It was as if Ross Perot’s pensioners’ army had risen from the grave. Dressed in equal parts Wal-Mart and NRA, looking barely a day over 70, they lined a Salt Lake City boulevard to protest banks that dared open accounts for Mexican immigrants.
These are the shock troops of the virulently anti-immigrant Utah Minuteman Project. They gathered through the magic of talk radio under a “Don’t Tread On Me” banner, grasping Old Glory and hand-drawn protest signs: “Bush: Close Our Borders Before Iraq.”
Last month’s bank protest, the Utah Minuteman’s largest-ever event, drew 100 participants. The group’s core can be counted on two hands. Some are conspiracy buffs. Many are members of the Constitution Party, a fringe group combining Bible study and Thomas Jefferson that has registered barely a blip in Utah elections. They are so marginal that few Utah politicians or news outlets have reason to give them a passing nod'were it not for the fact that Utah’s minutemen have succeeded in all-but-repealing two immigrant-friendly state laws in the past year.
Early this month, more than 60,000 immigrants were told their driver licenses had been deemed invalid. Last month, the minutemen secured what looks like the end of university resident-rate tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants.
The minutemen have had greater success than two earlier anti-immigrant efforts, to which many of them belong: Save America and Utahans For Immigration Reform and Enforcement (UFIRE). Minuteman spokesman Alex Segura said the earlier groups scared some, and even sounded a bit racist, but “this is more of a patriotism thing.”
“With the Minuteman thing, people are embracing us left and right,” said Segura, one of a handful of activists who traveled to Arizona in April to “guard” the Mexican border. “We’ve gotten great, great coverage through the media,” he said.
Before the minutemen officially assembled, activists couldn’t get their phone calls returned. In June, they met with Salt Lake City’s mayor and police chief. Last week, they sat down with the Salt Lake County sheriff. So far, the governor and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon are holdouts, but the minutemen pledge to camp out in the politicians’ waiting rooms until they take a meeting.
Segura, a board member of UFIRE, is remarkable for being one of the few minutemen under 60. That’s one reason he was chosen as the group’s spokesperson. Another is that he’s proudly Hispanic. A fourth-generation American, Segura’s great-great-grandparents came from Spain.
Segura got riled about Mexican immigration while living in California, where his son was given the cold shoulder by Hispanic youth for “not being brown enough.” Like other minutemen, Segura talks about immigrants taking jobs and increasing health-care costs, but it’s also clearly about culture. Segura says he’s fighting the “Balkanization” of Utah. He gets upset when he walks into government buildings and sees signs written in Spanish. One of the group’s planks is to take the signs down. Another is making English Utah’s official language.
Mexican immigrants “don’t want to assimilate. Here in Utah they are trying to create their own separate class,” Segura said. “It’s time they get on the bandwagon. If you want Mexico, it’s south of the border.
California registers big with many of the minutemen. Wally McCormick, 68, retired in Utah, but spent his working life in California. “You go to Los Angeles, they don’t like you. They call you â€˜whitey.’ They tell you to get out of here, they’re taking this over,” he said.
The first of Utah’s new anti-immigrant groups'Save America, to which some of the minutemen belong' was started by a Californian. Barry Hatch, a former mayor of Monterey Park, Calif., moved to Utah a few years ago when his home state became too brown for his liking. His stories of having been pushed out of town by Mexicans and Chinese, and his warnings about an eroding white majority, have garnered him speaking invitations from white power groups.
The activists now heading the Utah Minuteman Project began working Utah’s Legislature two years ago. They started by targeting two passed bills written by Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, who represents Summit County’s ski industries, which depend on immigrant labor. Ure passed a bill in 1999 allowing immigrants to get driver licenses without Social Security cards. A second Ure bill, passed in 2002, lets children of undocumented immigrants pay in-state resident tuition rates at Utah colleges and universities.
Minuteman-backed bills to end immigrant driver licenses failed two years running, but paved the way for this spring’s compromise legislation that created a separate driving privilege card for immigrants that can’t be used as official identification.
Attempts to repeal the tuition break went nowhere until this February, when the minutemen arranged for John Ashcroft’s former terrorism adviser to talk to lawmakers about the dangers of educating immigrants. In 2004, the minutemen and their legislative sponsors couldn’t get the bill debated, but following this summer’s interim meetings, Ure’s 3-year-old tuition law is now fast-tracked for a repeal vote on the House floor in early 2006.
Utah’s minutemen aren’t unique in getting lawmakers to pay attention, said Devin Burghart, who charts the rise of anti-immigrant groups across the country for the Chicago human rights organization Center for New Community. This year, 150 anti-immigrant bills were introduced in 30 state legislatures seeking to tighten voting requirements or restrict immigrants’ access to amenities such as driver licenses, welfare and education.
State anti-immigrant groups “have been very politically effective despite not having a very large base,” Burghart said. “Nobody wants to be a target of these folks.” Still, Utah lawmakers who helped push the recent bills distance themselves from the minutemen and downplay their impact.
Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, said he was already thinking of repealing the tuition and driver-license laws before the minutemen asked him to sponsor the legislation.
