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Minuteman Divisions 

Internal squabbles tear at anti-immigrant movement

Thursday, Jul 28 2005
Photos by Juan De Dios Garcia Davish

Early one recent Sunday evening, standing in the shade of the oak trees outside the VFW hall in Campo, California, Sally wrung her hands. “I don’t understand why there isn’t more people out here. I really don’t.” A round woman with graying blond curls, Sally (who asked me not to print her full name) had driven from her home in El Cajon to this tiny high-desert town about 50 miles west of Calexico to help out with the first of California’s three competing Minuteman Project–inspired civilian border-militia efforts. Journalists and protesters easily outnumbered the Minutemen on July 16, the first day of the project. Less than two dozen people showed up the next day, and fewer than 10 were lazing around the parking lot as Sally walked off toward her car. “I think it’s just a shame,” she said, and shook her head. The poor turnout may have had something to do with the fact that late last month, Jim Chase, the project’s organizer, told San Diego’s North County Times that he was fed up with all the factional infighting and was calling the project off. It may have been because, until the middle of last week, Chase concealed all logistical information about the project on an inaccessible “secret page” of his Web site. The idea, he said, was to confuse “the enemy.” It didn’t work — only Chase’s partisans failed to show. It may also have been that Chase can’t seem to get along with anybody for very long. For all the momentum the anti-immigrant movement has gathered in the months since the Minuteman Project concluded — with knockoff vigilante efforts forming from Texas up to Michigan — ego clashes, turf battles, tantrums and flameouts among a rogue’s gallery of would-be chieftains have kept the latest wave of resurgent xenophobia fragmented and, for now at least, largely ineffective. Jim Chase is an excitable man with short, white hair and a round, boyish face. An ex-Marine, he was wounded on six separate occasions in Vietnam and, as he put it, “came home on my back.” He found a job with the Postal Service, but retired in 1997 after suffering “what you call a post-traumatic-stress breakdown” for which he was briefly hospitalized. “Now I function pretty normal,” Chase said. “They tell me it’s incurable and blah blah blah, but I function just fine in my opinion.”

Chase now buys and sells real estate, collects his pension and has time to spare to devote himself to battling illegal immigration. By his account at least, Chase was part of the leadership of the Minuteman Project, and spent parts of March and April in southern Arizona. He was forced to return to his home in Oceanside two weeks early after he “fell off a cliff” and broke his arm. Shortly thereafter, Chase began organizing his own mini-Minuteman project, which he dubbed the United States Border Patrol Auxiliary. Factional wrangling has provoked him to change the name several times. It’s now called Border Watch, but in various spots on his Web site, the group still goes by the names California Minutemen and USA Minutemen. Chase’s rhetoric is considerably more militant, and militaristic, than that of his Minuteman precursors. His language occasionally reverts to jargon more appropriate to Saigon circa 1968 than to the far reaches of eastern San Diego County. (“Do not wear your guns in towns or hamlets.”) Until a day or two before the July event began, the site advised volunteers to bring baseball bats, machetes and “stunt guns” in addition to sunscreen and lawn chairs. And where the Minutemen allowed volunteers to bring only handguns, Chase is allowing rifles and shotguns as well. “I’ve been in many firefights,” Chase explained. “If I’m down there and I’ve got my pistol and they start popping my people, well, I’m going to have to start popping back, and I won’t have the range with a pistol.” Precisely whom he means by “they” is never quite clear, but one gets the distinct sense that it doesn’t matter much. Arrayed against him, as he sees it, are the “coyotes, illegal migrants, colonizing illegal aliens, illegal alien felons, al Qaeda members [and] Ninja-dressed drug smugglers” who are sneaking across the border, as well as the evil stooges of the “Open Border Lobby” (“OBL,” for short) and quite a few people who agree with him entirely. As he parsed it on his Web site, “If you are against us you are scum or just stupid beyond comprehension. Change sides fool. Lets not let OBL criminals kill the goose with the golden egg so our grandchildren suffer their foolishness. United We Stand!” It’s a curious kind of uniting, this, but it’s in the air these days, and it’s been part of the standard operating procedure of the anti-immigration right for years. Before the Minuteman Project won them national attention, the leaders of the various vigilante efforts active in southern Arizona — Chris Simcox of Civil Homeland Defense (later, along with Jim Gilchrist, a co-founder of the Minuteman Project), Jack Foote and Casey Nethercott of Ranch Rescue and Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol — frequently and colorfully sniped at one another in the press and on the Internet. So it was no surprise that the same June e-mail that announced the Minuteman Project was “going national” also took the time to spend four full paragraphs denouncing Jim Chase. “Mr. Chase has no authority to use the Minuteman Project name,” it read, “which is proprietary to Jim Gilchrist of California. Neither does Mr. Chase have Mr. Gilchrist’s permission to trade upon the Arizona Minuteman Project’s April record in any future border watch initiatives.”

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