To the Rescue
Dave VonKleist is ready to jolt this crowd out of its early-morning stupor.
Armed with a guitar, VonKleist steps onto a makeshift stage in a large banquet room at the Clarion Hotel just east of the Truman Sports Complex. On weekday mornings, VonKleist hosts The Power Hour, a political talk show on KCXL 1140 focusing on government misdeeds and the hijacking of American freedoms. But on this Saturday morning in late September, he’s providing entertainment at Operation U-Turn, a daylong event billed as a “Neighborhood Watch and National Defense Conference.”
More than 120 people have been browsing at tables along the back wall. Sipping coffee from paper cups, they pick up copies of The American Free Press with headlines such as “Near War on the Mexican Border.” They chat with Janet Renner, who hands out pens stamped with the phrase “Stop the Invasion!” So it’s no surprise that VonKleist’s unique rendition of Neil Diamond’s “America” is a crowd pleaser. In an exaggerated Mexican accent, VonKleist sings: Free, I get everything free/I reach out my hand/They give it all to me.
VonKleist is just a warm-up act, the guy who keeps the energy level high between the sometimes tedious speeches. But one speaker doesn’t need his help.
Al Garza, a compact man with a perfectly manicured gray mustache, is the executive director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Since April 2005, the Minutemen have organized citizen patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to observe and report the entry of illegal immigrants.
The Mexican border is 1,161 miles from the Clarion banquet room. But Minuteman Randall Cox, the leader of Missouri’s chapter, believes that the Show Me State needs to hear what Garza has seen.
“I’m from what you’d consider ground zero — where they [illegal immigrants] come through your property, flip you the bird, laugh at you, threaten you,” Garza tells the crowd, his voice rising. “They’re not here to assimilate. Trust me. I know three languages. I listen to the radio on a daily basis, and I’ve learned to be attentive to what they say…. And what they’re saying is, ‘America, we’re going to take your country away from you.’ I don’t mean to scare you, but these are the facts.
“It’s not one or two or three coming through in the night,” he continues. “It’s an invasion. It’s nothing short of that. The federal government’s not doing anything about it, so, by God, the Minutemen will do it for them.”
The crowd erupts into applause. At least one man is carrying a gun and extra ammunition.
“We’re not vigilantes. We’re not the KKK. We’re a majestic form of neighborhood watch,” Garza says. “And in the last few years, it’s become so powerful in its momentum that we’ve gone from 10 people to well over 8,000 nationwide.”
At the back of the room, surveying the scene stoically, is Ed Hayes, leader of the newly formed Kansas chapter of the Minutemen. Sitting at a table scattered with literature and black baseball caps, Erik Van Dusen recruits for his local group in Joplin. Tom Franiak, a construction contractor in Springfield, wasn’t able to make the drive, but his chapter in Southwest Missouri drew more than 150 people to its first meeting two months ago.
When VonKleist takes the stage again, he wants to know: “How many are upset?”
The room resounds with applause and shouts of agreement.
“Well, get motivated,” VonKleist says with a wry smile. “We’ve got a war on our hands, folks.”
d Hayes lives in a tidy Olathe subdivision. A 64-year-old grandfather who takes pride in his 28 years of law-enforcement service, Hayes keeps his big-screen TV tuned to Fox News, his American flag flying above his garage and his elected representatives informed of his outrage.
Fifty-three percent of Americans consider immigration among their top three concerns, according to a survey released last month by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., nonpartisan research organization. In Kansas, a SurveyUSA poll reported this past June that more than 20 percent of 600 likely voters said illegal immigration was their top issue. In Missouri, a Research 2000 poll conducted in September found that 73 percent of state residents want illegal immigrants deported, and 63 percent said they want stricter penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers.
In recent months, Hayes has become the local face of one of the most controversial groups in the immigration debate.
The square-jawed, straight-talking retiree was among two-dozen Midwest residents who went to Omaha, Nebraska, in June to meet with Greg Thompson, the national development director for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. There, they were groomed for leadership positions, with the aim of establishing Minuteman groups in every state by February 2007.
Hayes says the issue caught his attention because he’d spent his career “catching crooks.” On the second floor of his home — past framed pictures of cowboys and American Indians locked in battle and replicas of antique rifles and handcuffs carefully arranged on the stairwell — Hayes has turned a small office into a command center. Beside a towering bookcase packed with titles such as Pat Buchanan’s State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America are photos of his father and grandfather, memorializing their service with the Olathe and Kansas City, Kansas, police departments.
