By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
John Ryan is, as the slogan on his olive green T-shirt announces, an “undocumented U.S. Border Patrol agent.”
No one deputized the retired Quakertown telephone repairman to stare into the hardscrabble desert between Mexico and the United States, protecting the U.S. border from the estimated million people who cross it illegally each year.
Yet today, as the Senate begins debate on sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration laws, Ryan is planning an April trip to Yuma, Ariz., where, 9mm pistol at his side, he will be a lookout for undocumented immigrants.
Ryan, desert sentry at 58, founded the Pennsylvania Minutemen last summer. The presence of the group here, almost 2,000 miles from Mexico, reflects the growing influence of the Minuteman movement.
Its border-control campaign was born a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with the Tombstone (Ariz.) Militia, which evolved into the national Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. The mission of the controversial organization – and of loosely allied groups such as Ryan’s – is to keep out illegal immigrants it believes could be terrorists, drug traffickers or disease carriers and who depress U.S. wages, founder Chris Simcox says.
From its 6,800 members, the Arizona-based group dispatches volunteers bearing walkie-talkies, binoculars and, often, guns to border hot spots overlooking Mexico and Canada.
Thirty-one official chapters in 24 states, including central New Jersey, have sprouted in the last year. Some focus on confronting day laborers they believe are illegal and contractors who hire them. Chapter members also lobby for tougher immigration enforcement.
While Simcox and his followers call themselves a “national town watch,” others, including President Bush, have used the word “vigilantes.” They are the Minute Klan, opponents say, a group whose rhetoric has racist overtones, particularly toward Latinos and Muslims.
Last April, at the group’s monthlong Minuteman Project, 1,200 volunteers converged along 23 miles of the Arizona border and reported 200 attempted crossings to the U.S. Border Patrol, Simcox said. Their role is reconnaissance, he said. The Minutemen do not become physically involved.
“The only thing they’re doing is putting themselves in danger,” said Maria Valencia, spokeswoman for the U.S. Border Patrol. “It’s inappropriate for a civilian to do. They’re not trained.”
The Minutemen are undaunted. This year’s monthlong jamboree, which begins Saturday, will involve 7,000 border-watchers encamped in Texas, New Mexico, California and Arizona, organizers say.
Many will not be members of the parent group. The increase in freelance supporters pleases the national Minutemen at the same time it makes them nervous.
A rancher who led the Texas chapter resigned last year, saying that some in his own small-town unit talked of shooting illegal immigrants and letting them die of dehydration. The group’s loose structure, he e-mailed Simcox, was “a recipe for disaster.”
Simcox defends his members against charges of racism and says that group leaders now submit to criminal background checks and interviews.
Of the sympathizers who also call themselves Minutemen, “as long as they don’t step outside the law… I don’t have a problem,” Simcox said.
“Because our focus is strictly national security,” he added, “we cannot afford to have anyone go down to that border who’s anti-immigrant.”
Ryan’s fledgling Pennsylvania Minutemen, with a half-dozen active members and nearly 100 supporters, is independent.
“I have a natural disinclination to corporations,” Ryan said.
The Pennsylvania Minutemen do not perform background checks. He plans to let the state do the legwork by having members apply for concealed-weapons permits, which are unavailable to convicted criminals.
In Yuma, Ryan will not be on Simcox’s list of official Minuteman Civil Defense Corps border-watchers. Yet Simcox backs the Pennsylvania Minutemen.
He spoke at the group’s first recruitment meeting, which attracted 50 participants, two dozen protesters, and a protective ring of eight police cruisers to a King of Prussia hotel last month.
Taking the stage after a George Washington reenactor, who evoked the image of the patriot defending America from invasion, Simcox issued his message: Illegal immigrants are a threat to U.S. security and public health.
“If I catch you breaking into my country in the middle of the night and we’re at war… you’re a potential enemy,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a busboy coming to wash dishes.”
Simcox, who travels with a bodyguard and wears a bulletproof vest, said he was tired of detractors “looking for Billy Joe Bob Redneck Vigilante, out to shoot a Mexican…”
The band PokerFace performed at the meeting. Its leader, Paul Topete, is a Minuteman supporter and the son of a legal Mexican immigrant. He and Simcox have lobbied U.S. legislators side by side in the fight to thwart illegal immigrants.
“Why should they have to do anything less than what my father had to?” said Topete, 39, of Allentown.
Monitors from the Southern Poverty Law Center have reported the presence of self-declared white supremacists at Minuteman border events. Simcox acknowledges that he sent a half-dozen groups home last year.
“We just didn’t like their attitude, and they didn’t like our rules,” he said.
Ryan also polices his Minutemen, he said. He banned a member of the group’s Yahoo listserv for anti-Semitic posts.
The Minutemen group “doubtless contains some well-meaning people,” said Mark Potok, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “However, it embodies a lot of what’s scary about the [border-control] movement: a mix of weapons, bigotry and conspiracy theories.”
Many Minutemen supporters say they believe illegal Mexican immigrants come here as part of reconquista, a scheme by their government and others to take back the American Southwest.
“It’s a demographic invasion to reclaim the territories that Mexico had given to the U.S,” Ryan said. “Many Mexicans come over with the attitude that ‘this is our land.’ ”
Kathleen Appell, 62, a Minuteman donor, recounted seeing men advertising a Mexican restaurant while en route to a July 4 barbecue in Southampton.
“There are these Mexicans with sombreros, dressed in Mexican outfits,” she said. “It was an American holiday. I felt like I was in another country. How did this neighborhood change so fast… that there even is a Mexican restaurant?”
She said she has no quarrel with legal immigrants – and, indeed, is outraged on their behalf that illegal immigrants cut in the line to get to America.
“It really burns me,” said Frank Shiery, 47, whose wife had to wait nine months to emigrate from China on a fiancee visa.
But that’s not the main reason the martial-arts instructor, from Willow Grove, will patrol the Canadian border from a Mohawk reservation in New York next month. He fears Islamic terrorists.
“I view Islam as the scourge of the earth,” Shiery said. “It is pure unadulterated evil.”
At the King of Prussia meeting, former Chester County Commissioner Colin Hanna told the Minutemen that ranchers on the Mexican border have found copies of the Koran and Arabic-to-Spanish crib sheets intended to help Middle Easterners pass as Mexican.
Hanna started the We Need a Fence project to advocate for a 700-mile steel wall the Senate may soon vote to erect on the southern border. He will monitor the border from a Texas ranch next month as a guest of the national Minutemen.
For Ryan, his affiliation with the Minutemen has changed his life. The widower discovered the national group on the Internet and traveled to the border for the first time last year.
He sat in a lawn chair at the mile-long Huachuca crossing in Arizona every night for two weeks and bunked with Minutemen at a nearby Bible college.
“It was like meeting a family,” he said.
It was also like finding a purpose. During a vigil last fall near the Colorado River in Arizona, government agents drove by to show him migrants apprehended because of his call, Ryan said. There were 20 people sitting in the back of a van.
“You say, ‘Hey, maybe they would have gotten into the country if I wasn’t here.’ ”
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