Minutemen pack up and go home
The Minutemen have finished their “month of emphasis” along the U.S.-Canada border between Blaine and Sumas, and have called their effort a success before standing down to plan future activities.
“It was successful,” said Tom Williams, leader of the Whatcom County Minutemen, “because we provided a safe and effective way for our people to get their message across about securing our borders that right now are too porous.”
Joe Giuliano, deputy chief of the Border Patrol’s Blaine sector, said that during the month of October they received a total of two calls from the Minutemen, both of which turned out to be innocuous. “It was kind of a non-event. It didn’t help or hinder us,” he said, “as they came to do what they wanted to do, and have left.”
There were some lengthy conversations earlier between Giuliano’s agents and the Minutemen, he said, “and we know where they’re coming from and they know where we’re coming from, and as long as they continue to identify themselves to us and keep everything legal, we don’t have a problem with them.”
Officially, said Giuliano, the Border Patrol neither endorses the Minutemen nor tries to prevent them from legal activities. “When they’re just sitting there and watching, and then reporting on suspicious activity, they’re actually doing what we’ve been asking people living in the area to do for years and years,” he said, “but we have asked them to stay out of some of our busier areas, such as where South Pass Road meets Silver Lake Road north of Maple Falls.”
The Whatcom County members of what’s officially the Washington Detachment of the Minuteman Homeland Defense Project posted themselves at six daytime and two nighttime observation posts along the U.S.-Canada border between Blaine and Sumas from October 2 through 30. Local leader Tom Skipper Williams of Deming said he felt they accomplished their purpose of providing members a safe and effective way to publicize what they see as a serious lack of security along international borders due, he said, to a lack of support from Congress and the Bush administration.
“There were only two official Minutemen just a month ago, and now there are 16,” Williams said, “and we had 31 involved in the month-long activity.” He said four were from Oregon and 27 were from Washington, 15 of whom were from Whatcom County, “and four were women.”
“We didn’t keep close track of calls to the Border Patrol,” Williams said, “because we don’t follow up on what happened.” He said they were asked by an agent in the field at one point to help watch for a group of five men that were about to cross the border near the Sumas municipal water tank, and that on another occasion “someone walked out of the woods near D Street in Blaine, soaking wet and wearing a backpack, but we don’t know what eventually happened. There’s a lot of little anecdotes but no real stories. We’re just watching,” Williams said.
Their presence initially created suspicions, particularly because as many as one third of the Minutemen are armed with concealed weapons and are neither supervised nor trained by anyone other than their own volunteer organization.
The Coalition for Professional Law and Border Enforcement in Whatcom County and a Canadian group called “No One is Illegal” held a rally at the Peace Arch on the weekend the Minutemen began their border watch and on the Sunday it ended. Coalition leader Sharon Monteiro of Bellingham asked, “is this is the proper way to solve this problem, by going outside the regular process?” She advised people to read Lone Patriot by New Yorker contributor Joan Kramer, and In God’s Country by David A. Neiwert. “It’s a little scary when you see what the possible connections might be,” Monteiro said.
As far as those actually charged with patrolling the border are concerned, senior Border Patrol agent J.H. Hawley said during a mid-month shift that, “so far, I haven’t had one referral from a Minuteman, but I know they’re out here.”
Hawley described the possible hazards in having independent volunteers like the Minutemen trying to help the Border Patrol as either “if one of them got a little gung-ho, which I understand isn’t likely, or if we became confused about identifying them or their vehicles. We wouldn’t want to be chasing one of them when our real customer is someone else,” Hawley said, “but as long as we know who they are, where they are and when they’re there,” he said, “it’s just more eyes along the border, and they’ve got the right to do what they’re doing.” He added that he’s received no tips as yet from Minuteman sources, “but a lot of these guys who live along the border, we get to know them pretty well because they watch the area carefully, and let us know if something’s up.”
What was it like for those who said they’d come to help? Minuteman Gene Kliewer is a 61-year-old retired farmer from Ritzville, Washington, and had come to Whatcom County for the “month of emphasis” the group had during October during which they expanded their operation to include the entire Mexican border and some locations in northern states, such as Whatcom County.
Kliewer, which is pronounced “Cleaver,” had brought his fifth wheel along but when interviewed wasn’t sure he would be able to stay for the entire month. The group also learned that afternoon that they were about to lose their parking spot next to Rick Holleman’s house in the 9800 block of Benson Road. “No insurance,” said the group’s security chief, Claude Le Bas of Ferndale.
Volunteer Howard Washburn, a retired policeman, tried to convince Kliewer to stay but admitted that “a month is a heck of a time commitment.” The group began their month-long October border watch with 19 people, but eventually involved more, especially as private landowners allowed them to park their small trailers on their land.
One such site was the north end of Markworth Road, where an abandoned ranch sits just east of the right of way south of the border across the road from private property the Minutemen were allowed to use. Williams said that “one time a teenage boy walked across from Zero Avenue, went into the old farmhouse there and also looked at a number of abandoned vehicles, then went back.”
Washburn said that there’s a lot of contraband traffic that crosses the border. “Marijuana comes south, cocaine and guns go north, and there’s also a number of al Qa’ida cells in Canada. Washburn asserted, adding that, “we don’t want to see another 9/11. I just don’t understand why nothing’s being done. We need more boots on the ground here at the border.”
Kliewer agreed, saying that, “We’re trying to send a message, to let people know that border security is a disgrace.” Far from being wild-eyed vigilantes, the local Minutemen when discussing their mission come off more like a gathering of uncles and grandfathers, albeit with a decidedly conservative and highly focused political message.
Washburn emphasized that the Minutemen are not white supremacists like the Aryan Nation, and in fact “do everything we can to keep those folks out of our organization. The $50 fee to join covers an extensive background check.” All but one of the Minutemen contacted randomly for this story were Marine or Army vets, and many were retired policemen or sheriff’s deputies.
“We’re not here to plug the gap. We’re not ‘on patrol,’ we man observation posts, and we do not get involved or get between a suspected illegal and a Border Patrol agent,” said Washburn. Two of the eight interviewed for this story were carrying small handguns, which is legal, but the Minutemen themselves prohibit members carrying long guns such as rifles and shotguns.
U.S. Representative Rick Larsen, D – Lakewood, whose district includes Whatcom County, said in a press release that the Minutemen are not trained to deal effectively with the northern border.
Larsen’s statement said that “Where our southern border battles a great deal of illegal immigration, the northern border’s threats are more often drug, gun and money smuggling by criminal organizations. These unique threats call for trained law enforcement professionals who are skilled in dealing with organized crime .”