“I arrested illegals back in the late ’60s,” Hayes says. “We’d pick them up, and the INS would come get them. They were farming in the DeSoto area, as I recall, so we ran into most of them on the K-7, K-10 highways. We’d get them by the carload: four, five, six to a car.”
In the early ’70s, he started investigating a different type of trafficking. Snapshots depict a young, shaggy-haired Hayes in a bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses, buying smack as an undercover agent for a federal drug task force. In one picture, he’s making a deal in a shady corner outside a mall in Olathe. In another, he’s talking to a bare-chested pusher in the parking lot of the Merriam International House of Pancakes.
Hayes retired in 1993. “I wanted to play,” he says. He moved to Colorado, built a house and volunteered his piloting skills with a local search-and-rescue operation. In 2002, he moved to Arkansas to live on the White River. His public-safety instinct kicked in once again in 2004, when he was selling his plane.
“That thing was a hot little airplane — it had 50 percent more power than manufactured,” Hayes says. After he placed an ad in a national magazine, a man with what he calls a “Mideastern accent” who said he was from Saudi Arabia responded and started asking strange questions.
“It was a suspicious call,” Hayes says. “So I called the FBI and reported it.”
The former detective also remembers a trip to an electronics store in Overland Park a couple of years ago that gave him cause for concern.
“There were a couple of Middle Eastern folks buying cell-phone batteries,” he says. “I heard them talking to the clerk. They were talking in Arabic — or what I assume was Arabic — and quizzing the salesperson about more batteries. It looked a little suspicious, so I went out to the car and got their license number and turned that over to the FBI.”
Such incidents played into the sense of “culture shock” Hayes felt upon returning to Olathe in 2004. He’d been gone less than a decade but was surprised by a spike in the number of “folks from other countries” he saw in the burgeoning suburban community.
“Just go to a lumberyard or stores like Wal-Mart or Kmart,” he says. “Or go to a place that sells sprinkler systems. All you have is Hispanic signs and different languages and a lot of people who you’ve got to wonder if they’re not illegal. They’re right there in your face.”
Hayes says he gets calls and e-mails every day from residents across the state who are concerned about the effects of immigrants on their jobs, their neighborhoods and their safety. He records their information and has worked up more than 50 detailed complaints.
He says he’s investigating several situations but won’t provide specifics about them.
“No, I better not,” he says. “I better leave that alone.”
His work leaves little time for other activities. “The other day, I said to somebody that I was working six hours a day. My wife said, ‘Try eight or 10.’ She keeps track. I had a fellow call the other day who said that he wanted to get involved, and he wanted to get involved right now,” Hayes says. That same day, Hayes’ wife had surgery on her hand. “I really didn’t need to be leaving her. But I went. I had to run to the post office, so I met him there and gave him everything he needed, and he’s a member now. And he wants to work.”
In fact, plenty of Kansans want to take up the cause.
he back room at Mandeno’s restaurant in Topeka is bustling on a dreary Saturday morning in September.
A local TV news camera crew crowds the entrance, but diners can’t miss the “Join the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps” banner on the wall. Sitting on an empty buffet line are copies of a sheet listing the group’s standard operating procedures. Members are required to remain courteous and never “present for duty or serve in any capacity if intoxicated.” To introduce attendees to the Kansas chapter, Hayes has printed handouts that urge, “Remember, it’s our country!”
When the camera crew finishes interviewing a woman in a “Secure Our Borders” T-shirt, Hayes saunters to the podium, his hands on his hips framing a golden eagle belt buckle. Nearly 40 people are here; the crowd includes a young man whose arms are covered in tattoos, as well as a mother with a preteen daughter in a pink sweatshirt. Hayes puts on a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses and launches into his presentation.
“Illegal immigration is one of the biggest problems this country faces, he announces. If you had a terminal disease, would you wait years before seeking treatment, or would you act now?
“Well, this is a life-threatening situation,” he says.
He pauses, sliding a tape into a small silver boombox on top of the lectern.
“Let me play something for you.”
A deep voice accompanied by the sound of shattering glass ominously warns of the perils posed by illegal immigration.
“Every minute, they’re crossing our borders looking for quick-cash jobs, transportation and accommodations,” the voice intones. “Some may be Mideastern terrorists with look-alike resemblance to our south-of-the-border neighbors.”
The second message: “Did you know that your congressmen and the president take an oath of office … to protect each state from invasion? So what about the millions of illegals from alien nations crossing our borders … ? Is that an invasion? Would you call a burglar in your home a houseguest?”
And then the third: “These folks in Washington, D.C. … are granting amnesty to illegal aliens, and giving them everything from Social Security to free health care is just the tip of the iceberg…. Is that what you want? We don’t think so.”
