Growth in the hard core of the nativist movement is slowing as the battle over immigration moves into the nation’s courts
Two major trends were evident last year in the hard-line anti-immigration movement. Most worryingly, a cadre of racial extremists began patrolling Arizona for undocumented border-crossers. Led by neo-Nazi J.T. Ready, they scour the deserts while armed with semi-automatic rifles and clad in fatigues, military-style helmets and Kevlar vests. Pictures of their exploits show terrified migrants forced to the ground by gun-toting captors.
At the same time, many nativist activists expanded their alliances with other far-right political movements, a trend that first began to take shape in 2009. In the past year, major nativist leaders have allied their organizations with antigovernment “Patriot” groups or fringe Tea Party factions. In some cases, they have created new far-right hybrid entities of their own.
Nativists received a burst of energy with the signing last April of Arizona’s S.B. 1070, a harsh anti-immigration ordinance that makes the failure of non-citizens to carry immigration documents a crime and obligates police to check immigration status when there is “reasonable suspicion” that someone is undocumented. Anti-immigrant groups were highly active in pushing for the law, which is currently held up in federal court. Legislators in several states are set to introduce copycats, which may further inflame anti-immigrant sentiment. Even so, the movement is no longer growing at the rapid pace of prior years.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) latest count, the number of what the SPLC characterizes as “nativist extremist” groups — organizations that do not limit themselves to pushing for legislative change or more border patrols, but rather target suspected undocumented immigrants at work sites or when they cross the border — is up slightly, rising to 319 last year from 309 groups in 2009. Still, it is noteworthy that the movement’s rate of growth slowed considerably, with the three largest groups — the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, the Minuteman Project, and the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement (FIRE) Coalition — staying about the same size as last year. In fact, without the activism surrounding S.B. 1070, the movement might well have shrunk in 2010.
The slowed growth of the movement is a big change. Between 2008 and 2009, the groups skyrocketed nearly 80%, rising to 309 from 173. A year earlier, the number of groups went up 20%, from 144 to 173. This slower growth is partly attributable to leadership battles that have drained the energy of some groups. It also reflects the relocation of some nativists into other sectors of the far right that have concerns beyond immigration.
Toil and Trouble
As neo-Nazis like one-time National Socialist Movement member J.T. Ready became more prominent on the nativist scene this past year, one of the major early nativist leaders exited the scene ignominiously. In June, allegations surfaced in court documents that Chris Simcox — arguably the highest profile individual in the movement, a man who co-founded of the Minuteman Project in 2005 and, later, founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) — had threatened to kill his wife and family in a 2009 domestic dispute. It turned out that a restraining order had been issued against Simcox in April, when his third wife, Alena, filed for divorce. This was not the first time that Simcox had been accused of violent behavior by a spouse. His second wife told the Intelligence Report in 2005 that she filed for full custody of their teenage son because she feared Simcox had suffered a mental breakdown, was sometimes violent and seemed dangerous.
In early July, after a short period when Simcox disappeared from public view (prompting one bounty hunter working for his wife to issue a “Wanted” poster), he released an E-newsletter, “The Simcox Report,” that defended his actions. In it, Simcox accused his wife of having been involved in an adulterous relationship with Stacy O’Connell, a former member of MCDC with whom Simcox had feuded for years (O’Connell and Alena Simcox denied the allegations). The soap opera intensified when it emerged that O’Connell ran the bounty hunting service that put up the “Wanted” poster for Simcox.
Meanwhile, MCDC’s leadership spent 2010 in complete disarray. When Simcox announced in April 2009 that he would run for the Arizona Senate seat held by John McCain, MCDC was left in the hands of his long-time lieutenant, Carmen Mercer. Mercer shut the organization down in March 2010, after being accused by Arizona’s attorney general of involvement in a property scam.
In a March 22 E-mail to supporters announcing the shutdown, Mercer nevertheless encouraged former MCDC members to continue their work independently. “I predict Americans, on their own, will lock, load and do what the feckless cowards in Washington refuse to do — and frankly I hope Americans do take up arms to defend this great nation,” she wrote in her “urgent alert.”
This missive came after Mercer sent a hot-blooded E-mail out the week before urging supporters to bring their long arms to the border and to “forcefully engage” the “criminals” who try to cross without documentation.
Despite having claimed MCDC was no more, Mercer within a few months was again posting on MCDC’s website as though nothing had happened.
Long an Arizona entity, MCDC now lists Herndon, Va., as its headquarters address and sends those wishing to contact it by mail to the far-right advocacy group, Declaration Alliance, that is headed by conservative activist Alan Keyes. The alliance had long helped raise money for MCDC. But earlier this year, Mercer reported that MCDC was going broke after breaking off relations with the group. Apparently, they have now mended their rift.
The turmoil had little effect on the size of the group, which had 77 chapters in 30 states in 2010. That’s up by two chapters from last year.
Certain nativist extremists are gaining political muscle by building bridges to other kinds of far-right groups, with many nativists morphing into Tea Party activists or redefining themselves more broadly as opposed to the federal government’s authority in general.
This trend began in 2009, when nativist extremist groups first began to find common cause with the antigovernment Patriot movement, which includes militias and similar groups. That the two movements dovetail in many ways is not entirely surprising. Both cotton to Revolutionary War rhetoric and imagery, and the first major nativist extremist group, the Minuteman Project, branded itself intentionally with a name right out of the American Revolution.
The Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition (FIRE), which is the largest nativist extremist group with 136 chapters in 35 states (up one chapter from 2009), took up the antigovernment flag in 2009 when it launched The Patriot Coalition. FIRE is best known for a website that allows individuals to inform on employers of undocumented workers and for aggressive protests aimed at the undocumented.
