California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has approved an application by the in-your-face San Diego Minutemen (SDMM) group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a “nativist extremist” group, to “adopt” a stretch of highway for cleanup on I-5. That might not be so extraordinary — if it weren’t for the fact that the section the group was awarded responsibility for includes the Border Patrol’s San Clemente checkpoint, an area where undocumented immigrants have been killed crossing the freeway to avoid being detained. El Grupo, a coalition of several civil rights organizations including the North County chapter of the NAACP and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, is protesting the decision.
Jeff Schwilk (right), the SDMM’s leader, was thrilled about the stretch of highway his group was awarded. In a gloating message to his members, he put it like this: “How great is that!”
The SDMM have a track record of aggressive anti-immigrant activity and Schwilk likes to refer to undocumented Latinos as “free-loaders,” “wetbacks” and “Julios.” Members of the SDMM also have had ties to white supremacists, including the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance. And some SDMM members have had run-ins with the law. In 2007, the San Diego Police Department searched the homes of Schwilk, his ex-girlfriend and former group member Christie Czajkowski, and an associate in connection with unsolved vandalism of local migrant camps. No charges have been brought, though video of what seems to be one such incident (and in which Schwilk participated) has surfaced.
The SDMM’s section of freeway, which is eight lanes wide, has seen some 150 deaths since the 1980s of immigrants trying to avoid the checkpoint by running through traffic. It also features several signs warning of the danger of crossing the road on foot, famously depicting a silhouette of a mother, father and little girl running against a yellow background. At SDMM rallies, members display typically vulgar parodies of the warning signs in which a grizzly bear, California’s official state animal, chases down the family.
El Grupo sent a letter to Caltrans in January pointing out that the department’s guidelines state that “entities that advocate violence, violation of the law, or discrimination based upon race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical handicap, medical condition, marital status, age, sex, or sexual orientation may not participate in the Adopt-A-Highway Program.” Caltrans officials told The San Diego Union Tribune that the section of freeway around the checkpoint was not purposely awarded to SDMM, saying it was the only one available at the time and that the department does not “promote the agenda” of any group. El Grupo is asking that the SDMM be given a different stretch of highway.
SDMM is not the first noxious group to adopt highways for cleanup as part of an apparent bid to clean up its public image. In fact, the Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan pioneered the idea in the 1990s, winning, after several court battles, the right to participate in Arkansas’ and Missouri’s cleanup programs.
For those unsure about whether or not Minuteman groups in San Diego County are physically aggressive toward those they do not like, a new website, Minutemen Unvarnished, provides some evidence. The site carries several videos showing Minutemen calling immigrants “wetbacks” and pushing and shoving day laborers. Other videos include Minutemen shouting obscenities and threatening those protesting them.