The Intelligence Report is the SPLC's award-winning magazine. Subscribe here for a print copy.

Back to the Border

A movement was born this summer during the crisis over migrant children at the border. Are the vigilante extremists back for good?

Columbia University expert Donald Green argues that hate crimes tend to spike when rapid in-migration of minority groups occurs in formerly white neighborhoods. Perhaps that helps explain the sheer ugliness of the events in Murrieta, Calif., this July — events that came during the week of Independence Day, when Americans gather to celebrate our country and its democratic values.

Three buses carrying 140 undocumented women and children to a temporary shelter in the city of 107,000 — part of a wave of some 60,000 unaccompanied minor immigrants fleeing staggering violence and poverty in their Central American countries or seeking a long-lost parent in the United States — were met by a howling mob of nativists who physically blocked the vehicles. Ultimately, the government was forced to take the frightened children to another Border Patrol facility, and in the week that followed more angry nativist protesters rallied in Murrieta.

At last count, in 2013, Murrieta’s population was less than 56 percent non-Hispanic white, a drop of 16 percentage points since the 2000 census. During the same period, the town’s population more than doubled, with that dizzying growth being driven overwhelmingly by an influx of minorities, most of them Latino. According to Green, that’s just the kind of situation that often makes whites react “defensively” to what is perceived as an outside threat. It’s also a situation that is cropping up more and more often as the United States undergoes a major demographic transformation that is expected to see whites lose their majority over the next 30 years.

Whatever accounted for the unbridled fury of the crowd, whose targets included young girls and boys who had been raped and otherwise severely abused during their harrowing trips through Mexico, there is no doubt that the events in Murrieta set off a kind of mini-movement, what looked like a possible resurgence of the vigilante extremist groups that swept the country between 2005 and 2011.


The fury of the crowd protesting three buses containing undocumented immigrants — many of them children traumatized by rape and other serious abuse — was shocking to many, including the California Assembly Speaker, who described the events in Murrieta as “shameful.

Similar demonstrations followed on the heels of Murrieta in Oracle, Ariz., and Vassar, Mich., where nativists carried AR-15s and handguns. A “National Day of Protesting Against Immigration Reform, Amnesty & Border Surge” was planned that organizers said would include mass protests in a staggering 260 American cities. Politicians and pundits chimed in, each one, it seemed, bent on describing in more frightening terms the diseases and criminality the new wave of immigrant children was supposedly bringing. And Jim Gilchrist, arguably the most important organizer of the Minuteman groups that President George W. Bush once labeled “vigilantes,” vowed to bring back the defunct movement with 3,500 new volunteers.

Gilchrist was not the only extremist seeking to capitalize on the events that began in Murrieta. Scores of antigovernment militia groups, many of them never heard from before, announced they were headed for the border with their weapons. Tea Party organizations, a radio broadcaster who has called for President Obama and the Bush family to be killed, old-line radical groups like the John Birch Society, and even a lone Klan leader calling for “corpses” on the border, all joined in. It was enough that many law enforcement officials, concerned about a growing presence of heavily armed civilian gunmen, began to warn Americans to stay away.

But this was not a movement that began on the radical right. On the contrary, it was “mainstream” leaders — the mayor in Murrieta and the local sheriff in Oracle, among others — who ignited and then fueled the conflagration. And while extremist opportunists rapidly added their voices to the rising chorus, it was in the mainstream that most of the movement’s baseless charges about dread diseases, deadly gangs, a “manufactured crisis” by Obama and more, were shaped and sharpened.

Stirrings on the Right

The first media stories about a new border crisis appeared in mid-May, when the Department of Homeland Security raised the alarm about a rapid increase in unaccompanied minors. In early June, the situation ratcheted up when the president declared a humanitarian crisis and ordered a federal takeover of relief efforts. The surge, officials said, was mainly the result of violence and worsening poverty in Central America, the desire of many children to find their parents in the United States, and unfounded rumors that children would no longer be deported.

Within two weeks, the shrill voices of the nativist right began to make themselves heard. Fox News guest host Jeanine Pirro was one of the first, saying she “wouldn’t be surprised if some of these kids are nothing more than fronts for drug dealers,” a comment echoed a few days later by Fox’s Steve Doocy, who claimed that the Border Patrol was “having to process members of known Mexican gangs” and “give them a pass.” On June 17, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, once known as sympathetic to immigrants, told Fox’s Sean Hannity that while he hated to sound “conspiratorial,” he thought the administration was either “incredibly inept” or “in on this somehow.” The likely 2016 presidential candidate went on to ask “how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?” He was apparently referring to the theory that Obama was trying to import Democratic voters.