In August, the group went one step further down the Patriot road, co-sponsoring a national conference in Pennsylvania that brought together a motley crew of far-right activists, conspiracy-minded groups like the John Birch Society and an array of other opponents of the Obama Administration. Patriot hero Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who believes that county sheriffs are the highest authority and can ignore demands from the federal government, spoke to the conference. The event’s core theme — “demand [states’] sovereignty from the tyranny of the Federal government”— sounded more like a paean to the Confederacy and “states’ rights” than a complaint about immigration.
FIRE National Director Jeff Lewis is active in several antigovernment groups, three of which he heads. Billing himself as “a direct descendant of the original American Revolutionaries,” Lewis is listed as a delegate on the website of We the People (WTP), a federal government-hating outfit led by prominent tax protester Bob Schulz; he also participated in WTP’s 2009 “Continental Congress” and is listed as a leader in the North Carolina chapter. (The congress issued documents warning that any infringement on the people’s liberty as laid out in the Constitution is “an act of WAR” that “the People and their Militias have the Right and Duty to repel.”)
Another example of a nativist-turned-patriot is Al Garza, who was vice president of MCDC until he quit the group in August 2009. Garza went on to form The Patriots Coalition, not to be confused with FIRE’s Patriot Coalition, another group that merges the ideas of the nativist movement with those of the Patriots. Its website is filled with images of Revolutionary War troops and the Constitution and laments, “God and country are being taken away each day.” Garza was helped in this effort by Joanne Daley, his local Tea Party coordinator, according to The Nation. Daley, who led protests against Obama’s health care plan in Arizona and ran a Cochise County chapter of Glenn Beck’s 9.12 Project, is on the group’s board.
Arguably the most obnoxious nativist extremist, Jeff Schwilk, became a full-time antigovernment activist in 2010. Schwilk, founder of the San Diego Minutemen, has subsumed his anti-immigrant activities into a larger cause and now concentrates more on his Southern California Patriot Coalition, or SoCal Patriots. Instead of harassing migrant camps and pro-immigrant activists, Schwilk now focuses on gun rights and antigovernment issues. “Our fight is all political now,” Schwilk told The Nation in October. “Our fight is in our cities, county and state, and federal governments.”
Sipping With the Tea Parties
The Tea Party movement, too, has become home to many nativist extremists. These groups saw their interests first align during the healthcare debate, as medical coverage for undocumented immigrants became a flashpoint issue. The lines between the movements have become increasingly blurred, with leaders making official appearances at each other’s events.
S.B. 1070, the Arizona law that requires police to ask for proof of legal residency from people they believe could be undocumented immigrants, helped to deepen this relationship. Tea Party activists gathered thousands of signatures in favor of the law and the Tea Party Nation, one of several Tea Party factions, co-sponsored a rally in support of the law in Phoenix on June 5.
Jim Gilchrist, who co-founded the Minuteman Project with Simcox in 2005 and now runs his own outfit of the same name, glommed on to the Tea Party movement in the last year. In late November, Gilchrist attended a “Minuteman Tea Party” event in Texas that his website claims had more than 2,000 attendees. Gilchrist hasn’t been to the border in quite some time, preferring to work the right-wing circuit and post anti-immigration material on his website. Reaching out to the right has helped Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project (MMP). It had 38 chapters in 2010, up from 35 the year before.
MMP Executive Director Stephen Eichler joined his colleague Gilchrist in the Tea Party movement. Eichler is now listed as the executive director (and “general trouble maker”) on TeaParty.org. That Tea Party faction is led by Dale Robertson, who gained some notoriety for displaying arguably racist signs during protests of Obama’s health care proposals. The anti-immigrant influence at TeaParty.org is clear. The site lists as part of its “non-negotiable core beliefs” that “Illegal Aliens Are Here illegally.” The group also has issued E-mail alerts that blame an “illegal alien putsch” and “invasion” for “the pestilence of National Socialism” that it claims is on the rise in America.
At the Extremes
This January, Shawna Forde, formerly of the Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project and then the leader of her own Minuteman American Defense (MAD) group, was scheduled to go on trial in Arizona for the murder of a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter. Forde’s case is a reminder of how anti-immigrant fervor can explode into extreme violence. Pima County authorities allege that Forde and two accomplices, one of whom had ties to the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, invaded their victims’ home in search of drugs and cash to fund MAD border activities.
That tragic and horrifying incident makes the appearance of neo-Nazi J.T. Ready and his immigrant-hunting pals all the more worrisome. Until recently a member of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), Ready and his U.S. Border Rangers, an armed group largely peopled by other NSM members, have detained a number of migrants. Last July, Ready called a press conference in Pinal County’s Vekol Valley, known as a drug trafficking and illegal immigration route, where he paraded his heavily armed group for the news cameras. “This is the Minuteman Project on steroids. We’ve got people with assault weapons. … We will use lawful, deadly force when appropriate,” Ready told a TV reporter.
One NSM member and avid patroller, Harry Hughes, posted to the Web plenty of photos of the migrants the group said it stopped. Hughes really doesn’t like Mexicans, citing approvingly on his blog an article that says: “Mexican illegal aliens are revolting. And they know it. It is their purpose to disrupt us, interfere with us and give us diseases that we haven’t had in this country for 100 years.” Hughes’ anger, by his own account, sometimes spills over into action. In July 2007, Hughes posted on a racist forum that he had shot a Mexican family’s dog. Hughes said the charges were later dropped and “the Mexicans [sic] home mysteriously burned down.” The NSM border outings are slated to continue.
Here is a state-by-state tally of the 319 groups that the SPLC lists as nativist extremist groups. In the case of the three major formations — the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, the Minuteman Project and the Federation Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition — acronyms have been added to help identify their affiliated chapters.