Ground Zero for Immigration
Flush against the gaping void of Ground Zero, Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist and Jerome Corsi, co-author of the John Kerry-smearing book Unfit for Command, addressed members of the media in the midday heat July 26. The two were promoting their new book, Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America's Borders. Their choice of the "sacred ground" of 9/11 was calculated to intertwine the threat of terrorism with undocumented immigration. Corsi wasted no time dedicating the book "to the victims of September 11, and our determination to oppose illegal immigration."
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In recent months the Minutemen have embarked on a publicity campaign drawing attention to their radical approach to immigration, including a run for political office by Gilchrist and a current effort to build a border fence in Arizona. Politicians and pundits, such as Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has since distanced himself from his earlier statements) and CNN's Lou Dobbs, have voiced support for the group. The Ground Zero dedication marked a heightened emphasis on linking illegal immigration and the "war on terror" in Minuteman rhetoric.
"Terrorists have used the Mexican border to infiltrate this country," said Corsi, citing the case of a Dearborn, Michigan, man who has been accused of tax evasion and money laundering for Hezbollah. "September 11 was the result of not enforcing immigration laws, of not securing our borders," he added, drawing approval from the twenty-odd Minuteman supporters, mostly unionized construction workers and plumbers. "We are doing the job of the President, the United States military and Congress." Gilchrist stood quietly at Corsi's side, visibly uncomfortable with the presence of the media and content to act as a foil for his outspoken partner.
Recent anti-immigration events in Fremont, California, and elsewhere in the state that have drawn Minutemen participants have been marked by occasionally violent confrontations. In the past, camouflage-clad Minutemen supporters have sent an intimidating message at some events. But for its "border watch operation," which will run from September 11 to November 7, the date of the Congressional midterm elections, Minuteman volunteers will patrol the Mexican border. Gilchrist aspires to craft a "good, wholesome, all-American image" for his organization, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee. "This is not a war.... Lose the cammies. Lose the weapons." At Ground Zero, however, his message was overtly belligerent: "If it's a war [pro-immigrant groups] and our political governors want, we will fight them!"
Soon, a group of 120 counter-demonstrators, organized by pro-immigration groups like the New York May 1 Coalition and the Tepeyac Association, set up on the opposite corner. They attracted immediate attention from the assembled press corps, chanting, "Racists out, immigrants in!" This, in turn, prompted Corsi to shout over the tumult. There were a number of verbal exchanges between assembled bystanders and Minuteman supporters, one of whom had given a Nazi salute to pro-immigration demonstrators earlier on. But the tourists and native New Yorkers were largely unimpressed by Gilchrist's and Corsi's rhetoric. "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life," a young woman remarked as she passed by the Minuteman supporters.
Corsi's speech was followed by one from Peter Gadiel, president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, whose son died in the World Trade Center disaster. "Our son died because our nation refused to secure its borders," Gadiel stated, claiming that the September 11 hijackers "were all legal" and driving home the alleged connection between 9/11 and illegal immigration. A lack of government oversight was to blame, he added: "Their visas were issued due to the open borders lobby.... Three of the bombers were here because of the amnesty of 1986." Gadiel's comments, however, were wide of the mark: None of the 9/11 hijackers benefited from the passage of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill of that year.
Corsi's citation of homeland security concerns evinced disdain from pro-immigration demonstrators. Some queried the framing of immigration as a security issue in light of the focus by the Minutemen and the media on the US-Mexico border, while the state of the US-Canada border is rarely discussed.
The considerable media coverage the Minutemen receive also rankled demonstrators, who view the vigilantes as "a very small minority." "The problem is that they're getting so much press," said Karina Garcia, 22, a senior at Columbia University. By contrast, the counter- demonstrators only gained the attention of the massed cameras once they raised their voices in dissent.
Others present sought to place the border vigilantes in historical context, referring to prominent nativist movements from earlier periods in American history and characterizing the Minutemen as a more media-savvy version of their predecessors like the Ku Klux Klan. Interestingly, Corsi and Gilchrist's book accuses the Catholic Church of favoring undocumented immigration, echoing the prominent anti-Catholicism of the Klan more than a century ago.
A 40-year-old sales executive who wished to be identified only as "Paul" watched the proceedings with bemusement. Paul, an Air Force Veteran of Desert Storm and a first-generation immigrant from Ukraine, took a matter-of-fact view of the issue at hand: "Illegal immigration is a problem, though immigration is the basis of democracy. I've been all over the world. This is the best place in the world to live, hands down. This is why all immigrants want to come here." The nativism of the Minutemen, in Paul's eyes, was a matter of relativity: "It's about what boat you got off and when you got off it."