At the end of each recording comes an announcement that this has been “a public service message from the Kansas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. —nonprofit, nonpolitical and nonpartisan.”
Hayes is trying to get local stations to carry the radio spots for free. Illegal immigration should be getting as much press as the war in Iraq, he says. It’s up to citizens to educate themselves. (Hayes tells the Pitch that sources for his facts include the national Minuteman organization and the weekly radio show hosted and broadcast over the Web by Chris Simcox, the group’s controversial founder.)
“They’ve taken over California,” Hayes tells the crowd. “They’re working on Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. We’re going to become a minority of illegal immigration.” He tells them to research the National Council of La Raza — the nation’s largest advocacy organization focusing on the civil rights, education and employment of Hispanic Americans. “They’re a Salvadoran group of terrorists. We have them in Kansas City right now. La Raza believes the Southwest is theirs and we should leave. They want illegals to come up here and have babies and take over the United States.”
Hayes’ emotion builds before he stops for a disclaimer that punctuates each meeting.
“This may insult some of your intelligence. But we’re not bigots. We’re American patriots. If you’re a skinhead or a member of an extremist group, leave now.”
(Before the meeting, Hayes told the Pitch: “We’ve been called bigots, racists, homophobes. I could go on and on. When the pro-illegal-immigration folks start cutting us down like that, though, we know we’re doing something right. When they start calling me names, I look at them and I see the real racist. Because we are not. They’re either a racist or an employer.”)
Hayes tells the group that these issues are too important for the Minutemen to be intimidated by schoolyard name-calling. There are terrorist camps in Mexico, he says.
“They’re teaching Middle Easterners Spanish, teaching them how to dress Hispanic, and now they’re all over this country, and Lord knows what they’ll do.” He says illegal aliens are draining the health-care system, bankrupting hospitals and crowding schools. As a former law-enforcement officer, Hayes says, the thing that really burns him is the impact on public safety.
“They’re in vehicular accidents where they leave the scene or have no insurance,” he says. “Rapes, robberies, killing cops and running back to their home country —these people are breaking the law every day they’re here. They’re 10 percent of the nation’s crime, and our prisons are full of them.”
Audience members nod in agreement.
This is the second meeting Hayes has convened. The Kansas chapter’s inaugural meeting in late August drew more than 30 people to a conference room at the Central Branch of the Johnson County Public Library in Overland Park. Hayes announced that his goal was to set up chapters in each of the state’s 105 counties.
Hayes had prepared fliers containing a list of “What We Need To Do As Kansans.” Included in the action plan: “Identify illegal aliens,” “identify illegal alien residences,” “identify landlords of illegal aliens,” “identify employer pickup points,” “identify employers of illegal aliens” and “contact your local Sheriff and Chief of Police requesting their diligence in apprehending illegal aliens.”
But that’s not all.
“One thing we’re interested in is a salvage yard where illegals go each week,” he tells the crowd. “There’s a trend where, when we show up, they leave.”
He says he’s encouraged by what happened in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where the City Council passed an ordinance to identify and financially penalize business owners and landlords who employ or house undocumented immigrants. Hayes wants Kansas municipalities to pass similar resolutions (though the controversial measure is under injunction awaiting a lawsuit in federal court).
Hayes tells the people in the audience that they can become members of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps for $50 — the cost of the required criminal background check.
Then he opens the meeting to comments.
“If they had uniforms on, they’d be an army,” a woman says.
“They are an army,” another says.
A dark-haired woman in the back row chimes in. “I was driving down Metcalf the other day, and there was a big truck that said ‘Viva La Raza.’ I mean, they’re already here.”
“We’re under a well-organized invasion,” Hayes says.
t’s the last day of September, a few days after the Operation U-Turn confab at the Clarion. At 4 p.m., Randall Cox is on his third beer at the Jazz Louisiana Kitchen in Lee’s Summit.
Cox and Dave Griffin, the second in command in the Missouri Minuteman organization, have spent a good part of the afternoon discussing organization business that Griffin says is “not for public distribution.” Cox says two TV stations — one in Springfield, the other in St. Louis — have called him about sending reporters to the border with the Minutemen. Cox says he’s confident that, if the TV producers pay his expenses, he could be their guide to some serious action.
“It’s big-time creepy,” Cox says of the scene along the border. “The adrenaline rush is pretty awesome. You’ve got your night goggles on, knowing that some coyotes” — paid human smugglers — “are carrying the latest and greatest of technical equipment and high-powered rifles, the type of thing the military wish they had. You see the mules” — Mexican drug runners. “You see the violence. It’s extreme.”
