The Hunted

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"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.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman