In secret missions with military code names like Operation Thunderbird and Operation Falcon, ordinary Americans in the Southwest are donning camouflage uniforms, grabbing rifles, motion sensors and global positioning systems and tramping — or swooping in Skyhawks — through the Arizona desert in search of illegal migrants.
The scenario is laid out in a new report by the Anti-Defamation League. It tracks a growing band of ranchers and military veterans who are forming what the ADL calls far-right vigilante units to “patrol” the porous borders of the Desert State.
The ADL report, “Border Disputes: Armed Vigilantes in Arizona,” breaks ground in alleging ties between these self-appointed border guards and various old-line white supremacist and antisemitic extremists. The report calls one group virulently anti-Hispanic, points to another’s interview with the neo-Nazi National Alliance and claims that the whole movement promotes an ideology of “hate and intolerance.”
“By appealing to xenophobic fears and creating a menacing atmosphere in the communities in which they are active, they could detonate an already volatile situation,” the report states.
But these gun-toting brigades deny that they are vigilantes or motivated by hate. They claim they are civic volunteers putting their necks on the line to help apprehend border crossers who they say are often violent drug smugglers terrorizing their communities. One such group, Ranch Rescue, has photographs of what it claims are 279 pounds of illegal drugs to prove it.
They may not all be motivated by altruism, however. One group whose members participate in patrols, American Border Patrol, is headed by Glenn Spencer, who told the Los Angeles Times in 1996 that “the Mexican culture is based on deceit.” He also spoke in 2002 at the American Renaissance Conference, which was sponsored by white supremacists and racists, according to the ADL. His organization, labeled anti-Hispanic by the ADL, was founded in California in 1992 as Voice of Citizens Together, which in turn was on the hate watch list of the respected Southern Poverty Law Center. The Alabama-based law center published a report on armed border patrols similar to the ADL’s in April.
Reached by the Forward in Sierra Vista, Ariz., the 65-year-old Spencer insisted he is not a racist and listed several members of his group who he said are Jewish. He accused the ADL of allying itself with “people who are invading the United States and who are anti-American.”
The report distinguishes between anti-immigrant groups and groups legitimately advocating reformed or reduced immigration. Jews active in the growing field of immigration reform say such distinctions are critical, given the intense hostility directed at them by anti-immigrant extremists. One controversial immigration reformist, Stephen Steinlight, who favors reducing immigration numbers “radically,” said he has received hate emails from David Duke among others and was verbally attacked by “Buchananites” while giving a speech recently at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“One person said I wasn’t sufficiently honoring the Anglo-Saxon roots of the United States,” said Steinlight, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and a onetime official of the American Jewish Committee. About the armed patrol groups, Steinlight said, “Immigrants crossing the border, even illegally, must be protected from these people.”
According to the ADL report, anti-immigrant activity in general has intensified since the September 11 terrorist attacks, which racists and antisemites are exploiting to promote their own agenda. “Given these sentiments, it is no surprise that the effort of right wing extremist groups to take the law into their own hands and administer their own form of ‘justice’ coincides with a wave of border violence in Arizona,” the report says.
The report lists a string of 20 murders discovered since March 2002, suggesting that they are part of the atmosphere of lawlessness. The report, however, does not attribute the killings directly to the patrol groups.
Leaders of two patrol units reached by the Forward, Spencer of American Border Patrol and Chris Simcox of Civil Homeland Defense, insisted their members have never harmed migrants. They merely track them on public property and hand the information over to border police, they said. They acknowledged that their members have detained illegal immigrants, but only on private land, over which they say the federal government has no jurisdiction.
“I don’t carry a weapon,” Spencer told the Forward. His group does, however, use surveillance aircraft during missions, he said. “We spot people in high spots with binoculars and radios. It’s usually a man-and-wife team. Then we call in [to the U.S. Border Patrol] and say we’ve got 15 people. We have a camera and all-terrain vehicles. We take pictures and send them back.”
Law-enforcement officials told a different story. According to the ADL report, members of Ranch Rescue allegedly detained a pair of Salvadorans along the Texas-Mexico border and beat one with a pistol. The ADL quotes the arresting Texas Ranger, Doyle Holdridge, as saying one complainant “has a knot on the back of his head about half the size of your fist.”
Holdridge continued: “If you’re a police officer, out there in the darkness, and someone rises up out of the brush in full camo[uflage] with an assault rifle, what are you going to think? It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
Simcox of the Civil Homeland Defense was issued three misdemeanor citations for carrying a loaded weapon in a national park, the ADL report states. And Simcox has embraced the notion of conducting armed patrols on public lands.
Reached in Tombstone, Ariz., where he runs the local Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper, Simcox told the Forward that if the Anti-Defamation League did not issue a public retraction of the report he would sue — for defamation. He said carrying weapons on most public property is legal.
“None of the characterizations are accurate in any way,” he said. “You guys are looking for Billy Bob Joe Vigilante, but there aren’t any.”
Ranch Rescue could not be reached for comment before press time. However, its national spokesman, Jack Foote, a former U.S. Army officer, states on his Web site: “Our border county landowners have been economically devastated by this ongoing crime wave, and live in fear for their lives from the thousands of criminals that cross their property every night. Our nation is being invaded, and these folks are on the front line of a silent war.”
Also on Foote’s Web site are instructions to his crew: “For Operation Falcon and Operation Jaguar, our requirement for ‘khaki tan clothing only’ has been suspended for our Security volunteers. Contact the mission Coordinator for information on acceptable camouflage patterns.”