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.

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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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