“I don’t know what their agenda is, and I haven’t looked at their agenda,” Donnelson said of the minutemen, adding he was happy for the groups’ lobbying help, but “I’m not really a champion of anybody.
Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, goes further, saying the minutemen have damaged their own cause.
Bramble sponsored the compromise legislation that created driving privilege cards for immigrants after it became clear a total repeal wouldn’t pass. For his trouble, Bramble got bit by the minutemen who showed up at April’s Utah County Republican Convention with a resolution demanding the resignation of politicians who support privileges for the undocumented. Bramble spoke against the resolution, which failed.
“When UFIRE gets involved, I think that tends to erode support,” Bramble said. “I don’t believe their activism is netting a great deal.
Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, said the Legislature’s about-face on tuition and driver licenses wasn’t caused by Minuteman pressure. Rather, he said, lawmakers are rethinking immigration policy in the new light of national security.
“A lot of past [immigrant-friendly] legislation has been based on emotion rather than logic. Some of the unintended results have now surfaced,” said Oda, whose grandparents immigrated, legally, from Japan. “I think the world has changed. It’s not like you can just open it to every person that wants to come to the United States anymore.”
All the lawmakers said economic arguments carried the day with the tuition bill. What they won’t say, or may not know, is that many of those arguments came via the minutemen, who paid for an expert to fly to Utah and talk to lawmakers in February and again for this summer’s special session. The expert warned Utah could face hefty legal bills stemming from a Missouri lawsuit challenging that state’s policy of granting immigrants in-state tuition rates.
Utah lawmakers might not know the Missouri lawsuit was driven by a national anti-immigrant group. In fact, the professor who spoke to Utah lawmakers, Kris Kobach, was the courtroom lawyer representing anti-immigrant groups in Kansas. Still, courts show no signs of making the ruling that the anti-immigration groups want.
The Kansas case that frightened Utah lawmakers into changing state law was dismissed by a federal judge early this month. Utah’s own Sen. Orrin Hatch has sponsored legislation that would make the whole question moot by explicitly stating Utah and the eight other states granting in-state tuition rates are acting legally.
Whatever the source of the Legislature’s new direction on immigration, it likely will continue. Bramble said he wants to examine welfare benefits provided illegal immigrants, pointing to Arizona where a ballot proposition passed in November now blocks the undocumented from state services.
El Ogdentino, an Ogden, Spanish-language newspaper, devoted its April issue to minutemen from Utah and elsewhere who traveled to Arizona, concluding in an editorial they were “terroritas-racistas” hiding behind the cause of national security.
“These racist persons believe we Latin Americans are plotting to take over this country. â€¦ [that] we are a criminal band and we come to destabilize their well-being,” a newspaper editorial said.
That, in fact, is exactly what the minutemen believe. They will tell you so.
“There is a group that wants to take back the country Mexico once had,” said Thom Clark, donning an NRA cap and holding an 8-foot-tall sign at last month’s bank protest. “Our sovereignty is being threatened.”
The minutemen also will tell you that the new immigrants bring disease, sex rings and crime. Like Perot’s Reform Party of old, they are against NAFTA and a pending free trade agreement with Central America, against U.S. car companies moving jobs to China and wages that force mothers to work outside the home. They are upset about the costs of health insurance, declining job opportunities for workers without college educations and bad schools. Many see a direct connection between their personal problems and immigration.
Jeff McNeil, another charter Utah Minuteman, explained how he came to the cause: “I started seeing changes in the state of Utah. As I drove down to 900 South and 500 West, you start seeing all kinds of graffiti, signs in different languages. I started asking myself, â€˜What’s happening here, when my family can not get insurance, can’t go to the hospital and not pay, are not getting educated?’
Then it hit him. “We give illegals benefits that residents can’t get,” he said. “People say [immigrants] take jobs nobody else wants. That’s a bunch of hooey. They are taking jobs my kids need to have.”
Next week the minutemen will protest alleged use of illegal labor by contractors rebuilding the state capitol building. They are gearing up for the August Utah Republican Party organizing convention by calling GOP delegates, seeking changes in the party’s platform and arranging a Utah speaking tour for anti-immigration Congressman Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., just before the convention begins.
They’re looking for candidates to run against U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, as well as Rep. Chris Cannon whose stance on liberalized immigration policies they despise. They plan to protest when Mexican President Vicente Fox shows up for an expected visit to Utah.
Next legislative session, the minutemen will push to repeal the new driving privilege card. Undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to drive at all, they say. And if they can’t get that law repealed, they will ask for amendments forcing the state to hand over a list of card recipients to the federal Department of Homeland Security. In meetings with law enforcement they are asking that police be deputized as immigration agents directed to probe immigration status at traffic stops.
They say they are just getting started. For some, the cause can’t be overstated.
“We’ve been told the people will be asleep in the latter years â€¦ and then at the last minute, the people will wake up and find out, â€˜Hey, we better do something,’” said Utah Minuteman McCormick.
He isn’t just fighting immigration, but “secret combinations â€¦ the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, Bilderbergers. They are all one group who is the globalist order who wants to have a one-world government over the whole world.
“They want to bring the power of America to its knees. And they’re doing it. They sent all of our good jobs overseas. They brought people in to take whatever jobs that are left.”
The minutemen are here to take those people out.