Rush Limbaugh liked that idea, too, running a story on his website headlined “Obama Regime Planned the Influx of Illegal Alien Children at the Border.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote that the surge “appears to be a deliberate policy of maximizing the number of illegal immigrants.” On Fox, host Lou Dobbs said the crisis had been “orchestrated” by the administration, which he said was “working in concert with the Central American governments.” Three congressmen — Steve King (R-Iowa), Steve Stockman (R-Texas) and John Culberson (R-Texas) — made similar allegations of a deliberate Obama conspiracy to bring in foreigners.

On her radio show, Laura Ingraham complained of “sob stories” about the children and said America faced a “crisis of wild proportions” that would lead to “higher crime rates, higher gang activity” and huge expenses caring for the children. She did not mention that most of the children could not be immediately deported under a federal law passed in 2008 and signed by President George W. Bush.

At around the same time, Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council that represents some 17,000 Border Patrol agents, began a series of appearances on conservative media outlets complaining that the children ultimately were being released to relatives rather than held for deportation. Most remarkably, Moran went on “The Pete Santilli Show,” hosted by a nativist extremist who had previously called for the killing of Obama, the Bush family and Hillary Clinton.

Then, on June 30, Murrieta Mayor Alan Long went public with the information that the government intended to move many undocumented children to a Border Patrol facility in that city. Long was not neutral. Saying the city had already stopped two earlier attempts to send migrants to the facility, Long announced that a convoy of buses was headed to Murrieta the following day, harshly criticized the government, and urged residents to protest the arrival of the buses.

People listened. When the three buses arrived on July 1, almost 300 people crowded into the streets to block them. Carrying American flags and ugly signs — “Return to Sender,” “Send Them Back With Birth Control” and the like — the shouting crowd succeeded despite the buses’ attempts to find an alternative route. In the end, the children were taken to another facility in San Diego. But the protests, now countered by pro-migrant demonstrators, continued for several days more.

Long complained later that his town was being depicted as a hateful place over “two minutes of time on the news channel.” California Assembly Speaker Toni Akins saw it differently, saying what had happened in Murrieta was “shameful.”

The Murrieta protests appeared to be mainly composed of local residents, although several well-known activists took part. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish human rights group, a key organizer was Patricia Lynes, who has a history of strident anti-immigrant activism and is a believer in various extreme-right conspiracy theories. Another participant was Robin Hvidsto, leader of We the People Rising and a former leader in Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project.

Prairie Fire

From Murrieta, the conflagration spread.

Soon, a claim about disease joined those about gangsters and Obama plots. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said that “our schools” and “our health care systems can’t withstand this influx” of children, according to The Texas Observer. Fox commentator Cal Thomas charged that the children were bringing preventable diseases like “mumps, measles, rubella, tetanus and diphtheria.” Fox contributor Dr. Elizabeth Lee Vliet claimed that diseases long since eradicated here were being “carried across the border by this tsunami of illegals.” But as the Observer pointed out, the refugee children were actually better vaccinated than American kids. “We fear them not because they are actually sick,” the article concluded, “but because of powerful anti-immigration narratives that link foreigners to disease.”

As the story spread through the right-wing media, the list of soon-to-arrive scary diseases expanded to include scabies, tuberculosis and even leprosy.

At the same time, protests like that in Murrieta were developing elsewhere. In Vassar, Mich., more than 50 people, many of them carrying handguns or AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, demonstrated against the possibility that some undocumented children could be sent there. The rally was led by Tamyra Murray, an organizer with Michiganders for Immigration Control and Enforcement who repeated the now well-worn claims about children acting as drug runners and bringing in tuberculosis.

And in Oracle, Ariz., Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, known as a hardliner on immigration, publicly revealed the location of a facility that was to receive some of the children, saying they were being sent “compliments of President Obama” and that residents had “every right to be upset and to protest.” And people did take to the streets to protest buses they expected to arrive at any moment. One would-be Tea Party congressman, State Rep. Adam Kwasman, even led protesters to a school bus he thought was filled with immigrants but actually contained local students. The Arizona Republic editorial board later excoriated “Sheriff Showboat” Babeu for “disgracing” his office with his “calculated and political” role in the ugly rally.

At this point, extremists really began to pick up the flag. A Texas truck driver named Chris Davis, who described himself as a member of the Bowles Volunteer Militia and another group called Winter Soldiers, set up a group to respond to the surge of migrants named Operation Secure Our Border-Laredo Sector and called on antigovernment militias to converge on the Laredo crossing “immediately.” Another group spokesman, Denice Freeman, claimed it had set up a “command center” near San Antonio. But a video Davis had posted earlier on YouTube soon came to light, showing him saying, “You see an illegal. You point your gun at him, right between his eyes, and you say, ‘Get back across the border or you will be shot.’”

