By Erin Sherbert
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"This is not about skinheads. This is not about the KKK," his orientation continues, as if these statements are necessary to weed out trigger-happy fanatics. (I look to see if anyone is disappointed.) "We are here to observe and report."
The Minuteman mission statement is laid out: "The Constitution says protect our borders from the threat of invasion. We have the right to freedom of assembly." The intimidating man points to the gun strapped around his own neck. "If anyone has one of these things -- no monkey business. We're not about this," he sternly states. "No rifles! No shotguns!"
Mustachioed Tex, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, speaks up. "Is that a Minuteman rule or an ACLU rule that you can't return fire if fired upon?"
"We want the operation to be clean," the intimidating man answers.
"If I'm fired upon, isn't that imminent danger?" Tex asks. "I've been fired upon, and it's not a good feeling."
"I can't tell you what to do!" the large man says as the wind flaps his green shirt, exposing his large belly.
A series of relevant Minuteman questions follows.
"How about night vision? What's the visibility?"
"If I have an American flag, should I bring it?"
"Where's the FREQUS?" (At first I think he's referring to freaks and hippie-bashing; actually, he means radio frequencies.)
"Do you know how many contacts they've made?"
After the leader answers, the group's token dumb guy pipes up: "What's better, to have them see us and go around, or shine a light and scare them back to Mexico? What's preferable?"
The answer: Shine a light and let them know you're there.
"What if you shine a light on them, and then they come after you?" the dumb guy asks. He is quickly cut off when he segues into a rambling political diatribe.
"If you don't have a question, can you save it for later?!"
The final rules. "No contact. Anyone has contact, they're gone," our orientation leader stresses, explaining that Minutemen have been kicked out of the project for giving water to illegal aliens who have traveled on foot for days through the hot desert.
"You jeopardize the whole program," the large man insists.
"I'm going to look everyone in the eye and I'm going to ask two questions: Do you agree to stick with the rules and what we're about, which is about the Constitution and securing our borders?" the leader says. It's really only one question, but everyone agrees. Then comes an all-important step: the signing of the liability waiver, which includes a final loyalty test for the Minutemen.
"Please don't steal my pens. Please," the large leader pleads. "People have been walking away with them."
How can they secure borders, after all, if they can't secure pens?
Video camera. ("If you have a spotting, it's to prove you haven't done anything wrong.")
Border Patrol number set to speed dial on cell phones. (Why speed dial? "We've seen ladies get so excited when they spot nine or 10 of those [immigrants].")
At the last, hot, dusty outpost before the border, I stand among concerned citizens in triple-digit heat, next to a burly guy whose T-shirt reads "Be There in a Minute ... Man!" Most in the group are lone men who came out here on their own, from all parts of the country; they felt a call of duty. Fox News is taping, crew members exuding the attitude that they're the popular kids of the media contingent.
"The Border Patrol managed to seize 17 bundles of cocaine! (Or, as they playfully call it, 'not-pot')," says a line supervisor who has a gray beard and a Fidel Castro hat. Clapping ensues.
The night shift -- 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- is the busiest time to patrol, but also the most unpopular, the supervisor notes. "You may get a bit lonely. You might have a few Mexicans to keep you company. The coyotes sit on the hills watching us, where we don't have people," he says, referring to the guides who charge money -- anywhere from $300 to $1,100 on this part of the border -- to lead immigrants from Mexico into the United States. "Since we've come out here, we heard the price has doubled."
There have been problems, though, with the opposition, also known as the ACLU, an acronym that the Minutemen often expand to Anti-Christian Lawyers Union.It's explained that the ACLU is getting desperate; the group has, supposedly, proclaimed on its Web site that it will find "something" wrong with the Minuteman Project. The Minutemen consider the ACLU's opposition to be un-American.
"We got them smoking pot on camera," Fidel says with a sly smile.
We're taken to Papa Bear, another line supervisor; he's wearing tinted shades and slightly resembles the Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now. Papa Bear wears a gun prominently on his belt, and there are radio wires and military insignias on his vest. Strangely, this 64-year-old former member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division drives a Miata.
With clipboard in hand, Papa Bear commences with his briefing. I know it won't happen, but I'd love to hear him say, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."