Cox says he would take the TV reporters to El Paso, Texas. “In El Paso, there’s a tremendous amount of violence. If they want action, we’ll show them action.”
The two friends, who met thanks to their adjacent cubicles at a local engineering company, were inspired to join the Minutemen by a trip to the border in March 2006. They set aside 10 days for the trip and checked into a hotel just outside Tucson, Arizona. The plan was to spend three days driving down to the Minuteman Command Center, 50 miles southwest of the city, check in for a briefing and then head to “the line.”
They admit that they didn’t see much. Griffin says “the line” is actually 30 miles from the border. Volunteers there station themselves on public lands and on the private property of ranchers who are supportive of the Minuteman mission. Cox says they ate a lot of peanut-butter crackers.
Though they didn’t witness confrontation, Cox says, they did hear about it.
“It didn’t happen directly in front of us, but, from what the Border Patrol said and during different shifts in different areas, a number of the people they were finding coming across the desert weren’t from Mexico. A large contingency were from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan — many that had confirmed ties to Al Qaeda.”
After the two returned, Cox was convinced that more needed to be done in the Show Me State. Over the past six months, he says he’s been in touch with potential and current chapter leaders in Joplin, Poplar Bluff, St. Louis, St. Joseph and Springfield. He describes interest in the Minutemen as “astronomical.” He thinks he knows why.
“I think when these [immigrants’ rights] groups started doing demonstrations and burning the American flag and wanting to sing the national anthem in Spanish — these people that are here as criminals, these people who came here illegally and started demanding their rights as U.S. citizens — I think that just took some good old Americans and pissed them off,” he says. “I guess, being a U.S. Army vet, I don’t take too well to burning the flag, either, especially when it’s foreign nationals doing that.”
Cox and Griffin say their patriotism was honed by military service. Cox says he spent three years in Germany as a bodyguard for a four-star general. (He says the two played friendly tennis games and shared cookies baked by the general’s wife.) Griffin was in the Air Force and, during the Vietnam War, worked with unmanned drones to gather intelligence.
What bothers them, they say, is that the America they fought for seems to be fading as the country’s population shifts.
“If we don’t do something now, I see us becoming nothing more than a Third World country,” Cox says. “The middle class will cease to exist. Unions will no longer exist. We’ll look like a Third World country.”
“If we’re basically importing the entire population of other countries and giving them citizenship without having to earn it,” Griffin adds, “it’s like, OK, all of a sudden, we’ve got an entirely different cultural population that has nothing to do with America inside American borders.”
Their effort isn’t without its own problems. By mid-October, development director Thompson will have given Cox his walking papers, reportedly after a disagreement.
Griffin later tells the Pitch that the TV expedition never panned out.
Cox, who stopped returning the Pitch‘s phone calls in mid-October, reportedly went to Tennessee to take a job after spending most of 2006 out of work and engaged in immigration issues.
Hayes picked up the slack. In a matter of days, he took over the reins and rolled the entire Kansas City metro into the Heart of America chapter, adding target cities from Atchison to Hutchinson.
s the Minutemen have grown from a handful of disgruntled radicals along the border to dozens of chapters throughout the states, their ideas have moved from the political margins to mainstream America.
Among those ideas: Undocumented immigrants are violent criminals and a threat to public safety. Undocumented workers are single-handedly eliminating the middle class and turning America into a Third World country. Mainstream Hispanic-rights groups such as La Raza are plotting a reconquista, or reconquest, of the southwestern United States.
Ideas that used to be espoused by fringe activists are now preached by suburban grandfathers and Boy Scout camp volunteers in library conference rooms.
As groups like the Minutemen have proliferated, Michele Waslin has grown accustomed to near-daily protests outside her office in New York. Waslin, the director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza, has heard the rhetoric about her group being a terrorist organization.
“We’ve been very vocal explaining the name of the organization and describing the work that we do,” she says.
In late September, Devin Burghart, a director with the Center for New Community in Chicago (a national nonprofit aimed at cultivating tolerance and opposing nativist groups), visited Kansas City to meet with local activists. On barely 48 hours’ notice, they filled a back room at a local church to mount a campaign against the Minutemen. The resulting coalition, representing a host of area immigrants’ rights organizations, is still determining its focus, but organizers say that more than 200 people already have signed a petition that began circulating by e-mail last month.
“We are united in rejecting the politics of fear, hatred and armed vigilantism,” the petition reads. “We encourage all people in the Kansas City area to join with us in letting the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps know that their vilification of immigrants, their paramilitary actions, and their outrageous conspiracy theories are not welcome.”
(Hayes says he’s aware of the petition. He scoffs at its claims.)
