanted to buy her a bouquet of roses and a cake before work so they'd be ready for a celebratory dinner that evening. Jimenez, a stout man in his 40s whose cherubic face belies his age, had been doing carpentry, painting and demolition work since he and his wife came to Texas from Juarez four years ago. For a while he had a series of regular jobs that would last a month or longer.
But a few weeks earlier, he'd lost the last one. His wife was six months pregnant and diabetic, and she'd called him at work to say she was hemorrhaging again. He'd asked for permission to leave the job site early so he could take her to the hospital, where she was ordered on bed rest. The next day, Jimenez was fired. The contractor said he needed someone reliable.
In Mexico, Jimenez had managed the marketing department of a Juarez newspaper. He'd worn a suit, worked in an office. Now he was going to the Garland Day Labor Center every morning to wait for contractors. Today, after picking up the cake and flowers, he pulled into the center, a beige plank building with green trim, at the intersection of Garland and Saturn roads. Some 80 workers were already in line, and they were talking about a group of white people who were sitting in parked SUVs across the street next to the Fina station, peering at the workers through binoculars.
"It's the Minutemen," one worker told Jimenez. The volunteers weren't toting any signs or banners, so the center coordinator had called the police to find out who they were. After Kirby told him, the responding officer explained to the workers that what the Minutemen were doing was legal, as long as there were no confrontations.
Hearing all this, Jimenez shrugged. He knew about the Minutemen, but he thought they were mostly down near the border. He had other things to worry about, and besides, what could they do, anyway? It's not like they were federal officials. A few minutes later, a contractor pulled into the driveway to pick him up for a carpentry job.
Jimenez may have had office work in Juarez, but he's no stranger to physical labor. When he was a 7-year-old in Tabasco, Mexico, his father, an oil worker, left the family, and Jimenez began working before and after school. He sold gum and shined shoes, mended fences and fetched tortillas so he could make six or seven pesos a day and give one to each of his three sisters and the rest to his mother.
"My toys were tools," he told me in Spanish over dinner one night, his eyes bleary after 12 hours of demolition work, his face covered with stubble. After high school he did a stint at college but dropped out because it was too expensive. In the years that followed, he worked as a census taker, an assistant superintendent for a construction company and a marketing representative.
By the time his wife became pregnant for the first time four years ago, he was making just $600 a month at the Juarez newspaper. They still owed money on their $60,000 home, and the payments were around $400 a month. Without his wife's income from her job as the newspaper's subscriptions manager, they'd never be able to pay their bills. That was when they made the decision that thousands of Mexicans make each year: They'd leave everything they knew and head north. His wife had a sister in Dallas, and she wanted her children to be born in the United States so they'd have better opportunities than their parents. Jimenez was concerned about her health since she'd been diagnosed with diabetes, and he knew she'd get better medical care here than in Mexico. So they used tourist visas to cross the border into El Paso, then drove to Dallas and stayed with relatives until they found their own apartment.
In those first months, he questioned the decision every day. When I asked him what it was like, he paused and looked down. "I'd never felt as alone in all my life," he said.
Jorge Ibarra also left Mexico so he could make more money to support his family—in his case, four children from two marriages. But he was more disturbed than Jimenez by the Minutemen's presence at the Day Labor Center.
"I thought they were going to take us to Immigration," said Ibarra, who, after going broke selling shoes in Mexico City, paid a coyote, or smuggler, $500 to be guided through the desert. "I thought they were only near the border. When I crossed, there were stories in Mexico that the Minutemen were hunting down migrants and shooting them. But I was more desperate to cross than I was afraid."
While the Garland laborers complained about being spied on, Kirby and his team sat in their cars across the street and watched through the windshields, their faces obscured by binoculars and video cameras.
They'd been invited to Garland by residents who complained of rising crime around the center, though Garland police spokesman Joe Harn says crime rates are actually down in the area. To Kirby, it was a good place to begin what he hopes will be a series of labor watches across North Texas, especially since the Garland center is operated with tax dollars, which he and other critics call a misuse of public funds.
In the past year, the surveillance of day labor centers has become a major national focus of the Arizona-based Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and its sister organization, the Minuteman Project, which spurred a media blitz in 2005 by organizing patrols along the Arizona border. New Minuteman chapters have popped up in towns and cities across the country since last spring's immigration reform proposals, including one that would grant citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants.
Kirby says a large number of the 200-plus members of the North Texas chapter, which was formed a little more than a year ago, joined in the wake of immigrant rights marches held in cities across the country, including Dallas. "I wish all the Hispanic activist groups would have another demonstration in Dallas or anywhere," Kirby says. "I'm just waiting for them to have Mexican flags in our streets and see the spike in our membership."
