A volunteer movement that vows to guard America from a wave of illegal immigration has spread from the dusty U.S.-Mexican border to the verdant hollows of Appalachia.
At least 40 anti-immigration groups have popped up nationally, inspired by the Minuteman Project that rallied hundreds this year to patrol the Mexican border in Arizona.
“It’s like O’Leary’s cow has kicked over the lantern. The fire has just started now,” said Carl “Two Feathers” Whitaker, an American Indian activist and perennial gubernatorial candidate who runs the Tennessee Volunteer Minutemen, aimed at exposing those who employ illegals.
Critics call the movement vigilantism, and some hear in the words of the Minutemen a vitriol similar to what hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan used against Southern blacks in the 1960s.
The Minuteman Project has generated chapters in 18 states—from California to states far from Mexico, like Utah, Minnesota and Maine. The Tennessee group and others like it have no direct affiliation, but share a common goal.
“I struck the mother lode of patriotism or nationalism or whatever you want to call it,” said Jim Gilchrist, a Vietnam veteran and retired CPA who co-founded the Minuteman Project 10 months ago. “That common nerve that was bothering a lot of people, but due to politically correct paralysis . . . everyone was afraid to bring up—the lack of law enforcement.”
At the Department of Homeland Security, whose authority includes patrolling borders and enforcing immigration laws, response to Minuteman-type activism is guarded.
“Homeland security is a shared responsibility, and the department believes the American public plays a critical role in helping to defend the homeland,” agency spokesman Jarrod Agen said from Washington.
“But as far doing an investigation or anything beyond giving us a heads-up, that should be handled by trained law enforcement.”
A group leading patrols of the California border raised concerns from the U.S. Border Patrol last week when they urged volunteers to bring baseball bats, mace, pepper spray and machetes to patrol the border. They backed off the recommendation, but insisted on another weapon when they started patrols Saturday: guns.
“The guns are for one reason—to keep my people alive,” said Jim Chase, a former Arizona Minuteman volunteer who is leading the effort.
Santos Aguilar, executive director with Alianza del Pueblo, a regional Hispanic support group in Knoxville, said he fears the volunteers are “spreading a lot of misinformation and are terrorizing the ethnic community in the area.”
Members of the Hamblen County Commission recently suggested that Hispanic immigrants were to blame if property taxes have to be raised next year—though commissioners insisted they were talking only about illegal immigrants.
County Commissioner Tom Lowe, who says “we do not want (all) Hispanics stereotyped as illegal,” estimates as many as 85 percent of Hamblen’s Hispanics are—and he fears they carry drug-resistant disease.
“We could be two or three aliens away from an epidemic that would sweep through our county and state,” the retired pharmacist said.
Hamblen County Mayor David Purkey said, like Lowe, he supports immigration laws, but finds such comments disturbing. “I think you have to be careful when you are expressing your opinion on that, that you don’t appear as if you are against diversity as a whole,” he said.
Guatemala native Noel Montepeque, who owns a company that provides a variety of blue-collar jobs to Hispanics, said the tone has changed since the first migrant farm workers passed through the area in the 1990s.
“Now they are getting afraid of the many Hispanic folks coming in,” Montepeque said. “And we are coming to stay.”