Burghart says presenting an opposing voice is critical because the Minuteman movement is spreading. A year ago, he counted 37 anti-immigration groups in 25 states. By September of this year, he knew of more than 220 groups in 42 states. Nearly 70 of those groups are affiliated with the Minutemen, he says.
“We were very concerned from the get-go that it [the Minuteman movement] would become something bigger than it initially started, and, unfortunately, it’s lived up to that billing,” he says.
The organization’s actions have spurred comparisons with groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Burghart notes that the KKK established a group called Border Watch in the late 1970s with an identical aim and similar rhetoric. In Arizona and Arkansas, the Minutemen seem to have condoned the presence of Confederate flags at their rallies and former neo-Nazi organizers within their ranks.
The KKK is openly condemned as racist and holds little political clout. The Minutemen, however, have begun to influence public policy at all levels of government.
For instance, the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park is one of a growing number of cities nationwide that have recently passed ordinances designed to make the city inhospitable to undocumented immigrants by fining their landlords and employers.
Action is mounting at the state level as well. Interpreting data from the National Association of State Legislatures, Burghart counts approximately 550 pieces of what he terms “anti-immigrant legislation” introduced in 32 states this year.
Even President George W. Bush has conceded to demands pushed by the Minutemen. Last month, Bush signed a bill to erect a fence along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“If it hadn’t been for the Minutemen, there wouldn’t be any fence at all, built by us or the government,” Griffin tells the Pitch.
The Minutemen have also provoked confrontations far from the border. In states such as Oregon and Washington, Minutemen and immigrants’ rights advocates have come to blows as the organization has attempted to monitor day-labor or construction sites.
And the group’s impact may extend far past controversial legislation and skirmishes at day-labor sites. “This is a singularly important issue for defining who and what we are as a nation,” Burghart says.
Tom Franiak, the Minuteman chapter leader in Springfield, Missouri, doesn’t disagree. “I think we have a great country, but if we keep heading down this road, trying for political correctness and making sure nobody gets their feelings hurt, we’ll end up looking like something we don’t want to look like.”
Specifically, like a nation where white people are the minority.
s at packed meetings in Overland Park and Topeka, the third-floor conference room at the Wichita Public Library is crowded — and plenty of people are wearing red, white and blue.
But there’s a difference on this late-October Saturday two months after the Kansas chapter’s first public meeting. A significant portion of the audience is Hispanic. Nearly 30 members of a Wichita group called Sunflower Community Action are concerned about rumors of racism surrounding the Minutemen. They’ve come to hear Hayes’ recruiting pitch for themselves.
A teenage girl in the back points a video camera at Hayes as he applauds the Australian government. “They recently told the Muslims to get out of their country unless they accept their laws, their language, their culture, and that’s what I’d like to see happen here.”
After Hayes opens the meeting to discussion from the crowd, a woman in the second row with long gray hair pulled into a bun stands and, reading from notes, addresses Hayes.
“Ninety percent of what you’ve said is highly inaccurate,” she says. “It’s just designed to inflame…. You’re way off the mark.”
The atmosphere changes instantly. Some people glance at the security guard, who is fiddling with her walkie-talkie.
Hayes asks the woman to give him an example.
She says that Hayes’ claim of an episode in which 750 illegal immigrants crossed the border implied that they had come from Mexico. In fact, she said, that occurred on the Canadian border.
“He said they came into America,” someone in the crowd yells in defense of Hayes.
A Hispanic man in the back says Hayes made it sound like they were from Mexico.
“It doesn’t matter,” a Hayes supporter shoots back.
“Yes, it does,” the Hispanic man counters.
“No, it doesn’t,” the man says, raising his voice.
Hayes takes the microphone from the lectern and walks to the gray-haired woman.
“What else?” he asks.
She says he wrongly asserted that illegal immigrants are taking advantage of welfare, Social Security and medical care. Before Hayes can respond, a middle-aged man built like a linebacker stands up in a huff. He says his wife is a nurse who is forced to care for illegal aliens who all have Social Security cards with the same number.
The woman says that’s not possible.
“Are you calling me a liar?” the man booms.
A young man in a black hoodie rushes from the back of the room. He’s a head shorter than the indignant man but demands that the bigger man stop yelling at the woman. The man tells the kid to get out of his face, and Hayes moves in to break it up.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he tells the young man.
“You can’t do that,” someone shouts. “This is a public space.”
The argument about the accuracy of Hayes’ claims continues. After a while, Hayes grows frustrated. For him and his fellow Minutemen, there’s no debate about one of the biggest issues facing the country.
“People like you,” he tells the skeptical woman, “are part of the problem.”