The day was a scorcher—the kind where there’s no trace of moisture in the air, and the hot wind lashes you with its invisible fingers as it blows across your face.

Peter Leeds, team leader of the Arizona Minutemen Civil Defense Corps’ Search and Rescue detail, was in his pick-up truck patrolling the desert for illegal immigrants. He recalls coming across a young boy and an old man who had been abandoned by their smuggler in the desert to die.

View stories from various groups related to the Minutemen.

Shielded by a low bush, he spotted the pair against the barren backdrop. As he approached them, Leeds noticed the old man was weary and trembling—suffering from hunger, thirst, and exposure to the heat. He decided to offer up the last of his wife’s fried chicken, a Gatorade, and some water until the Border Patrol arrived. He says the thanks he got from the man and child as they were leaving in Border Patrol custody only reinforced for him the good he believes the Minutemen are doing.

Who they Are

Altruism, however, is not a characteristic universally associated with the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps. While its members – a loose-knit group of close to 10,000 volunteers who contribute time and money to patrolling parts of the 2,000 mile-long border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – insist they are America’s “true patriots,” many of their critics claim they are vigilantes with racist motives.

“Many of their critics claim they
are vigilantes
with racist motives”

Formerly known as Civil Homeland Defense, the group formed in 2004, a civilian’s response, members say, to secure the nation’s southern border in the wake of 9/11 three years earlier. The group, which soon became known as the Minutemen, was founded by Chris Simcox, a former newspaper publisher from Tombstone, Arizona, who taught kindergarten in Los Angeles, and Jim Gilchrist of California, a former Marine who in 2005 unsuccessfully ran for Congress as an American Independent Party candidate on an anti-immigration platform.

But the alliance didn’t last long. Gilchrist was accused by some his members of misappropriating funds. He and Simcox had a turbulent split over disagreements concerning the future of the organization. Simcox formed the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps in April of 2005 and officially cut ties with Gilchrist’s similarly named group, the Minuteman Project. But Simcox, too, has faced charges of fiscal mismanagement and secrecy, prompting some high-profile members to quit.

A rocky road

In fact, since MCDC’s inception, the group has been embroiled in controversy. It’s been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based group that tracks hate crimes, as an “extremist nativist” organization that “targets people rather than policy.”

Following highly publicized “maneuvers” on the border in 2005, the group began a $55 million fund-raising drive to build a 14-foot high security fence along the 2,000-mile southern border. But only a few miles of fencing have been built, including a section in Cochise County that is little more than strands of barbed wire—“a cow fence,” a former member told CNN.

Still, MCDC has grown in the past few years into a national non-profit organization whose chapters span at least 29 states. With their mission to “observe and report” illegal immigrant crossings to the Border Patrol, the volunteers of the Minutemen take their names seriously—describing themselves as “true patriots” who have taken up arms for their country to secure the border when their government has not.

Many Minutemen claim that it was their controversial maneuvers – armed patrols that drew heavy media coverage—in 2005 that prodded the Bush administration into adding 6,000 more Border Patrol agents in 2006, and temporarily deploying 6,000 National Guard troops to boost the U.S. presence along the Mexican border.

deanna dent

“Many people think of us as Billy Joe Bob, redneck in overalls, but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Simcox says. “These are the most responsible citizens in the United States. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance over your government—and when your government fails you; you are the government, responsible for exposing the problem and leading a reform.”

The members come from all over, many former military or law enforcement veterans. It’s not unusual to see those going on patrol dressed in camouflage or packing side arms. Yet when speaking to them, they are genial, sometimes even jovial. They say they just want immigration laws to be followed and for America to return to what it used to be.

“Most of our members just love America,” says Preston Williams, 60, the state director of the Oklahoma MCDC, while puffing on a cigar. He is a former parole officer and Vietnam veteran who could remind anyone of Santa Claus. “They’re not doing this because of personal reasons, but just because they remember what America used to be like. It was a different place then, and the values got lost in the shuffle. Now it’s just out of control.”

