Crossing the Line

Michael Leahy, Washington Post, March 19, 2006

The deep bags under his eyes give him the look of a man who has spent an adulthood rising while most of the world sleeps. “I need some coffee,” he says as he walks. He learned how to start a day at dawn during two long stints in the Navy, and nowadays, at 51, he typically gets up in darkness to begin his workday as a computer software engineer at 6 a.m. in a Maryland office, a considerable drive from his quiet cul-de-sac in Herndon.

But George Taplin won’t be in his office early today. “If the day laborers get up early to get here, it means our people gotta be out here early, too,” he says. “Simple as that. We’ll see how many of ours come out today.”

Taplin had quietly arisen on this winter morning so as not to disturb his wife. He left the house alone and is ready to log a few more hours on a volunteer mission: striving to rid Herndon of all undocumented workers and to “do our part to help discourage illegal aliens from crossing the Mexican border and creating problems for towns like ours.”

The head of the Herndon Minutemen, part of a national organization devoted to repelling illegal migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and at labor sites across the country, Taplin is regarded in his town as everything from patriot to pariah. While a small band of loyalists flock to his early morning vigils, some acquaintances have been quick to give him the cold shoulder. One of his many volunteer activities around town involves teaching a religion class to children at his Catholic church, and he says a fellow teacher approached him to say his Minutemen activities were “un-Christian and hypocritical.” These days, he occasionally turns at the sound of a blaring horn to see a stranger raising a middle finger at him.

He walks into a Herndon diner called Amphora, his secret gathering spot today, a one-block stroll to where a crowd of Latino day laborers has already gathered to wait for potential employers. “We’d prefer that no one from our group show up over there at the site alone,” he says. “It’s smarter and safer to leave together as a group. We alternate the meeting spot so no one from their side knows exactly where we’ll be.”

Taplin orders a coffee and cranes his neck toward the entrance, where, in the next few minutes, half of his little brigade trickles in: Bill Campenni, the retired Air National Guard fighter pilot; his wife, Kathleen, the Canadian emigre who is now a U.S. citizen; Diane Bonieskie, the retired schoolteacher; Jeff Talley, who says he’s losing his aircraft repair job because it’s being outsourced to Mexico; and Joe, who won’t provide his last name or say what he does because “who knows who might get the information.”

“Hey, Joe, have some coffee,” George urges him. “Anyone know what it’s looking like over at the 7-Eleven?”

“They’re there,” someone answers. “About the same number.”

Taplin has two large cameras that dangle from his neck on cords and make him look like part of the paparazzi. He removes a walkie-talkie from a jacket pocket, swigs some coffee, clears his throat of its early morning huskiness and says, “Okay, we ready?”

He steps outside, looking down an alley that runs behind the 7-Eleven where the workers have gathered for years. He notices a couple of men observing him from a van, gesturing his way. One of them raises a camera to take a photo of Taplin. “Well, I guess we’re not going to be surprising them today,” he says, smirking. “We take pictures of them, and they take pictures of us. What they do now is run back to the 7-Eleven and tell all the workers that we’re coming: The Minutemen are coming, the Minutemen are coming, the Minutemen are coming. Maybe they think if they photograph us, they can scare us away. Sorry. No way.”

Not all of the Herndon Minutemen are happy with the scrutiny. A few in Taplin’s group worry that some immigrant rights activists might be prepared to follow and harass them. Taplin himself says he is unworried, but a new caution permeates everything he does. He doesn’t want anyone mentioning where he works. He says he has been “led to believe” that there could be some repercussions for him at his job if there is too much attention drawn to his work as a Minuteman. This reminds him of something. He turns to the group and says, “I need to be out of here at 9:30 to get to work.”

Nods around him.

“Oh, look at that guy, the guy behind the wheel,” he snaps, pointing at a van that is stopping to pick up two workers in the alley. In that moment, in his fury, Taplin makes clear why, even amid his wife’s worries about privacy and his concerns about his superiors’ reactions at work, he feels he must be out here. “This is why we must stop this. See that guy? He’s a contractor; he was around here last week hiring. A repeat offender. I want to get his picture.” But before he can raise his camera, the guy has driven off. Taplin, scowling, makes a note of the license plate. “That’s okay, I recognize him . . . I’ll get him next time.”

His brigade is 10 strong today. “You know what? He was a white guy. Latino contractors are way down since we started coming. What does that tell you? What does that tell you? The number of day laborers is down some, but, if we keep this up, I think the Latino contractors are going to dry up completely. You know why?”

He touches his walkie-talkie, plays with the button. Crackle-crackle. “Because their culture is built around staying below the radar and staying away from authority. They don’t want the threat of being exposed, because they’re illegal themselves a lot of the time, and their [businesses] are unlicensed” with Herndon and the state of Virginia.

