Border Line or Color Line? Gringo Email, Part Three

“Our federal government is not doing their job,” Schwarzenegger said. “It’s a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders.”

vig·i·lan·te n.

  • One who takes or advocates the taking of law enforcement into one’s own hands.
  • A member of a vigilance committee.
  • By Greg Moses

    “Your article is insulting and incredibly naive,” writes a correspondent from Alaska in response to “Gringo Vigilantes.” Since I am an insult to all law abiding Americans, she suggests that I should move to Mexico City.

    Well first of all, I think we can come down off that high horse about law abiding Americans. I know very few. Most folks I know try to get away with something that’s illegal. It could be as simple as speeding. Or a preference for cash transactions in order to avoid taxes. Maybe they have stories about how they engaged in underage drinking, faking a drivers license. Or maybe on a Saturday night they dabble in some illicit kind of high life. In fact, if law abiding Americans never broke laws, there would be no market for illegal immigrants in the first place. So I imagine that if I’m an offense to law abiding Americans, I don’t need to worry too much about the percentages.

    “The Minutemen are there to stop ILLEGAL immigration,” says my Alaska reader. “What part of ILLEGAL do you not understand?” She reminds me that there are legal methods to seek immigration through visas and work permits. What’s wrong with asking people to immigrate legally so that we can know “who they are and where they are.”

    On this point, I admit I have little to say. We do offer legal avenues for immigration and they should be preferred. I have not argued in favor of dismantling the border patrol or the federal immigration bureaucracy. There is a lot about the status quo that I have accepted. And this is a predictable feature of the civil rights framework. There is a lot about the status quo that it tends to accept.

    “You used the term ‘VIGILANTE’ in a negative way, as if it is a bad thing,” but were I to consult the Spanish definition of vigilante, she suggests I would discover it simply means to be watchful, and that’s all that the Minutemen are doing, being watchful. They have not been accused of any violence whatsoever. “I am glad those VOLUNTEERS are there and if I could, I would be right there with them. YOU, and ALL Americans owe them a big ‘THANK YOU’ for doing freely, what our paid government employees have not been doing.”

    Thank goodness the Minutemen have indeed conducted a disciplined vigilante action. They have been only watching, with no reports of any “hands on” activity whether violent or not. But as my correspondent makes clear, the kind of watching being done in this case is the kind of watching that government employees are paid to do, because watching for people who are breaking immigration laws is what border patrols are paid for. The MinuteMan Project is not a group of volunteers, despite what every copy desk in America may say.

    The Minutemen count as vigilantes because they have deputized themselves to assist in the enforcement of criminal law without working under authority of paid law enforcement personnel. And I do mean to say that is a bad thing when people who are not duly authorized to enforce the law begin to deputize themselves to take law enforcement into their own hands. Compare Gov. Schwarzenegger’s description of the Minutemen to a dictionary definition of vigilante. Are they not taking law enforcement into their own hands by Schwarzenegger’s own admission?

    I could remind my Alaska correspondent that there are also legal ways to apply for work as a federal immigration enforcer. There are ways to seek employment as a border patrol agent or as an immigration bureaucrat. For American citizens, there are ways to engage the political process on matters of immigration policies and border patrol budgets.

    When borderland residents say that Minuteman presence has cut down on the sound of helicopters in the neighborhood, their testimony suggests that the vigilantes have displaced usual law enforcement practices. So these are some considerations that go into the mix as we debate the MinuteMan Project: it steps into criminal law enforcement without going through any process of authorization.

    But there is another dimension to the question that rarely keeps a distance from the Minuteman talk about law. When vigilantes stake themselves along the Mexico border, are they really not enforcing a color line? From a civil rights perspective, vigilantes have a preference for the color line, and there is almost nothing about the MinuteMen Project that would lead one to believe they are any different.

    In keeping with the tradition of vigilantes along the color line, my Alaska correspondent offers an argument that includes anti-Mexican sentiment:

    You may want America to look like Mexico in the near future, but I do not want that for my posterity. In the past, immigrants have tried to assimilate into OUR culture. Not these interlopers. They want to retain their language, their lifestyle and their morals, and force US to accommodate them at the expense of our own language, lifestyle and morals.

    Language, lifestyle, and morals. How in the world does one untangle these passionate motives from the vigilante talk about legality? In the end it is difficult to imagine that if language, lifestyle, and morals were not the real issues here that the question of legality would rise to the top in the first place. It is not the breaking of law per se that motivates these “sovereign citizens of the United States” but a more specific kind of threat: the threat of a future swallowed up into Mexican identity.

    On the question of Mexican identity, I wish I could report that MinuteMan sympathizers expressed some wonderment and appreciation for the cultural and economic contributions made by Mexicans to the USA. It would be quite another constellation if we were hearing from vigilantes who acknowledged and appreciated Mexican heritage. But we don’t. So as my correspondent accuses me of “picking and choosing” which laws to obey, I can see that vigilantes have chosen laws that help them patrol the color line.

    Will the vigilantes take their binoculars to the picking fields at harvest time and watch for labor law infringements upon migrant workers? Will they assist in enforcement of minimum wage? The list of laws about which the vigilantes are not being watchful suggests that they have made a choice. And their choice is not so much about a kind of law as it is about a kind of people.

    But how well do the MinuteMen and their sympathizers know the Mexican people. It is a perfect question to ask this week. So we conclude this installment of replies to Gringo letters by providing the following link to reasons why Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo and why Gringos might want to join them.

    Hasta luego.

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