Xenophobic Far-Right Militias Get a Tea Party Make-Over
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The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute provided support for this article.
In August of 2009, Al Garza, a leader in the anti-immigrant movement, left his post as vice president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC), once the largest, richest and most politically connected border vigilante group in the country. In an e-mail to supporters, Garza explained: I do not see an end in sight for the problems plaguing what was once the greatest citizen movement in America."
It had been an embarrassing summer for the group. A former member, Shawna Forde, was arrested and charged with murdering a Latino man and his 10-year-old daughter in Arizona. Forde allegedly believed that she would find drugs and cash in the victim's home, on a dirt road only a few miles from the US–Mexico border. Prosecutors contend that Forde was enacting a delusional plan to fund her breakaway faction—the Washington State–based Minutemen American Defense—by robbing Latin American drug cartels that she imagined were out to get her. The details about her fringe character that later emerged—her interest in starting an underground militia, her string of arrests for prostitution and petty theft, information from a co-defendant that her nickname was "White," because "she hates all ethnicity with the exception of Caucasians"—further wrecked whatever credibility the Minutemen had.
The publicity surrounding the case enabled Garza to recruit hundreds, including former Minutemen, to an alternative group he soon created, The Patriot's Coalition. "A lot of people felt, well, you're a Minuteman, you're a killer," Garza told me, at a truck stop near his home in Cochise County, Arizona. "The name Minuteman has been tainted by organizations that didn't want us at the border, that say we're killers, that we've done harm." Fortunately for Garza and others, their desire to reinvent coincided with a unique opportunity to do so—the emergence of the Tea Party movement on the national political horizon.
A few months before he broke with the Minutemen, Garza met Joanne Daley, his local Tea Party coordinator, at a tax day protest she had organized. Daley was a nexus of conservatism in Cochise County, spearheading health care reform town halls and a chapter of Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project. When Daley met Garza, she said, "we…found out we had a lot in common, mostly outrage." And when the time came for Garza to rebrand himself and his cause, he turned to Daley. She had expertise seeding nonprofits, developed through an old job with the state of Arizona. She registered Garza's new group with the Arizona Corporation Commission, listing him as president and herself as a member of the board of directors.
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The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps dissolved this past spring, after years of infighting and accusations of financial mismanagement. But the demise of the group, once so mediagenic that it spawned many imitators, does not signal the death of organized nativism in the United States. On the contrary, the anti-immigrant movement is stronger than ever. And it is gaining political muscle through its growing ties to other ultraconservative groups. Like Garza, many nativists are morphing into Tea Party irregulars. They are also redefining themselves more broadly as patriots, embracing a resurgent states rights movement to challenge the federal government's authority.
Consider, for example, the FIRE Coalition, an obscure organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center says accounted for almost all of the significant growth in 2009 in the number of grassroots outfits that harass immigrants. The FIRE Coalition has vilified undocumented immigrants as violent criminals and created a website that allows anyone to inform on them and their employers. But the group went well beyond its original mission in August, when it co-sponsored a national conference in Pennsylvania that brought together gun rights advocates, "Obamacare" opponents and John Birch Society members under the banner of states "demand[ing] their sovereignty from the tyranny of the Federal government." The speakers included Richard Mack, the author of The County Sheriff: America's Last Hope and a former Arizona sheriff who is—as conference promoters put it—"teaching local sheriffs that they have the power to say no to federal agents."