Friday Interview: What the Minuteman Project Taught Its Founder

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Still a staunch critic of illegal immigration, Jim Gilchrist is newly horrified by racist right-wingers and the hucksters who steal from activists

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At the height of the George W. Bush-era immigration debate, Jim Gilchrist founded the Minuteman Project, a group of citizen activists who registered their distaste for illegal immigration by going down to the border in 2004 and 2005. They made international headlines and helped border patrol agents track the movements of people trying to cross into the U.S. without permission. Gilchrist was celebrated by his supporters as a heroic patriot seizing the initiative to protect the rule of law -- and denounced by his critics as a racist, a xenophobe, and a dangerous vigilante. It wasn't long before there were copycat groups operating on the border, intense in-fighting among immigration restrictionists. Then came some time for reflection as the issue faded from the scene.

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

Is the Minuteman Project still active?

Yeah, but we've temporarily stopped sponsoring operations on the border because it's just too dangerous. And several things. A lot of infighting has crippled the movement. Groups are fighting against one another rather than dealing with the issue, which I understand happens in any movement. The kooks spend more time fighting among each other than dealing with what originally launched their cause. Of course, our original goal was to bring national awareness to the issue. And that's what we're continuing to do through radio and TV appearances and speaking engagements.

What inspired you to go from average citizen to controversial political activist leading a grassroots movement?

I retired my CPA practice back in the mid-90s and for about seven or eight years I had nothing to do but watch the news. Then 9-11 came along. That was the catalyst. It got me researching all over the Internet, how could this happen? And I realized that the source was unenforced immigration laws. Had the laws been enforced, had illegal aliens not been pandered to -- when one of those hijackers was stopped driving his cab by a New York City police officer, NYPD was not allowed to query him about his legal status. Come to find out -- this is my understanding, I could be wrong -- my understanding is that this cab driver and 9/11 plotter was here illegally. 

So you decided you'd go down to patrol the border yourself?

Being a former newspaper reporter, I thought, how do I bring attention to an issue? How do I bring respectable attention? I thought, well, you create a media event. And I thought, I'm gonna announce that I'm going to the border and anybody that wants to come with me, I'm going to bring national attention to the illegal immigration crisis that's really profoundly violated southeast Arizona, where 2,500 people a day were coming through a 23-mile stretch of the border.

So I sent out an email to 24 people with "please forward" on it. And I was astounded. I felt like I struck the motherlode of activism or patriotism or something. That email went into around 400,000 in-boxes within a week. When I set it up with 24 people and put please forward, I had no idea.

It grew legs on its own.

Fox News was the first television station to have me on, Hannity and Colmes. And Lou Dobbs. And every station around here in Los Angeles. I've done over 4,000 radio and television interviews in the last 6 years. That's why I created the Minuteman Project, as an awareness mechanism.

You've mentioned that there's been intense infighting among anti-illegal immigration activists, especially the ones going down to the border. Do you think that's because you were interested in media coverage and they actually wanted to round up illegal immigrants?

Yeah, some in other groups wanted to go down with rifles, hunting gear and fixed bayonets, and let's defend America. Your ultra right wingers. As right wing as my adversaries on the left may make me appear, I'm really a moderate kind of guy, wide open for free speech, anti-violence, and let the reasonable mind judge the issue. I'm for the respectable repatriation of the millions of illegal aliens in the country. But I am not for beating them on the street corners or intimidating the heck out of them or for reducing them to a status of, you might say, cold fear.

We can bring our nation back under the rule of law insofar as our immigration policy is concerned, by simply enforcing the law in a respectable manner without getting vile about it.

Others feel differently?

That apparently has been a dividing line between me and others who are on the ultra-right wing of this issue, who essentially are nothing but a bunch of skinheads. And I'm not ashamed to indict them, even if they support me otherwise. In brief, what has happened is that all of this infighting among the various groups has really put the issue, a solution, at a stalemate for at least five years.

What would you have said if I told you about the racist element back when you were launching the Minuteman Project?