Taplin’s interest in the Minutemen’s cause was ignited last year, he says, when he heard that a drunken Hispanic man had talked crudely and sexually to elementary school children at a bus stop. But, if that moment served as the spark, the dry tinder had been building in his mind for a while. “I started looking at the mess that this 7-Eleven was becoming, the eyesore,” he recalls. “People hanging out when there weren’t jobs or after they were done looking for work that day. It comes back to their culture. I spent some time in Rio when I was in the Navy. They didn’t respect the land in Rio. They urinated on streets, they threw trash, bottles . . . When you come here, you’re going to do what you did in your culture. You’re going to do what you know.”

{snip}

On another morning, with their surveillance finished, Taplin and the crew head over to the Amphora diner. Sitting near a window, Taplin has his cameras ready, just in case. The group has just ordered something to eat, when a vehicle pulls up to the diner and workers rush to the driver’s side.

Taplin walks outside and clicks a few shots of the driver, an Anglo contractor named George Griebel, who, furious, confronts Taplin in the restaurant. He demands an explanation—and the film from the camera.

“You were hiring an illegal,” Taplin says. “And I have the right to take your picture.”

Griebel says Taplin has no such right.

“Please go away,” Taplin says, smiling, shaking his head.

Griebel curses Taplin and walks closer to him.

The restaurant manager calls the police. By the time they arrive, Griebel is gone. “I know who these guys are, the Minutemen—whatever they call themselves, right?” he says later. “But what was I doing? Who are these people? I’ve lived in Herndon more than 20 years. I was there to pick up a guy who’s worked for me for three years, and he’s a good worker, and he’s not illegal, for your information. What—I can’t pick up a legal Hispanic guy anymore? I think [the Minutemen] are trying to create a split in this country.”

{snip}

After high school, Taplin joined the Navy and eventually took college courses while at sea, obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the computer field while rising to the rank of chief petty officer.

He was also intensely interested in politics. But he encountered a flaw in himself: He had problems getting along with colleagues. “I was a quick study when it came to everything except people,” he says. “I didn’t suffer fools gladly. My last [commanding officer] said to me: ‘If you weren’t so good at [your job], you wouldn’t get anywhere, because your people skills suck.’ “ Self-examination led Taplin to ratchet down his ambitions: He decided that running for office “probably wasn’t a realistic goal.”

He later found jobs in technology and contracting, but he was frustrated by his lack of advancement. “I was working at a job, and a promotion was coming up, and I was the most qualified, head and shoulders above everybody else,” he recounts. “One woman was chosen because she was black and female. It was a female-heavy group.”

In 1998, he and his wife moved to Herndon, her hometown, and settled in with their baby daughter. His life was private and quiet, until the day he heard the story about a drunken Latino man who had allegedly talked to the schoolchildren at the bus stop.

By then, the day laborers and their presence at the 7-Eleven also irked him. “The town’s policy was to appease some people and ignore the rest of us,” he says. Disturbed by reports that Herndon’s mayor, Michael O’Reilly, was pushing plans for the creation of the formal day laborer work site, Taplin organized a meeting of neighbors last July. For the first time in his life he was occupying the spotlight.

{snip}

Taplin oscillates between courtesy toward and disdain for the workers who stroll by. Sometimes he tells his fellow Minutemen to step aside so that the laborers, walking alone or in pairs, can get by. He turns toward the workers, calling out amiably, “Buenos dias, buenos dias, buenos dias.”

“Good morning,” one worker answers in English, glancing at Taplin in unsmiling reproach.

His name is Mario Rodriguez, and he has come from El Salvador. “He [Taplin] pretends he is being polite, but what he wants to do is ruin our chances here,” Rodriguez says in Spanish, away from Taplin. “But there are more of us than there are of him and the Minutemen.”

Taplin has already moved on, standing in a long line for coffee behind a file of workers. When he returns, he has another thought for his colleagues. “You know something else: When they hire these guys they also have to hire a Spanish-speaking foreman,” he says. “Because most of these guys can’t speak a word of English. I’m standing in line there, and if you talk to them, all you get is, ‘¿Que? ¿Que? ¿Que?’ ”

He is a party now to a lawsuit trying to shut down the day laborer center. He will be throwing his support behind like-minded candidates in the May town elections. He has already considered what he will do if the Minutemen lose their battle in Herndon. “I’ll get out of Dodge if that happens,” he says. “My wife and I would leave Herndon as soon as our daughter graduates from eighth grade.”

Meanwhile, it infuriates him that local politicians refuse to admit that the presence of undocumented day laborers has created slums in Herndon, ushering in squalor, crime, danger. Take a ride down Alabama Drive, near the former day laborer site, he says. “Nobody in Herndon will walk around those apartments at night; they’re afraid . . . Here’s a question: Would [people] walk over to that public park behind [the apartments] where all the drug deals go on at night? Would they let their daughter walk over there at night alone?”

{snip}

AFTER THE NEW YEAR, George Taplin has his moments of exhilaration, but he also experiences small indignities. One morning, he steps out his front door to discover spray-painted messages on the sidewalk: “NO PERSON IS ILLEGAL.” And “LOVE HAS NO BORDERS.”

{snip}

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