A young law student describes his experiences monitoring the anti-immigration vigilantes of the Minuteman Project.
Ray Ybarra's office is a decrepit brick storefront six blocks from Mexico in Douglas, Ariz., the historic border town where Ybarra was born. Now 26, Ybarra took a sabbatical from his final year of law school at Stanford University to come back to Douglas to work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) monitoring anti-immigration militants in the southeastern Arizona badlands.
Inside Ybarra's sparse workspace, mounted on a wall like a trophy, is a blown-up copy of a letter to the FBI, dated March 25 and signed "James W. Gilchrist, Minuteman Project coordinator." Co-organized by Gilchrist, a Vietnam veteran from Orange County, Calif., and by Tombstone, Ariz.-based anti-immigration extremist Chris Simcox, the Minuteman Project was a nationwide call to arms for private citizens with guns to mass along the border in Arizona's San Pedro Valley throughout the month of April to "provide a blocking force against entry into the U.S. by illegal aliens, drug dealers, and potential terrorists."
In the months leading up to the Minuteman Project, Ybarra harshly and repeatedly criticized the effort, describing it as a fundamentally racist action with a high potential for human rights abuse. In early March, the ACLU announced that he was organizing teams of "legal observers" to follow, photograph, and videotape Minuteman volunteers, gathering evidence for possible lawsuits or even arrests.
Gilchrist's letter begins "Dear FBI" and then accuses Ybarra of masterminding a "witch hunt" of "malicious harassment and intimidation," including "pejorative references to 'vigilantes'" that has "effectively and illegally suppressed the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to peaceably assemble." The Intelligence Report interviewed Ybarra in April, while the Minuteman Project was under way.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: The first time you read Gilchrist's letter to the FBI, how did you react?
RAY YBARRA: Oh, I laughed hysterically. It cracked me up because he's basically pleading for the feds to protect his civil liberties from the aclu. My favorite part is where he compares me to McCarthy.
The second time I read it, I thought, "Good, maybe we're starting to get to these guys." I think Gilchrist has a huge ego and, like a lot of people with huge egos, he likes to think he has a lot of enemies who are out to get him. Well, I'm not out to get him and I'm not trampling on anyone's rights. The only truthful thing about me in that letter is my calling the Minutemen 'vigilantes.'
IR: Why use that word?
YBARRA: Because that's exactly what they are. By their own definition, they're taking the law into their own hands.
IR: How many legal observers have you managed to muster, and who are they, in terms of age and profession?
YBARRA: We have about 130 volunteer observers, and believe me when I say that's a far more accurate estimate than the number of volunteers the Minuteman organizers were claiming. They said at one point they had more than 1,000, which I'd say was an exaggeration of at least three to four times their actual strength.
Most of the observers on my teams are college students from all over the country or human rights activists and religious workers from Arizona and California. Some of my law school friends and professors from Stanford came down as well.
IR: Before the start of the Minuteman Project, you told the media that wherever their volunteers went, your teams would follow. You said, "If they go hiking through the desert, we'll hike with them. If they sit in lawn chairs, we'll sit in lawn chairs next to them." How has that played out in reality?
YBARRA: Well, we haven't wound up sitting right next to them, because it's more effective for us to place one of our teams on a high point some distance away so we can watch three or four of their teams at once.
IR: Have you seen or heard of any Minuteman volunteers pointing guns or committing acts of violence?
YBARRA: No, we haven't. Of course, it's impossible to know how they'd be acting if they didn't know we're watching. But I think that more than anything, the Minuteman Project has turned out to be a staged media event. So they're on their best behavior.
IR: What's your opinion of the media coverage of the Minuteman Project?
YBARRA: It's mostly lies, and very obvious lies. The biggest of these is that the Minuteman Project has closed a big stretch of the Arizona border. That just isn't true. The Mexican government has gone to great effort to warn migrants about the vigilantes, to alert them to the danger, tell them where the vigilantes are located, and direct them to cross in different areas. So while it's true that the u.s. Border Patrol's apprehension numbers have dropped significantly along a small stretch of the border during the Minuteman Project, that's only because the majority of the migrants who have crossed during this time have simply walked an extra two to three miles in either direction. The Minuteman Project has temporarily closed two to three miles of the border at most.
The other really frustrating untruth that has been perpetuated in the media is the idea that the Minuteman Project was designed to protect America from terrorists and drug smugglers. That's what Gilchrist and [co-organizer] Chris Simcox have said in interview after interview. But that was absolutely not the sort of hateful, racist rhetoric they used to recruit Minuteman volunteers in the first place. The language on their Web site in the months before was not, "Come save America from Al Qaeda." It was [although not literally], "Come save America from the invading brown hordes who are plundering our nation."
But that's not what they're saying to [CNN news anchor] Lou Dobbs. That's not how it's getting spun on Fox [News Channel].
IR: But you have to admit their strategy has worked. They have generated huge momentum for the extremist faction of the anti-immigration movement.
YBARRA: They may have momentum on their side at the moment, but they don't have history. And what's happening on the border with immigration is simply history repeating itself. It's always been true that a majority of immigrants to America come to our country in search of economic opportunity. They come in pursuit of the American dream. And that's just as true of migrants from Latin America in the 21st Century as it was for immigrants from Europe in previous centuries. The only difference is the color of their skin.
IR: How will history judge the Minuteman Project?
YBARRA: My hope is that like slavery and racial segregation, future generations will look back upon the Minuteman Project, and this period on the border as a whole, with outrage and with wonder.