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates approximately 500,000 illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico through the southern border since 2004. Currently there are an estimated 11.9 million illegal immigrants living in the country. Lost in the figures are that a sizeable portion of those in the country illegally didn’t cross the southern border but have overstayed visas. Still, 400,000 to 450,000 illegal immigrants were reportedly living in Arizona as of 2005.

The numbers make Jeff Morrow of Buckeye, Arizona, 52—a light-hearted jokester usually full of laughs—very nervous. Tall, tanned and sporting cowboy garb, Morrow, who works as a delivery truck driver, says it makes life difficult when the people he competes with for jobs don’t come into the country legally and are willing to work for cheaper wages. Lately, he’s felt the effect especially hard when it comes to keeping up with medical bills for his sick wife who spends every night on a dialysis machine, and has had a brain aneurism and two strokes this year alone.

“We pay money into the health care system with taxes that they [illegal immigrants] then use, and it’s really killing us,” he says. “As a regular, working guy, I don’t mind the competition, as long as it’s even. They’re just tired people trying to do better—I get that. I don’t hate these people. But, it’s not too much to ask to just fill out the (immigration) forms.”

While the members of the organization feel they have shown an earnest attempt towards fixing what they believe is the country’s broken immigration system, humanitarian and civil rights groups contend the organization is a mere show to gain media attention and publicity.

“With their paramilitary attitudes and garb, they have created a chaotic environment down there,” says Jennifer Allen, founder of Border Action network in Tucson, Arizona. “They’re thinking about the short term and not the long term which only further illustrates their ignorance.”

On the border

Down a dusty, gravel road near Amado, Ariz., in what looks to be the middle of the desert, volunteers set up camp under a canvas shade tent ringed by SUVs and trucks. Dressed in faded jeans, boots and the occasional camouflage, the mood of volunteers is relaxed as they sit in their folding chairs around the table piled high with radios and night-vision equipment to chat over the next few hours before a typical evening watch.

The showing of volunteers this September day is a far cry from the big 2005 turnout that drew so much media attention. The meeting is low-key, devoid of media coverage. In fact, it seems as much a chance for members to network socially with like-minded individuals as an imperative to patrol the border.

Reflected even in its name, it’s not surprising that the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps has been influenced militarily in its structure and procedures. Each month, Minutemen volunteers from all over the country fly to Arizona to patrol the border in shifts for a weekend to a couple of weeks during a “muster”—an old military term to describe the assembly of troops for battle or orders.

Every volunteer is assigned a “mission” during the 8 to 10 hour daily shifts, either to serve with the Search and Rescue team or to “sit the line”—a term they use to describe the volunteers who are assigned to a specific area to observe and report what they see to Border Patrol. Generally, most members use radios, night-vision tools and thermal imaging devices which detect heat to search for illegal immigrants. Guns are a regular sight during these weekends, which various members say they carry during their shifts to be used only for protection in emergency situations.

And it’s not uncommon to learn that the majority of members at a muster, including National Executive Director Al Garza, are armed forces veterans or come from civic-minded backgrounds. Volunteers say MCDC provides them with a new way to utilize their former training in service to the country and to reminisce about their ‘old glory days’ with others who have had similar experiences.

Critics not convinced

But while MCDC leaders say their presence at the border has acted as a force in slowing illegal immigration—asserting on their Web site that they have reported about 30, 671 illegal immigrant sightings so far—skeptics protest there is no evidence to their claim.

“They are evangelists of fear, preying on citizens of the United States and encouraging racism with that fear mongering,” says Rev. Robin Hoover, a PhD political scientist and founder of Humane Borders in Tucson, Arizona. “They haven’t slowed illegal immigration—what they’re saying is not true and they have no evidence to substantiate it. If the U.S. government can’t even prove it, I don’t know why they think they can.”

And through all of the group’s media scrutiny, no one has been at the forefront more than Simcox—a leader who is loathed by his opponents and has been put on a pedestal by his followers. No stranger to controversy, Simcox has been criticized by outsiders for his history of making contradicting personal and organizational statements—from whether children of illegal immigrants should be considered citizens, to what type of fence the Minutemen were building, to how much money the organization has raised.

