California Minutemen volunteers patrolling in 2005. (Sandy Huffaker/AP)
Back in 2004, Jim Gilchrist, a retired Marine and the founder of the California Minutemen Project, emailed a few dozen friends and family suggesting that concerned civilians personally combat illegal immigration by traveling to the Arizona border with him. Gilchrist lives in Orange County, Calif., but the Arizona border was the most heavily trafficked and sparsely patrolled. That email reached thousands of people and touched a nerve. Hundreds showed up in April 2005 to patrol the border. Some of them brought floppy hats, lawn chairs, binoculars and American flags. Others toted guns and protest signs. The group banned neo-Nazis from attending, though some came anyway. A movement was born.
Gilchrist estimates he did 4,000 radio and TV interviews over the next five years as his group's membership swelled and the media attention exploded. "It was just literally overwhelming," he said.
But today, the once-thriving Minutemen anti-illegal immigration fraternity has all but died out. No one knows exactly why the groups fizzled so quickly, but researchers and former border-watching leaders say infighting and bad press have taken a toll. At the same time, the tea party movement started to rise, which usurped members and stole the groups' thunder.
Still, the movement's message and popularity have left an indelible mark on the Republican Party, whose leaders underestimated the anger in their base over illegal immigration. The GOP, which at the time was considering legislation to legalize undocumented immigrants in a version of Ronald Reagan's 1986 immigration reform law, rejected the popular movement at first. President George W. Bush dismissed the Minutemen as "vigilantes," while Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner said he worried the volunteers would get hurt or hurt illegal immigrants.
Seven years later, Gilchrist tells Yahoo News that the Minutemen Project has petered out amid expensive legal battles over control of the group. Some of his former comrades attempted to fire him as president, alleging that he was using the group's funds inappropriately. He countersued for defamation and lost, but eventually won back control of the group in court. Outspoken activists mainly interested in money and fame infiltrated the ranks and tried to take over, says Gilchrist, distracting from the original goal of border watching. "There are bad apples," he said. "There are some in any group."
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