They will think, "How could this have been allowed, let alone condoned? How could it have been acceptable for so many people to needlessly suffer, just in order to find work, walking four or five days through a harsh desert environment? How could it have been acceptable for hundreds of these people to die every year of thirst, for them to die slowly, like animals that can't fend for themselves anymore? How could it have been acceptable for armed vigilantes to stand in their way, taking the law into their own hands, and illegally imprisoning them?"
IR: You said the Minuteman Project volunteers aren't using violence. How are they illegally imprisoning anyone?
YBARRA: Think of it this way: Let's say you're an anti-immigration extremist, but instead of being a border vigilante, you live in Chicago or New York. You're out to dinner one night, and you see a person back in the kitchen washing dishes, and you think maybe they're in the country without papers, judging by the color of their skin. So you call up five or six of your friends, and you all dress up in commando uniforms, and you strap guns on your hips, and you set up a post and wait for this person from the kitchen to get off work. And when they do, you position yourself physically between them and wherever they're trying to go, and you bark orders at them to stop where they are and wait until a federal agent arrives.
When you place the scenario in a different setting, it's sounds ridiculous. Yet this is exactly what's going on every day with vigilantes on the border — both with the Minuteman Project, and with the even more aggressive local vigilante militias such as Ranch Rescue and Civil Homeland Defense. And it is clearly illegal, because the law on "false imprisonment" in Arizona is very clear. You don't have to slam somebody to the ground or use handcuffs or draw a gun in order to be guilty [of false imprisonment].
IR: How so?
YBARRA: The law says that [using] physical force or the threat of physical force is only one way that you can be found guilty of illegal imprisonment. You can also be found guilty if you commit, and this is the exact language, "restraint without consent through intimidation or deception." And that's where the vigilantes most often violate the law — not with violence, but with intimidation and deception.
Put yourself in the mindset of a migrant from rural Mexico. Most likely, you have no idea what a u.s. Border Patrol agent wears for a uniform, and you come from a country where it's illegal for private citizens to carry guns. So when you're surprised in the desert by a group of men dressed in army fatigues, with pistols on their hips, wearing red-white-and-blue hats and utility belts with radios and flash lights and extra ammunition for their guns, you're automatically going to be deceived into believing these men are legally authorized Border Patrol agents. You're going to be intimidated into doing what they want.
IR: When you've talked to immigrants during the Minuteman Project, and you've told them that some of the men with guns are not actually border patrol agents, what's their reaction?
YBARRA: Astonishment. Just utter shock that private citizens would take the time away from their lives and jobs to come down to the border to prevent them from crossing. They all ask me, "Why? Why are they doing this?"
IR: And what do you say?
YBARRA: I say, "They're afraid of you because they don't know you. If they met you and heard your motives for getting over, they wouldn't hate you so much." And that's what the optimist in me would like to believe. I would like to believe that if the vigilantes met the migrants on a human level, if they would share a meal with them and just hear their stories, then they would lose their desire to be a part of this terribly misguided segment of white America. They wouldn't want to put on a gun and wait in the night on the other side of a barbed-wire fence between their two countries. That's the optimist in me.
There's another part of me that knows that a lot of the people participating in the Minuteman Project would never share a meal with a migrant from Latin America, because they see these people as beneath them, as lesser forms of human beings that deserve to be hunted.
IR: You've spent hundreds of hours watching the Minuteman Project volunteers in action. Is there any one event that stands out in your mind as particularly symbolic of their intent?
YBARRA: The defining moment for me occurred on April 10. It was a Sunday night, about 11 o'clock, and my team of legal observers came upon two migrants sitting on the side of the road, surrounded by a group of about five to seven Minuteman vigilantes, who were celebrating while they waited for Border Patrol to show up. As usual, my team got between the vigilantes and the migrants, and we started asking questions.
The migrants said they had been walking for four days, the last day without food or water, and they were in bad shape. It was freezing cold that night. I had on two big jackets, and they only had windbreakers, and they were so out of it that they couldn't even put together complete sentences. To see that sort of suffering and misery right in front of my face was horrible enough, but 10 feet away there was a group of my fellow Americans, and instead of offering these two men a drink of water, or an extra jacket, or even a candy bar, they were celebrating like a bunch of fishermen who just caught a big one. I think that was probably my saddest moment as a u.s. citizen. I was ashamed of my countrymen.
IR: The night of April 10 was also when a young Army reservist, Sgt. Patrick Haab, pulled a gun and made a "citizen's arrest" of a vanload of unarmed Mexicans at a highway rest stop in Arizona. Haab wasn't part of the Minuteman Project. But do you see any connection between his case and their mission?
YBARRA: Absolutely, especially since the deputy who showed up at the rest stop correctly arrested Haab for aggravated assault. But then a prosecutor dropped all the charges, which is a scary sign, because the prosecutor's decision was clearly based on public opinion and the political climate in Arizona in the midst of the Minuteman Project, instead of actual state law, which is pretty clear about the fact that it's not okay to go around pointing guns at unarmed people just because you think they might be in the country without papers. This decision serves the same purpose as the Minuteman Project, which is the mainstreaming of violent hate.
The Minuteman Project spread the message that it's a good thing to wear a gun when you're dealing with migrants. The Patrick Haab case spread the message that it's okay to actually point those guns at people. And I think a lot of vigilantes are just waiting for the signal that it's okay to go ahead and start pulling triggers.