“I think the overall feeling among Minutemen right now is sheer confusion,” said Bob Wright, chairman of Patriots Border Alliance and former deputy executive director of the Minuteman in an article from Dec. 2007 with the Arizona Daily Star. “Chris is very, very non-confrontational. Whatever group he’s amongst, he wants to be liked.”

The internal struggle

Lately it’s not MCDC’s tough border stance that has gotten them in the limelight again—its questions regarding how Simcox and his leadership have handled the organization’s finances.

Since May 2007, former Minutemen leaders have been grilling him. That was when Simcox purged four top lieutenants and 14 state directors of MCDC’s then 27 chapters following a request they made for a meeting to discuss the lack of financial accountability, among other things, by national leadership. Financial questions rose to the top of the list when the leaders say they started to notice discrepancies concerning how much money the organization was reporting it had made and how it was being used.

“You don’t just raise millions of dollars and refuse to tell the public where the money is going,” says Stacey O’Connell, former Arizona state director who was among those terminated after the May 19 meeting request. “I don’t like to see the government do wrong things, just like I don’t like to see my own company and the people I work with do wrong things—I take it very personally.”

O’Connell, one of the most outspoken among the terminated members, points to the group’s 2006 IRS form as the one of the most noticeable examples of the alleged financial discrepancies. The form shows that approximately $270,000 had been spent on the construction of the Minuteman Border Fence Project as of December 14, 2006—but only $92,941 was declared as having been spent by the Minuteman Foundation, Inc., listed as the sole accounting body for the project.

In addition, that was also the year that Jim Campbell, a Fountain Hills, Arizona man, mortgaged his home to give a $100,000 dollar donation to the Minuteman Border Fence Project—a donation that exceeds the $87,500 in donations claimed on the IRS form—to go towards building a dual-barrier Israeli-style fence on the Palominas, Arizona ranch of John and Jack Ladd.

Instead of the promised high-security fence, the Minutemen have built 9 ½ miles of reinforced five-strand barbed wire range fencing on the Ladd ranch, and completed only ¾ of the promised mile-long, 14 ft. high Israeli-style barrier for Richard Hodges, a rancher who owns 372 acres of land in Bisbee, Arizona. MCDC stopped construction of Hodges’ fence in Jan. 2007, asking for donations of $400,000 more in May of 2007 to complete it.

“Our fence construction is completely supported by private donations,” Simcox said in a message to volunteers on his Web site, “The Minutemen are a volunteer organization and will only build fence sections as donations are available.”

And though his fence still stands unfinished, Hodges remains a firm supporter of MCDC and thankful for the protection they have offered him. A Bisbee native who has been threatened and shot at on his property, he says he feels safer now that the Minuteman have begun patrolling his land. Hodges has even suggested that because of the group’s initiative to build the Minuteman fence, the federal fences around him were built better and faster.

This map shows fences completed or in progress by the Minutemen, a volunteer civilian group building fences on private land, as well as completed Arizona-Mexico border fences built by the U.S. Government.

“I would hope that the Minutemen finish the fence eventually, but even with the way it is right now it’s entirely possible for me to say that the Minutemen saved my life,” Hodges says. “The fence they’ve built is a testament to people of the United States, the people who thought this was wrong, and to the Minutemen who came down here (to build the fence).”

But others such as human rights activist Isabel Garcia, a criminal defense attorney and founder of Coalición de Derechos Humanos in Tucson, Arizona, aren’t as thrilled with the Minutemen presence. Garcia is one of the Minutemen’s most vocal opponents, saying she believes they have had a negative impact on the people and policies around the border.

“They have created an environment that wasn’t here before,” she says. “Through their actions and language they’ve promoted outright lies in terms of immigrants and Mexicans in particular. We should have beautiful borders where different cultures mix and learn from one another—not a thing of pain.”

But Simcox says he and his volunteers are making a difference and they don’t plan on going away anytime soon.

“We’ve got the attention, focus, and national success that we are now starting to see the ship turn,” Simcox says. “It’s taken 20 years to create this mess, and at best it’s going to take 10 to fix it.”