Julianne Ong Hing

Minutemen Leader Talks Like a Humanitarian

Editor's note: this article was written during the Democratic National Convention last month.

I imagined the folks at Minutemen gathering crowd asking themselves, "What's a young, minority lady doing here?" I joined them in Congress Park in Denver. It was billed as an all-day rally -- their 8-hour agenda featured speakers like Tom Tancredo, Bob Barr and Alan Keyes, but it was more like a subdued suburban picnic with lots of coded hate speech tossed around in alternating lofty and heated tones. Chris Simcox, president of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, called the event a "third party convention for the conservatives -- the real conservatives." The folks in the audience were nearly all white and middle aged, a relaxed crowd leaning back in their USA lawn chairs as if they were watching Independence Day fireworks.

I was first introduced to the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps while I was in school, in Orange County, of course, which is the home base of Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist.

With large numbers of immigrants in towns like nearby Santa Ana and Garden Grove, there was a passionate anti-immigrant sentiment that was impossible to avoid, but until today I'd never been to a Minutemen rally. They've fashioned themselves as a kind of right-wing citizen militia, recruiting volunteers in border states along the U.S./Mexico border, and even those further inland (there is a Colorado chapter), to police the border. When Minutemen guards spot immigrants daring to cross the border, they alert local law enforcement and consider it a "rescue."

Minutemen president Chris Simcox was a cordial and accommodating interviewee, he offered me water and ushered me to a shady spot away from the main stage for our interview wherein he outlined an easy 4-step plan to deal with undocumented immigration: "Secure the borders, step number 1. Enforce the laws, step number 2. Hold employers accountable, step 3. And, we feel we need to end automatic birthright citizenship. It's the second most powerful magnet that attracts people to commit the crime of entering the country illegally -- knowing if they have a child here it becomes a citizen. It's not automatically a citizen."

He both disparaged and glorified immigrants, calling them a wonderful addition to the American fabric, as well as criminal terrorists.

I asked him to help me sort out the "liberal rhetoric" I'm surrounded by that says many immigrants are hardworking folks who pay taxes and contribute to the local economy. He gave a puzzling reply, sounding at once sympathetic to the suffering immigrants endure in the U.S., and wildly off the mark with the policy solutions needed to address those problems.

"Many people here dearly want to return home. They wish they had the same opportunities in their country. They don't want to live in the shadows," Simcox said. He then added, "Why don't they ask their president, their Congress to provide them with the same resources [they seek in the U.S.]? By sending them home, they are going to return home and create sweeping reform movements in their countries."

Simcox sounded like he'd adapted the language of the humanitarian pleas of immigrant advocates, but with a twisted logic.

I could see the attraction of this backwards, political thinking for the racist xenophobes who still wanted to believe in the "good immigrant" narrative and larger American myths. But while equating foreign nationals with "gangers" who "rape, murder and rob," who also raise "pot plantations in our national parks, and they sweep it, and it's ALL foreign nationals," Simcox revealed his wildly racist, deeply held fears. He couldn't hide it behind his occasionally generous depictions of immigrants in the U.S.

When An Immigrant Mom Gets Arrested

Behind the thick glass that runs the length of the Yuba County Jail's visitation corridor, Tatyana Mitrohina's eyes glisten, and then fill with tears as she recounts the last time she saw her son. "During the visit, he climbed into my arms and fell asleep with his head on my shoulder while I walked around with him," she remembers.

Two months after that visit, Mitrohina was sent to the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, California, hours away from her 2-year-old son, who is in foster care. She was convicted on charges that she had hit him. While she does not deny the charges, she does say she had expected to be released from jail and to get counseling and start to rebuild her life with her child. But with the increasing collaboration between local authorities and federal immigration officials, Mitrohina found that she would not get that second chance. The government had slated her to be deported to Russia, the country she left as a teenager.

"When I first got here, I would break down crying once a week, just thinking about everything that's happened," says Mitrohina, who is 30 years old.

Immigration and child welfare advocates say that Mitrohina's story -- the loss of her child, her incarceration and detention, and her struggle to care for her child -- represents a new and dangerous terrain at the intersection of three government systems -- deportation, incarceration and foster care -- that are tearing apart poor families and families of color.

While rates of detention and deportation have increased exponentially in recent years, what is happening to immigrant families is not a new story. It has been played out time and again in the lives of Black families who, in the past 20 years, have faced an increase in drug-related arrests and sentences that place Black parents in jail and their children in foster care. As immigrant families find themselves targeted by a combination of public policies, it is becoming clear that their experiences and those of Black families, women and children are troublingly similar.

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