Chapters are no longer limited to border states, and tension has been reported in many cities as Minuteman volunteers stake out informal labor centers and spark the ire of workers and immigrant rights groups. Kirby began pushing last spring for his chapter to join the surveillance efforts at day labor centers, where, according to a national study released in January by the University of California at Los Angeles, 75 percent of the workers are in the country illegally, 59 percent are from Mexico and 38 percent are from Central America.
Greg Thompson, training coordinator for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, spent the summer holding training workshops for new chapters. In August, Thompson told NPR that he'd been photographing people inside hospital emergency rooms, which are required to treat the undocumented even if they're uninsured.
"I go in there and take pictures of them," he told the reporter. "It makes them nervous."
Critics say such surveillance amounts to harassment.
"It's a modern version of the 'KKK Lite' without sheets," says Domingo Garcia, national civil rights chairman of the League of United Latin American Citizens and a former state representative. Watching immigrants through binoculars and deterring hiring "is clearly intended to have a chilling effect and could have a devastating impact on these day laborers who depend on this income to support their families," he adds. "The enforcement of immigration laws and the issues regarding immigration are federal issues—they would be better served by contacting their representatives in Congress and President Bush and urging them to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
Advocates of reform, including Bush, say it should involve not only border enforcement but also systemic changes to streamline paper-processing backlogs and provide a legal way for low-skilled foreign workers to immigrate and gain citizenship.
"What we need to do is create an immigration system that will fill the gaps of the jobs Americans are leaving," says Ben Johnson, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center. "American workers are going after jobs with more education and training, but building houses, cleaning and caring for children still need to be done, so the role of a functional system is to provide legal ways for workers to come here. All the picture-taking and all the border-watching isn't going to change a broken immigration system."
A large number of experts agree that immigrants fill a labor vacuum that's broadening as baby boomers retire and Americans become more highly educated. Immigrants fill one-fourth of construction jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and a high number of those workers are in the country illegally.
"There's a lot of construction work in the area, and there's a limited workforce," says James Schwinkendorf, executive director of the North Texas Contractors Association. "The average age of a construction worker is approaching 50. In some segments of the industry it's pretty tight right now—the number of individuals pursuing those trades, there's simply not enough of them."
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in October that immigration would have to rise to 3.5 million people annually to overcome the effects of an aging population, and while the close-the-border camp rightly points out that immigrant labor hurts low-skilled, American-born workers, the 500-plus economists who sent a letter to President Bush in June calling immigration a net gain for the economy said the depression of wages is relatively small. A pair of Harvard economists found that dropouts suffered most from immigration and had seen their wages fall by 8.2 percent, but many experts also point out that the share of American adults without a high school diploma has plunged from more than 50 percent in the 1960s to just 15 percent today.
By mid-October, Jose Jimenez had seen his income fall by half, from around $1,600 per month to just $800. The Minuteman volunteers had come twice more, once parking at a different lot on Garland Road and holding signs and banners. The Monday after their last visit, the contractor who was supposed to pick Jimenez up didn't come, and he didn't answer his cell phone. The other contractors he'd worked for in the past weren't returning his calls, either, and the number of trucks coming to the labor center had slowed to a trickle.
On October 10, his wife had been admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta implants in the lower uterus near the birth canal, often causing hemorrhaging. He visited her every evening while their 3-year-old stayed with relatives. The electricity in their apartment had been shut off because he couldn't afford to pay the $300 he owed for the past two months.
Most of the other laborers were also getting less work, and as they stood in the cold waiting for jobs, they talked about forming a union, a remarkable step for people whose existence here depends on silence, on eking out a living under the radar screen. It was an idea that had been kicked around for a long time and resurfaced whenever someone was stiffed by a contractor who failed to pay and then disappeared, or promised one hourly fee in the morning and paid another at the end of the day. The year before, a contractor who hired Jimenez to dig ditches in Lancaster switched the hourly pay from $8 to $7 and told him there would be no lunch or water breaks. When Jimenez balked, the man told him to fuck off and left him standing in the field. He hitchhiked back.
La Estrella had reported that the Minutemen were sending letters to contractors, and now that the workers saw the results, their talk translated into action. Jimenez and a half-dozen other laborers called Spanish media outlets, heard about the National Day Laborers Organizing Network—a coalition of day laborer unions across the country—and got in touch with Carlos Quintanilla, a Latino activist frequently quoted in the media.
