The Minutemen could be heard before they were seen. First came the bullhorns barking "This is America, not Mexico" and "No work today. The Minutemen have arrived." Then the group of two dozen men and women, holding U.S. flags and cameras in their hands, turned the corner and started bearing down on Hispanic workers waiting for jobs outside the Macehualli day-labor center in northern Phoenix, Ariz. Sensing trouble, some took refuge behind the gates of the center, and others melted away down side streets. As the laborers fled, the protesters tried to take pictures of their faces. "This is our country!" shouted a Minuteman. "We are under invasion."
Salvador Reza, 54, a project coordinator for the center, called 911, and several minutes later the police arrived and defused the confrontation. "It was starting to become dangerous," he says. "They wanted to create violence and then blame it on the laborers."
Although the demonstrators denied having violent intent, they surely had plans for any photographs they could take of laborers being hired on the street. The pictures would have been sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and posted on websites like wehirealiens.com The hope was that doing so would put the heat on U.S. employers who hire some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and on the immigrants themselves, forcing them out of business.
The campaign, Operation Spotlight, is a new--and some fear dangerous--tactic by the self-named Minutemen, the anti- illegal-immigrant group that in April began standing watch on the Arizona-Mexico border to intercept people crossing into the U.S. The group has caught few border jumpers but generated lots of attention for its cause and is now turning its focus in from the border, staging Operation Spotlight protests not only in Phoenix but also in the California cities of Laguna Beach, Lake Forest and San Bernardino as well as Herndon, Va. There are plans for demonstrations at day-labor centers in Alabama, New York and Tennessee.
"We will be expanding these protests," says Jim Gilchrist, 56, a retired accountant who is a founder of the Minutemen. He is running for Congress in California, waging a single-issue campaign against illegal immigration. "We are even getting inquiries from countries like France and England."
With President George W. Bush's scheduled visit to the Southwest raising anew the issue of the porous border and with Congress planning to take up several bills in December to address the problem, the Minutemen's timing, at least, is deft. But vigilantism is a risky business, particularly when it carries an odor of race baiting. The more the tension builds, say the Minutemen's critics, the greater the risk that violence, avoided in Phoenix, could break out. "The Minutemen are getting stronger precisely because Bush and Congress are addressing immigration," says Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute in New York City. The question is, Can Washington reach a solution before somebody throws a punch--or worse?