Nativists Get a Tea-Party Makeover
Nativist causes are getting a wider hearing, as Tea Party groups meet with political candidates from every party and at every level. Daley's Tea Party group in Cochise County, for instance, pushed for every statewide, county and local candidate who sought its support—and she says there have been many—to adopt a tougher stance on border security. Connections to the patriot movement have also broadened the base for anti-immigrant politics. "You have people who entered the Tea Party movement largely over fiscal issues getting into a whole realm of politics that they were not really…involved in," says the Southern Poverty Law Center's Heidi Beirich, who tracks the ties between the anti-immigrant and patriot movements.
The evolution of Jeff Schwilk, an ex-Marine and Minuteman leader from northern San Diego County who has also jumped on the patriot bandwagon, suggests another, more subtle reason all the cross-pollination matters.
The group he founded, the San Diego Minutemen, adopted an aggressive style that landed its members in court several times and led the San Diego Union-Tribune to call them "maladjusted misfits." They provoked physical confrontations at work sites that led to misdemeanor arrests in a few cases. In one case, police charged Minuteman John Monti with beating up a day laborer and filing a false report alleging that the laborers attacked him. A defamation suit that Monti settled claims that he, with Schwilk's help, distributed "Wanted" flyers with mug shots of the immigrant workers and a number for the San Diego police. Meanwhile, a jury in a civil case found Schwilk guilty of slandering a Korean-American ACLU observer by circulating a link to a website that suggested she helped day laborers because they paid her for sex.
But there has been a marked change in the style and presence of Schwilk's group in the past year. Members of the San Diego Hate Crimes Coalition say the group's in-your-face antics peaked in 2007 and 2008. Day laborers still occasionally see a few of the men they call "los racistas," who used to dog them, but the Minutemen keep their distance now. Their numbers are also much diminished. "It's not as aggressive as it used to be, when they came out in force, with dogs," said Ernesto Hernandez, a day laborer waiting for work at a shopping center in Vista, California one morning this summer.
The San Diego Minutemen appear to have shifted strategy, to capitalize on a movement with electoral buzz and a reputation less compromised than their own. In 2009, Schwilk started the SoCal Patriots Coalition, a loose network that claims local Tea Party and gun rights groups as members. He has also participated in several open-carry exercises. "Our fight is all political now," Schwilk e-mailed me. "Our fight is in our cities, county and state, and federal governments." A group once listed as a SoCal Patriots member—StopTaxingUs.com, a key organizer of the anti-immigrant rallies in Phoenix this summer—also seems to be trying to shed its past connections to the San Diego Minutemen. Immigrant advocates say Rhonda Deniston, a StopTaxingUs.com coordinator, was once an active member. (She denied ever being involved with Schwilk's group in an e-mail.) She is now a Tea Party organizer in San Diego County. Schwilk and Deniston both denied requests for interviews.
As it reinvents as an arm of the patriot movement, the San Diego Minutemen also appears to be packaging its hate in a more sophisticated way. "We suspect that all these groups they hook up with, they share know-how and tactics," says Capt. Miguel Rosario, whose precinct includes a canyon targeted by Minutemen because migrant tomato pickers lived there. The Minutemen had crusaded against the camp as a den of child prostitution for years. In October of 2009, Schwilk and two men called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report a case of underage prostitution in the canyon. When police arrived, they found the Minutemen armed with cans of mace and a stun gun. In their custody were a 29-year-old woman and a migrant. The Minutemen claimed the migrant attacked one of them, but it was the migrant who bore the bruises. Police charged two of the Minutemen with battery, but dropped the case because the victim, who is undocumented, disappeared. Schwilk was not charged, because he delegated to the others, Rosario said.
The case indicated to the precinct captain that Schwilk was beginning to subcontract out his rhetoric as well his roughhousing. After charging the Minutemen with misdemeanors, he was deluged with hate-filled e-mails accusing him of being a Reconquista agent. But none came directly from Schwilk or any member of his organization. "We can see progressively how they get more politically astute about how to talk and how to act," Rosario said. "They've evolved from saying anything to now being very careful about what they say."
While the Tea Party movement contains fringe characters to rival the anti-immigrant radical right, the intensifying relationship between the two has given some nativist groups and leaders with troubled pasts the opportunity to recreate themselves in a more mainstream image. It also threatens to boost anti-immigrant measures in play at state and local governments across the country, as the Tea Party's recent successes at the polls lead more moderate Republicans to also consider recreating themselves in their image.