The Magazine

North of the Border

From the August 29, 2005 issue: With the Minutemen on the Mexican border.

Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By MATT LABASH
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Tombstone, Arizona

THEY DON'T TEACH IT in journalism school, but that doesn't make it any less true: If you're going to go native with a subject, you need proper headwear. Such was my object, standing at the hat-rack of the Quik Pic convenience store between Tucson and Tombstone where I'd stopped en route to visit the Minutemen, the rag-tag band of private citizens determined to end illegal immigration in spite of government apathy.

The loosely organized, all-volunteer Minutemen have captured headlines and imaginations since their month-long stand on the Arizona/Mexican border in April. Make that their month-long sit, since much of their activity requires taking a load off in their best lawn chairs. They plant themselves on the border in everything from those old metal-tube jobs with vinyl webbing to the Wilderness Recliner with durable padded seat and insulated beverage holder, there to serve as reporting agents and visible deterrents against the gusher of illegal aliens our government seems unable, or unwilling, to stop. Their very logo is an advertisement for proactive passivity. It depicts a Revolutionary-era Minuteman holding a cell phone and binoculars, as opposed to the more forthright musket.

Even in school plays, however, I could never pull off the tricorn hat. It made my face look angular. And with the Sonora Desert sun hot enough to tan you through your clothes and turn your ear cartilage into crispy rinds, picking the appropriate lid warranted careful weighing of the evidence.

Some proponents cast these lawn-chair warriors, whose median age is near 60, as devout patriots conducting a high-stakes neighborhood watch, the "neighborhood" consisting of our lawless 1,900-mile southern border, large parts of which aren't even marked, let alone fenced. The Minutemen, they say, are just as likely to offer sun-baked illegals life-sustaining water as they are to hit speed-dial on their cell phones, ratting them out to the U.S. Border Patrol, which gives them an air-conditioned escort back to Mexico. According to boosters, they are watchdogs and humanitarians, having over the last three years rescued some 160 aliens who'd nearly perished in the desert.

It would seem, then, I couldn't go wrong with a straw grape-picker's hat in the Steinbeck mode. It sits atop the crown as a testament to American solidarity with oppressed-peoples-of-the-world. Made in China, probably in a sweatshop, it was a real steal at $2.50.

On the other hand, there are the Minutemen's legions of detractors. Mexican president Vicente Fox called them "migrant hunters," while George W. Bush denounced them as "vigilantes." The Minutemen do tote guns (though they encourage their ranks to secure concealed-weapon permits, the better, organizers say, to put the government to work weeding out potential wackos through criminal background checks). Yet the entire month of April, the heaviest thing that went down was the censuring of a new volunteer who gave a weary illegal water and Wheaties (along with 20 bucks), then photographed him wearing a T-shirt that said "Bryan Barton Caught Me Crossing the Border And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." Barton was summarily dismissed.

Whatever policing of their ranks they'd done, the Minutemen had been macheted in the press. Every sour-tempered hack and alternative-weekly assassin had turned up to call them extremists and xenophobes and depict them as backwoods mouth-breathers, just as happy to hunt Mexicans as to loll on the redwood decks of their double-wides. They were dismissed as "red-faced pudge-tubs in full camo," and their campaign disparaged as "Granddad's Last Stand." Journalists had it both ways, hinting at impending violence, then being dismissive when it didn't materialize: "These Minutemen are to real vigilantes . . . what the Disney Jungle Boat Ride is to Amazon exploration," sniffed one scribe.

It was a confusing picture. Often portrayed as feckless rather than cautiously law-abiding, the Minutemen still came off in the media as some sort of super-spawn of Bernhard Goetz and the Michigan militia circa 1995. So back at the hat rack, having not yet met a single Minuteman, I doubled down, selecting a black, militia-style "Try-to-Burn-This-Flag" Stars'n'Bars number. Just to be safe.

TOMBSTONE IS A TOWN that was carved out of Apache country. The prospector who named it, claiming that he traveled among the fierce Indians in the surrounding hills to "collect rocks," was warned that if he persisted in his folly the only rock he'd find was a tombstone. The town was welcoming that way.