I would have said, "Oh, you're just saying that because you don't want immigration laws to be enforced. Somebody has convinced you that I'm just a hate monger and you hate me so you're just making that up." That's essentially what I would've told you. But after seven years and experiencing it for myself, I can honestly say, and you can quote me on this, I have more enemies from the far-right-wing side of my side of the debate, than I have from the ultra-left-wing side. After seven years in this business on the immigration issue, I really feel that, some of the people I've been fighting for are of less character and less integrity than the people I've been fighting against. It's a very serious indictment of my side, but my side should be about the rule of law and a respectable solution to a problem, not discrimination, fascism, or hatred of people.

Were your critics were right to worry that, in bringing people down to the border, there was a risk that some illegal immigrants could've been hurt?

In my group, no. We had -- what's a better word than indoctrination? -- an orientation. We pretty much versed everybody in what our mission was -- not to enforce the law, but to bring national awareness to the issue. And to that end, we were going to aid, abet, and support the United States border patrol. We were going to be their extra eyes and ears. And that's all we were going to do.

I never saw, in all my time at the border, any outright hostility to the illegal aliens, except in one instance, when another group published a video, a DVD, where they portrayed a Minuteman shotgunning to death an illegal alien on the border, and then burying him under rocks in the desert.

It was a parody.

But it went all the way through Mexico, it went in the United States, it went international. It went viral. We immediately condemned them. I got down there on the border and started to lecture them. And they literally threw me off their mountaintop and declared me an enemy of America. At that point I realized it was becoming not about racism, but about outright fascism. You goosestep with me and my ideas or we're going to trash you just like we're going to trash the illegal aliens. And that's when I realized -- that was about 2007 -- that's when I realized that I had opened up a can of worms, somewhat. Part of this issue had opened up a can of worms and brought forth some of the ugliest people you can ever imagine.

How prevalent are those people?

Only a small percent. I would say less than 5 percent. Maybe 19 out of 20 or 98 out of 100 people really believe in a nation governed by the rule of law. They don't care where you came from or what color you are. They just want you to be here as a legal US resident who has respect our laws. From the far right, you get those who were attracted to my movement because they were outright, incurable racists. It's white power fanatics. But they're no different than the black power fanatics or the brown berets. Every race, color and creed seems to have their five percent of incurable fascists that are just looking for a place to hide. Or a place to infiltrate and take over.

What I concluded is that racism is something that presents itself in every color and creed. It's not something that's unique to a Caucasian male in Atlanta, Georgia, wearing a hood and burning crosses at night. I think the reason more white people have been defined or targeted with that label is that there are more white people in the United States than any other ethnic source. And we will never, ever be able to do away with the anti-discrimination laws. There's no way you can convince me that we will ever reach that utopian society where we all look at each other as equals. There is going to be bias and we need to have those  laws to protect us from each other.

Are you following presidential politics? One news item that surprised me is that the Obama Administration has now been responsible for a record-breaking number of deportations.

I have read those same records and I will repeat my commendation of the president. I commend him. If in fact these numbers are true -- let's assume they're true -- then the president is doing the right thing. However, it's still short of doubling the budget for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DHS border patrol so they can efficiently enforce these laws.

Do you have any favorites among the Republican candidates?

Herman Cain. But he has no political background. But he certainly is a tough talker. I don't mean a mean talker. He's got like the Eisenhower kind of attitude, I'm gonna get this done, and it's gonna be done under the rule of law, and it's got to be done. I know some people are going to be upset but I'm going to do it. Kind of that attitude. I think that's a derivative of his business background.

I like Bachmann but she is running dead last.

Cain's rhetoric is in accordance with your beliefs. On the other hand, it seems like the former CEO of a fast food company who did a lot of work for the National Restaurant Association -- generally people like that take a business friendly attitude to immigration.

You know, you're right. Thank you. I did not think of that. The National Restaurant Association has been in the news for three weeks now over these sexual misconduct complaints. And I didn't even think of that. Thank you. Now I'm going to have to consider that. It's going to open my eyes on Cain, looking deeper into his background. Will he pander to the hotel and restaurant industries and the food processing industry and just talk the talk, but not walk the walk in enforcing our immigration laws? He might. He might be beholden to them. They might be major donors to him and his campaign. Major donors, we're talking tens of millions of dollars.

I understand your affinity for the rule of law. But why do you want the law to severely restrict the number of people who are able to come here legally?

