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Confrontation at the Arizona border
Vigilantes take aim at immigrants

April 8, 2005 | Page 12

JEFF BALE reports on the campaign of anti-immigrant vigilantes in Arizona.

"MINUTEMEN: DON'T need you; don't want you. Go home!" With this sign in hand, Mike Anderson, a resident of Bisbee, Ariz., greeted volunteers of the Minuteman Project as they descended last weekend on southern Arizona.

The Minutemen Project is the latest effort of anti-immigrant vigilantes to "patrol the border" in search of undocumented immigrants. Organizers promised that some 1,000 people would participate in the month-long operation, but in the end, only half as many showed up.

Nevertheless, their actions shouldn't be taken lightly. White supremacist groups are part of the campaign. The Aryan Nations has a link to the Minuteman Project on its Web site, under the banner of "A Call to All Aryans." The National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, arrived in southern Arizona a few days prior to the official start of the Minuteman Project, and distributed racist, anti-immigrant flyers in Douglas, Ariz.

These anti-immigrant forces came to Arizona armed to the teeth. Minuteman Project organizer James Gilchrist had the nerve to play the victim, claiming that volunteers needed weapons because they have been threatened by a Latino gang. But the vigilantes are taking the opportunity to "play Wyatt Earp," admitted Sean Pearce, a police officer from suburban Phoenix, as he listened at a rally for the vigilantes in Tombstone, Ariz., leaning on his pickup with a gun in the holster on his hip.

According to recent estimates, upwards of 50 percent of undocumented immigrants enter the U.S. along the Arizona-Mexico border. This is the result of the federal government's Operation Gatekeeper, which has forced those crossing to go through Arizona's treacherous Sonoran Desert.

In the absence of any pro-immigrant voices in Arizona--and in a political climate where once crackpot ideas about "fixing" immigration policies are increasingly regurgitated on cable news shows as the mainstream view--it's no surprise that many Arizonans feel there is a "problem" on the border.

But few endorse vigilante violence as the solution. The most concrete evidence of this is that the overwhelming majority of Minutemen are from other states--some from as far away as Arkansas, Tennessee and New York.

Nevertheless, Arizona has become the front line in a renewed--and much more venomous--national anti-immigrant movement. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has become something of a hero to the anti-immigrant movement with his calls to "seal the border." Tancredo promptly hopped a plane to Arizona for the rally in Tombstone. Tancredo toned down the anti-immigrant rhetoric, emphasizing instead that Minutemen volunteers were enforcing laws that the U.S. Border Patrol wouldn't.

Last fall, Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, which denies state services to undocumented immigrants and threatens state employees with fines and jail time if they don't report undocumented workers who request aid. Kathy McGee, founder of Protect Arizona Now, the coalition that spearheaded Prop 200, says that anti-immigrant activists from some dozen states have contacted her to learn how they can pass similar ballot initiatives.

Sadly, the response from liberal and civil rights groups has been timid. The failed campaign to defeat Prop 200 was particularly weak, insisting on offering "different answers to the problem of immigration"--and Latino rights organizations show no sign of shifting tactics, either locally or nationally. The National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino rights group in the U.S., recently held a dinner to honor Alberto Gonzales, George Bush's new attorney general, who defended torture as an acceptable tactic in the U.S. war on Iraq.

The Democrats have been no help, either. Seven officials of the Mexican government, on tour in Arizona to investigate the effects of Prop 200 on Mexican nationals, were scheduled to meet with Phoenix's Democratic Mayor Phil Gordon. But when Gordon found out that Prop 200 was on the agenda, he promptly cancelled the meeting. Democrat Gov. Janet Napolitano, considered a rising star in the Party, also shied away from receiving the Mexican dignitaries.

At least the Mexican officials told the truth. Their report highlighted a "desolate panorama [of] xenophobia and discrimination" in the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the state.

Furthermore, no major mobilizations have been planned to stand up to protest the Minuteman Project. Instead, the ACLU has sent "legal observers" to tail the vigilantes--and individuals have taken it on themselves to go to the border to confront the racists.

Ben Pachano was one of those who got himself to the border to protest the vigilantes. "They're racists, using rhetoric designed to whip up fear," he said. Pachano is right. And it will take a new, pro-immigrant movement that calls these racists what they are if we hope to beat them back.

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