Some of their peers approved of the idea, but others said it would do nothing but get them in trouble. Even if la migra didn't come for them, they said, it would just be a waste of time because no one would ever listen to them. But Jimenez was determined.
On October 19, Quintanilla arrived at the labor center to help the workers choose an interim leadership council. It was a bright morning, and between 80 and 100 workers gathered around Quintanilla and another man as the two handed out 200 work boots they'd donated. Quintanilla stood on one of the benches and asked who wanted to be interim president. Jimenez had planned to nominate a man named David, but before he could say his name he heard Quintanilla call out, "I nominate Jose Jimenez!" He looked around at the other men. They were nodding. Quintanilla beckoned him up onto the bench. "All in favor raise your hands," Quintanilla said. Hands shot up in the air, and Jimenez found himself standing above the crowd. He was the interim president of the new Garland Day Laborers Union.
In the days that followed, the group met with representatives of advocacy groups and scheduled a meeting with the mayor, and Jimenez was interviewed by several Spanish-language television stations. That's how his wife found out. He hadn't told her because he didn't want to worsen her already-fragile state—plus he knew she wouldn't approve. One night when he walked into her hospital room, she asked why he was on television. "What have you gotten yourself into?" she said. "They're going to throw you in jail, send you back to Mexico."
Asked later why he'd risk deportation to take part in a union, Jimenez grew quiet. "It was my son," he finally said (his wife delivered by cesarean on October 27). "I thought, 'My son's about to be born, and I have nothing to offer him.' Maybe we're poor, but we have dignity, and money can't buy that. I'm tired of people looking at us like the guy who cleans the bathroom, the guy who sweeps. I'm tired of being humiliated." His voice grew stronger, his eyes brighter. "The problem is the system—that they want us to work, but they don't want to give us rights. If they deport me, there will just be more Jose Jimenezes. Maybe this is just a spark, but that's how the biggest fires begin."
Kirby said he'd heard about the newly formed union. "I have no interest in what they do. They can do whatever they want. Their right to work is in their own country—we can't take everybody's poor, everybody's unemployed."
In the past year, he has made numerous trips to the Rio Grande Valley to monitor illegal border crossings. Last April he camped for nine days in his RV, though he declined to divulge the exact "operating area" for security reasons.
"I have seen the invasion with my own eyes," he said over lunch one day, his blue eyes intense. His most exciting moment on the border was the first time he spotted a group of immigrants through his night-vision scope. It was around 1 a.m., and he was standing on a dirt road near a ranch fence that cut through the scrub.
"I saw this guy running kind of hunched down, bent over," he said. "Then I looked more closely and saw 33 people all lined up along the creek bed, hunched down trying to hide." He radioed Minuteman CDC headquarters, who notified the Border Patrol, but by the time the agents arrived the group was gone.
On the same trip, Kirby heard traffic on the radio from a group of volunteers who spotted 30 Asian immigrants. He later found out from Border Patrol agents that they had taken a ship from China to Panama, then made their way through Central America and Mexico.
"They made it to Texas and got caught," Kirby said, "all because the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps saw them. They'd almost made it—if they'd made it past us they'd have made it to the Promised Land."
Kirby takes pains to distinguish his organization from the collection of anti-illegal immigrant groups that have gained a reputation for vigilantism near the border. In order to avoid confrontations, Minuteman CDC has a "no-contact" policy with illegal immigrants. Volunteers are under strict instructions to avoid conversation with the targets of any surveillance efforts. "It's one of our S.O.P.s," he says. "If anyone ever does anything, says something obscene or makes an obscene gesture, we don't respond—we remain above it all."
Given the record of some of the civilian border groups, it's not hard to see why Kirby repeatedly says his organization is "peaceful and non-confrontational." Take Casey Nethercott, a former leader of Ranch Rescue and the Arizona Militia, groups known for donning camouflage to stalk immigrants with assault rifles. Nethercott is serving a five-year prison sentence for felony firearm possession after he was accused in 2003 of pistol-whipping an immigrant at a ranch in Hebbronville, Texas. In a civil suit last year, he lost his Arizona ranch to two illegal Salvadoran immigrants who said he held them against their will and threatened them with a gun.
Another figure that looms large among border vigilante groups is Roger Barnett, recently the subject of a front-page New York Times story about lawsuits filed against him by immigrant rights groups. One accuses him, his wife and his brother of pointing guns at 16 illegal immigrants and threatening them with dogs.