When newspapers reported on Davis’ video, it was taken down and Davis quickly disappeared. Although a few others claimed to be joining Davis’ border project, it essentially fell flat, with only a few, if any, militiamen joining.

Meanwhile, another tall tale was developing in the right-wing media — the claim that many of the unaccompanied minor immigrants were going to be housed in a luxury hotel in Weslaco, Texas. In fact, the Palm Aire Hotel and Suites was about to be sold to a nonprofit that intended to convert it to a 600-bed dormitory to house immigrant minors being processed by authorities. But nativists used photos and descriptions of the hotel before the planned conversion to paint a picture of what the Gateway Pundit described as a “resort hotel for illegal alien children.” The right-wing site said the hotel had an indoor Olympic pool, an outdoor pool, tennis courts, Jacuzzis, a sauna, steam room, racquetball courts, and a “luxurious fitness center” fitted with 20 machines and free weights. Fox News’ Todd Starnes joined in, giving a similar description and calling it a “multimillion dollar hotel” with “poolside cabanas and concierge service.” The Drudge Report ran similar claims.

Of course, the hotel was to be converted to dormitories, not remain any kind of “luxury resort.” But the story had traveled so far that the nonprofit, in a statement dated the same day that the Gateway Pundit article ran, said that it was pulling out due to “negative backlash caused by information misreported to the public.”

A Protest Too Far

In this rank atmosphere, anti-immigrant activists announced plans for two national days of protest under the unwieldy name of a National Day of Protesting Against Immigration Reform, Amnesty & Border Surge. The flyer for the event claimed that “illegal aliens with communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, scabies and head lice are entering our country unabated” and warned of a “very real security risk to Americans from drug cartels, gang members and terrorists.”

The protests, according to the Anti-Defamation League, were primarily organized by Paul Arnold, founder of the Make Them Listen group and a former organizer for the Black American Leadership Alliance (BALA). BALA is the latest front group created by the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and is populated with radicals like Jesse Lee Peterson, who once thanked God for slavery. The idea behind BALA and other front groups created by FAIR, whose racist founder has said America must retain a “European-American majority,” is to exaggerate the opposition to immigration among non-whites.

Extremists who promoted or joined in the protests on July 18-19 included members of Overpasses for America, a group led by James Neighbors; Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, led by William Gheen; the Americans Have Had Enough Coalition, led by white supremacist Roan Garcia-Quintana; the European American Action Coalition, led by white supremacist Steve Smith; the American Freedom Party, led by white supremacist William D. Johnson; the Oath Keepers, led by antigovernment radical Stewart Rhodes; and a hefty number of others.

At the same time, the rhetorical din on the right kept rising. “Mass numbers of disease-infested illegals are hemorrhaging our southern borders,” wrote Steve Eichler, CEO of Tea Party Inc. Terry Gorman of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement said if children were lodged in his state it would result in “the destruction of the state of Rhode Island.” Stewart Rhodes called the refugee crisis “a planned invasion, being carried out by the executive branches of foreign nations … the executive branch of this nation … [and] cartel and gang smugglers.”

But despite it all, the “national protest” — there were supposed be rallies in 260 cities — didn’t come to much. Forty people showed up in New York City, by far the largest number. Most of the protests didn’t materialize at all, and those that did typically had a mere handful of participants. Gheen later tried to explain this turnout by charging that the “liberal media” had promoted minority violence against the activists. But the truth was that despite all the rhetoric, there just didn’t seem to be much appetite in mainstream America for this jihad against foreign children.

The Militias Arrive

Just a couple of days after the failed national protest, Texas Gov. Perry activated 1,000 National Guard troops and directed them to join the surge of state troopers he’d already sent to the border. Although many border sheriffs said they didn’t want the extra manpower, Perry sent them anyway, at a monthly cost, together with the troopers, of some $17 million, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Reports from the border suggested that the Guard troops, who do not have law enforcement powers, were of little use in aiding the Border Patrol. But over the next two weeks, it became clear that at least some militiamen also were arriving.

Davis had not been the only one to call on antigovernment “Patriot” groups to head to the border. That call was also taken up by the Patriot Information Hotline, run by Barbie Rogers, the right-wing Free Republic website, and many other Patriot organizations. Now, finally, some militiamen were apparently responding.