What's happening is for every illegal alien who comes here, they essentially take a lower class or lower middle class job for one-half or one-third the wage scale. Without any benefits, without any medical, without retirement, without vacation, what profit minded businessman is not going to hire somebody like that? 

There are 8 billion people in the world's population. Any reasonable man or woman knows that we cannot openly invite the impoverished segment to come here at will because we're going to take care of you. We're going to have a job for you, and if we don't we're going to take care of your babies. We're going to educate you, we're going to medicate you, we're going to give you subsidies. We'll immediately become a Third World country where criminal enterprises will be profitable enterprises and there will be few legitimate enterprises left. So it'll become something like Somalia, or Afghanistan. And just because we're the United States doesn't mean that can't happen.

Do you worry that some of the tough new state level laws, like the one in Arizona, are going to result in Hispanic people who are here legally being harassed by police, and constantly asked for their papers?

My experience of law enforcement is that if you're not in a gang, if you're not causing trouble, if you're not a troublemaker, not hanging with those, you're not going to have any interference with law enforcement. I see that excuse as a bogeyman put up by those who don't want our immigration laws enforced. And in saying that, I want to say, look, these people who disagree with me are not bad people. They're not rotten people. They're not anti-American, or traitors, or anything like that. They just have a different perspective of what our immigration policy should be.

I know people who were immigrants. They're fine Americans. Most of us feel that way. We are insulted by our political leaders who seem to take our constitution and this concept of a nation governed by the rule of law.

In the years you've been doing this, is there anything other than seeing the racist element in the movement that you've changed your mind about?

I have to lighten up on the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I really slammed them. But since then, the ACLU came to my defense, after some student radicals at the University of Nevada, in Reno, tried to revoke my invitation to come and speak there on the immigration issue. I was shocked. The ACLU came to my defense and even had two lawyers in the audience. They came up and greeted me after the presentation, and told me they thought I did a fine job. So I have to commend the ACLU. Even if they don't really agree with what I have to say, they certainly will agree that I have every right to say whatever I want to say.

And the Southern Poverty Law Center. They no longer consider me as a hate group even though some of their propaganda is still out there on the Internet. That was the issue I had with them. So I have to lighten up my criticism of the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

What if someone came to you and said, Mr. Gilchrist, I'm starting a grassroots effort on behalf of a cause that's dear to me. Do you have any advice?

Be extremely careful of volunteers who say they want to help you because they're passionate about your cause. Especially if there is fundraising involved. What I have found is that the same persons will attempt to steal your organization to get access to your money. I'm told that's commonplace in a lot of activist groups. And be wary of some extremists trying to infiltrate the organization to exploit it for their own philosophical advantage, and ultimately destroying it.

You have to be wary, especially as a beginner. Keep everything as close to yourself as possible. People who want to come in under the guise of I'm going to help you, especially if they volunteer because they're passionate in the cause, they're probably lying. In my case, I had to sue three former volunteers that I fired who were trying to steal my organization. I did sue them and I won several lawsuits in superior court and got judgments awarded. That essentially stalled my organization from moving the issue any farther. We got so tied up and disrupted and distracted by the infighting.

Another group... had a rebellion in its ranks due to the fact that the fundraising company it was using was keeping all the money and not using it to bring people to the border. I think they made about $10 million over three or four years. Apparently not a penny of it got to people on the border. There are various reasons for people to get involved in activism. This is not just the immigration issue. It could be the abortion issue, the religious issue, whatever. Number one, the fundraisers want to make money off it, it's not about the issue to them. It's really about making money. 

For the Friday Interview, I asked Gilchrist what inspired him to go from quiet retiree to controversial political activist and candidate -- he ultimately raised almost $1.5 million dollars in a failed bid for an empty congressional seat -- and what his thoughts were on the GOP presidential contest, where treatment of undocumented immigrants has become a flashpoint. What most surprised me was that, although Gilchrist is as staunch a critic of illegal immigration as ever -- he wants to double the size of the border patrol, initiate mass deportations, and cut the number of legal immigrants to 1.25 million per year -- he is now as vociferous and outspoken a critic of something he once thought to be a myth: the virulently racist restrictionist fringe.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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