'Minutemen' to Track Illegal Immigrant Labor

The anti-immigration group "The Minutemen" is expanding its mission beyond U.S. border states. The group is targeting businesses that may hire illegal immigrants.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The grassroots anti-immigration group known as the Minutemen is expanding across the country. The group first appeared last year on the Arizona-Mexico border vowing to stem the tide of illegal crossers. President Bush, among others, has dismissed these volunteers as vigilantes. Still, with illegal immigration a hot political issue, Minutemen chapters are spreading along with the group's mission.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

If you want to burst your stereotype of a typical Minuteman, just ride around Greensboro, North Carolina with Reagan Sugg.

Mr. REAGAN SUGG (Member, Minutemen Civil Defense Corps): You're in the south, huh? (Unintelligible) leads to the south.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of vehicle starting)

LUDDEN: Okay. Sugg does drive a Dodge Ram pickup, but he's also a soft-spoken, baby face, computer consultant in khakis in a button down shirt. Sugg grew up on a tobacco farm and says the Mexicans he worked with there were great guys.

Mr. SUGG: On weekends, some Saturdays, I would drive them to K-Mart and they would go shopping. They would give me their cash and I would buy money orders for them and send back home the cash.

LUDDEN: Yes, Sugg says, I know most immigrants are hardworking, dependable and loyal. But in recent years, he's come to see mounting illegal immigration as a threat to America's national culture and security. Last fall, Sugg spent a week with the Minutemen on the Arizona border. Now he's preparing to open a North Carolina chapter of the group, and he's been driving all over the state in his own version of field research.

Mr. SUGG: I'd say this area is probably 80 percent Latino, and there's about 400 trailers.

LUDDEN: Sugg says the local sheriff's office pointed him to this tree-shaded trailer park when he asked about illegal immigrants and crime. Amid potted flowers and children's toys, Sugg says he's seen cars here with gang insignia. And officers have told him the park is a haven for volatile homegrown meth labs. What galls Sugg is all the businesses that profit from undocumented immigrants.

Mr. SUGG: If you're the power company, if you're the gas company, if you're the cable company. And I think that's one of the main reasons North Carolina is again a haven for the illegals is that we don't enforce any type of check on residency status of almost any business or commerce conducted in the state.

LUDDEN: And you think that should change.

Mr. SUGG: Yes, absolutely.

LUDDEN: It's the type of issue the Minutemen hope to push in a lot of places. Greg Thompson has spent the summer holding training workshops for new chapters of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps.

Mr. GREG THOMPSON (Training Coordinator, Minutemen Civil Defense Corps): Well, we've been to Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri.

LUDDEN: He's had or is planning sessions for Colorado, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Thompson wouldn't allow NPR to attend any session. I'm not going to give away our battle plan, he says. But he explains he is training people to monitor and report on those who hire illegal immigrants, like contractors at day labor sites or restaurant owners with immigrant workers in the kitchen. Thompson calls that a health risk.

Mr. THOMPSON: Many of them are from Third World countries, so they've never had a vaccination. And we all of a sudden have had diseases come into this country that are rampant, and people don't realize that.

LUDDEN: Thompson also talks of targeting places that are a drain on public resources, like hospital emergency rooms, which must treat the undocumented even if they're uninsured. In this case, Thompson has practiced what he's preaching.

Mr. THOMPSON: Every hospital in Oklahoma City I've been in. I go in there and photograph them. It makes them nervous.

Mr. BEN JOHNSON (Director, Immigration Policy Center): Yeah. He takes pictures of who? That's what's frightening about this.

LUDDEN: Ben Johnson is with Immigration Policy Center in Washington. He says such tactics make the Minutemen's actions far more problematic in the interior of the country than they've been along the borders.

Mr. JOHNSON: You're just not going to be able to tell who's an immigrant and who's not, or who's an undocumented immigrant and who's not by looking at people. It doesn't work that way.

LUDDEN: And if the group ends up scaring immigrants away from hospitals?

Mr. JOHNSON: The fact that people won't go to emergency rooms until it's too late and then will need emergency ambulance care or need to be LifeFlighted some place, that just makes the problem worse for the United States in terms of dealing with the costs of low wage workers and their access to healthcare.

LUDDEN: Peter Skerry of Boston College studies immigration and politics. He agrees the Minutemen's provocative tactics have the potential to get out of hand.

Mr. PETER SKERRY (Professor of Political Science, Boston College): It would give me pause if I were the mayor of a local jurisdiction, but then maybe I would be more inclined to put more pressure on the authorities in the state capital, or especially in Washington, to focus seriously on this issue.

LUDDEN: Which, he points out, is exactly what the Minutemen want. While many are eager to dismiss the Minutemen as a fringe group, Skerry thinks that's a mistake. He calls them canaries in the coalmine.

Mr. SKERRY: I think, you know, to the affluent, immigrants look like a plus. They're gardeners, they're nannies, they're waiters, they're hard workers. But to large numbers of ordinary Americans, low skilled, non English speaking immigrants look more like a burden.

LUDDEN: Which is why Skerry sees the Minutemen as touching a nerve as they hit the heartland. None of this is to say the Minutemen are taking their eye off the Mexican border. They've got an ongoing campaign to build their own mini wall on private land in Arizona. And they've been right there as National Guard troops have been called to border duty.

Minutemen President Chris Simcox videotaped a recent visit to a National Guard post in Arizona. After asking the Guardsmen what they're doing, the Minutemen turned the table.

Mr. CHRIS SIMCOX (President, Minutemen Civil Defense Corps): So guys have any question about what we do?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah...

Unidentified Man #2: Because you guys, you do pretty much what we do now except without the M16s.

LUDDEN: One Minutemen quips he does pack an M16.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: But back in North Carolina, this image of the gun-totting free agent is being broadened. Greensboro's sheriff welcomes the Minutemen as a community watch. Reagan Sugg has been giving slideshows to North Carolina rotary clubs, men's clubs, a college class on constitutional law. Sugg says he's got several dozen like-minded folks ready to launch a new Minutemen chapter soon.

Mr. SUGG: I have one lady who is with the Department of Social Services who sees it first hand. I have construction workers, and I have people who work in auto sales, mechanics - just a cross-section of American people.

LUDDEN: People who say as long as the government does nothing about illegal immigration, they'll find a way to do something.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Beginning September 11th, hundreds of Texas Minutemen plan to help the U.S. Border Patrol watch the Texas-Mexico border near Laredo. It's an eight-week operation that will end on Election Day. The founder of the Minutemen Project, Jim Gilchrist, says the operation is intended to, quote, bring national awareness to the illegal alien invasion crisis.

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