Rage on the right: The anger of nativists in Murrieta, California caught many observers by surprise

The San Antonio Express-News published photos of what it said were several dozen armed, camouflage-clad militiamen patrolling the Texas border. Rogers told the paper there were 10 named militia groups already on the ground. A Beaumont TV station reported on another militia in Southeast Texas. Law enforcement officials reported spotting a few militiamen on the border during their regular patrols.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of demonizing rhetoric continued. David Horowitz, a key anti-Muslim ideologue, said many of the children were “seasoned criminals and gangbangers” and claimed the administration was “creating a passageway for terrorists along with ‘children.’” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) warned of “Ebola and other diseases like that” and said that some of the children, as wards of the state, might be subjected to involuntary “medical experimentation.” Jerome Corsi, who wrote a book claiming Obama is not eligible to be president, said the crisis was “Obama’s masterstroke” and would simultaneously expand the ranks of Democratic voters and serve as practice for running “government detention camps to intern Tea Party loyalists and other American patriots” opposed to socialism.

Gilchrist, the Minuteman organizer, weighed in, too, saying he supported the deployment of militia groups in light of “the approximately 30 million illegal aliens currently occupying U.S. territory,” and promising to recreate the Minuteman movement in 2015 with some 3,500 new volunteers. The name he used for his effort, clearly reflecting his view of the “dire” situation, was “Operation Normandy.”

Even the Klan got in on the hysteria, with Robert Jones, an official of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, calling for blood. “If we can’t turn them back, I think if we pop a couple of them off and leave their corpses laying at the border maybe they’ll see we’re serious about stopping immigration,” he said. There was no evidence that Jones or any other Klansman actually went to the border.

And then there was Pete Santilli, the far-right radio host known for advocating the murder of the Bush family and Obama and, most infamously, saying he wanted to see Hillary Clinton shot in the vagina. Santilli, who also led a failed July attempt to shut down the San Diego border crossing, tried again in mid-August, leading a “Border Convoy” from Murrieta to Texas. There, his road show faded on a note of black comedy as his convoy members fled a Van Horn hotel before dawn after being told by members of a militia that they were about to be attacked by cartel gunmen.

The Horizon

All did not go smoothly for the militiamen on the border. On Aug. 23, a group of gun-toting, ATV-riding militiamen near Sonoita, Ariz., southeast of Tucson, confronted a group of three scientists studying bats in a local cave. The militiamen shouted at the scientists in Spanish, only later apologizing for their mistake.

Then, six days later, a Border Patrol agent pursuing a group of undocumented immigrants east of Brownsville, Texas, suddenly spotted a man holding a weapon and fired on him, but without hitting him. It turned out he was a militia member.

Man holding a sign that says No Vacancy-Try the White House

Those and other incidents spurred local sheriffs and the Border Patrol to issue statements saying they did not want or need help from the civilian gunmen. “It can be dangerous,” Kevin Oaks, the Border Patrol chief nearest the Brownsville incident, told the Coast Reporter. “There are cartel members that carry assault weapons and camouflage, and then there’s others that may be under the auspices of whatever group, may look very similar, and we have no idea who those people are. My fear is that these things clash and eventually there will be a very bad outcome.”

By mid-September, the Patriot Information Hotline was claiming that there were 22 groups of “armed Patriots” on the border, mostly in Texas. In that state’s Montgomery County, law enforcement officials told KPRC-TV in Houston that deputies had been warned to look out for militiamen who were apparently planning to patrol around power plants that could be targeted by terrorists. Dubois County Sheriff Donny Lampert said he had learned of several armed locals who had joined “rogue” militias to confront the drug cartels, and warned others not to follow.

To many extremists, the apparent surge of armed radicals on the border heralded a rebirth of the nativist vigilante movement that reached its vitriolic peak in 2010, when there were more than 300 Minuteman and other groups engaging in armed border patrols or confronting suspected undocumented immigrants. After that, the numbers declined rapidly, to just over 30 groups in 2013, due to a host of factors: movement infighting, the adoption of many of the movement’s goals by right-wing state legislatures like those in Arizona and Alabama, and criminal scandals including the murder of a 9-year-old girl and her father by nativist leader Shawna Forde and two of her confederates. Now, the number of groups may be ticking back up.

Will the movement that began at Murrieta continue to grow?

At press time, that remained unclear. Obama, who earlier moved to speed up deportation of many of the unaccompanied minors, announced in September that he would delay pursuit of immigration reform or any executive action on immigration until after the November mid-term election. That seemed likely to tamp down the nativist flames, at least for the time being. There is also rising anger directed at the militiamen from some border law enforcement officials and residents.

But there are those who applaud the militiamen, both on the border and in the political and media classes. On the far right, the drumbeat about gangster children, scary diseases, luxury hotels for the undocumented and an Obama plot to create new Democratic voters, continues unabated and unmoved by the real facts.

Of one thing we can be sure: As long as conditions in Central America do not improve and Congress fails to address comprehensive immigration reform, the situation on the border will continue to be a flash point for nativist extremists and political opportunists. While their rhetoric boils, people will die — including many children who will perish in their journeys across Mexico or in the deserts and rivers while trying to come to America. And that is a genuine tragedy.