Ironically, it was widely reported that Chris Simcox, Minuteman CDC president, was himself convicted in 2004 of carrying a gun inside a National Park Service monument, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to two years' probation and has since sought to distance himself from the more militant groups. Simcox co-founded the original Minuteman Project with Jim Gilchrist in 2005 and later started the Minuteman CDC as an offshoot organization. Kirby sought to distinguish the two groups, saying that unlike the Minuteman Project, the Minuteman CDC discourages members from taking rifles and shotguns to the border, allowing only concealed weapons with required permits. "We don't want the image of a bunch of gun-toting rednecks," he says.
On a chilly November morning, Jimenez stood grilling steaks and chicken breasts outside the Day Labor Center, which the workers call "la casita," the little house. It was the fifth anniversary of the building's opening, and the newly formed union had organized a morning barbecue. As usual, workers took numbers and stood in line, and the center coordinator called out the hourly rates when contractors drove through. But the atmosphere was more festive than normal. A nearby table was stacked with cans of orange Fanta and decorated with blue and white balloons, and a group of men sat on the sidewalk playing checkers.
As Jimenez flipped the meat amid billowing smoke, he talked of his hopes for the meeting with Garland Mayor Bob Day that afternoon. "I hope we get a positive response, that he takes us into account," he said. "We don't want what happened in Farmers Branch to happen here." He was referring to a series of controversial anti-immigrant measures the town passed last month.
Jimenez and the other union members also planned to meet with representatives of the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborers Organizing Network, which has helped workers across the country set up centers providing legal, educational and health services, as well as set minimum hourly rates for skills such as painting, carpentry and drywall installation. The coalition made national headlines in August when it announced a partnership with the AFL-CIO, a major turnaround for big labor since it has long viewed immigrants as competitors. Facing dwindling membership, the AFL-CIO explained its embrace of immigrants by stressing that when standards are lowered for some workers, they're lowered for all of them.
In a way, Jimenez says, the Minutemen have spurred the workers to do something they should be doing anyway. In addition to organizing laborers across the region to set minimum wages, he wants to establish a center of their own where they can provide community services. He also wants to find shelter for some of the American-born homeless men who come to the center for work.
There's usually a handful of American Anglos and African-Americans at the Garland center, and many of them believe the immigrants get preferential treatment for jobs. "They give out tickets, call numbers, but it doesn't mean shit," a white man in a flannel shirt said, complaining that contractors often bypass him for Latino laborers. "It don't matter if you have a number 5 or a number 55, they're biased."
Of the dozen or so American-born day laborers I talked to, most were convicted felons. Given their criminal records, they have a hard time finding steady jobs, and most declined to give their names. A black 20-something man waiting for a warehouse job at the RaceTrac in Arlington told me he'd recently been released from state prison in California. When a black couple driving a van pulled into the gas station and several of the Mexican workers ran up to the car, he frowned. "Look, here's black folks, they should be looking out for their own, but they take them because they can pay them less," he said. The couple appeared to be taking whoever got there first, but the man shook his head. "I'm not going to be runnin' up to no car," he said sullenly.
To Johnika Edwards, an Anglo plumber from Alabama who helped Jimenez work the grill during the barbecue, such talk is almost as ludicrous as the Minutemen. "I don't see them no different from the KKK," she said. "They discriminate against illegal immigrants, and I don't think it's right. I hate to hate against my own kind, but I don't see them out here, do you? There are three of us [Anglo workers]."
Sitting in his Cadillac across the street from the RaceTrac that November morning, Kirby acknowledged the risks illegal immigrants take to come to the United States and how difficult it is to survive once they're here. Like many Minutemen, he blames greedy businesses eager to exploit a steady stream of cheap labor.
"I feel sorry for those guys over there," he said. "I wish they had jobs—can you imagine standing there in the cold, waiting for someone to give you a job digging ditches with Christmas coming?"
He insists his goal is to target contractors, not workers, even though the obvious result of deterring hiring at labor centers means less work for the guys waiting at the curb. "Take job opportunities away, and they'll go home," he said, arguing that in some small way, his efforts could perhaps prevent people from leaving their native country in the first place. After all, he's been to the border, he's seen the looks of fear and exhaustion, the desperation of immigrants who've trekked for days through the desert with little food or water.
"I know a rancher who found two bodies on his property," he said, gazing straight into the sun toward the few workers still gathered on the curb. "One was a female skeleton. That family never knew what happened to her. Her ankle was broken. She was probably left behind by the group because she couldn't keep up." Returning to the subject at hand, he added, "If there were no reason to come here, there would be no reason for coyotes to take advantage of these poor people."
Kirby glanced at his watch. It was past 9:30 a.m., time to go.
"We've made a call—15 minutes to all units to report," he said. "We're gonna wrap it up. We've done all we can do."
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