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Before Trump proposed his border wall, vigilantes made it a national obsession

Donald Trump’s infamous proclamation that he will build a wall along the US-Mexico border has been criticised as a half-baked, financially infeasible and legally dubious product of his bombastic campaigning. But while it’s certainly a silly idea, it’s far from a new one.

Back in 2005, an unlikely duo, accountant and ex-Marine Jim Gilchrist and former kindergarten teacher Chris Simcox, organised a month-long citizen’s border watch along the Arizona-Sonora border near Tombstone, AZ. The “muster” became a national and international media event and gave birth to the Minuteman movement, named after the mythologised armed citizens who were available to fight the British at a minute’s notice during the American Revolutionary War.

Describing themselves as a neighbourhood watch on the border, the movement’s leaders claimed that over a 30-day period, 1,000 “rugged individuals” successfully guarded a 23-mile stretch of the border from “invasion”. After the end of the April 2005 muster and over the next decade, armed citizens – most of them older white men – continued to patrol the border, alerting Border Patrol agents to crossers and potential drug- and people-smugglers.

While the Minutemen were widely criticised by hate watch groups, they also received significant support. They were lauded by members of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus. The Minutemen “put immigration on the map big-time”, and there are indications that, despite their extremist roots, they have had a major influence on the mainstream: Gilchrist claims credit for pushing the GOP to start “aggressively addressing the illegal immigration issue”.

Their influence is certainly felt widely.

Changing the culture

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups in the US, reports that since the Minutemen came on the scene, “Republicans and Tea Partiers have competed with one another to craft ever-harsher nativist laws”.

DIY. EPA/Linda Rivera

In 2005, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner announced he was exploring the possibility of mobilising citizens in the service of auxiliary border patrol. In 2008, an essay by Jim Gilchrist was published in the Georgetown University Law Journal. Later, in 2011, Glenn Spencer, an activist infamous for monitoring the border near his Arizona ranch with cameras, ground sensors and drones, testified as a expert witness in front of the Arizona Senate Border Security Committee.

The Minutemen’s vigilantism may be extreme, but it takes its cue from the more generalised deputisation of public servants, law enforcement and even citizens in enforcing immigration laws. The Minutemen and related groups declared themselves to be “doing the job the government won’t do” – and one of those jobs was building a barrier along the US-Mexico border. “We need a FENCE,” they declared. “It is time to BUILD IT!”

In reality, barrier-building had begun long before. It was part and parcel of both the militarisation of the border that began in the last decades of the 20th century and the well-established “prevention via deterrence” approach to border security that directed Border Patrol personnel, resources and infrastructure to populated areas, pushing border crossers into more dangerous terrain.

In 1990, a 66-mile fence was erected near San Diego. Similar infrastructure was erected in other high-traffic areas, including El Paso, Texas and Nogales, Arizona. Ranchers began erecting their own fences, sometimes with the help of local citizen militias.

Making it happen

At the height of the Minutemen’s popularity, Simcox began agitating for a security barrier with “separate, 14-foot-high fences on both sides of the border, separated by a roadway to allow the passage of US Border patrol vehicles, with surveillance cameras and motion sensors”. Later that year, volunteers began construction on a fence in Arizona, reportedly spending $1m of donated money on a mile long stretch of fence. This was a far-cry from Simcox’s original vision but that was okay for volunteers. The fence, like the previous year’s musters was “symbolic”, said leader Al Garza; it was meant to get people’s attention. Perhaps it did.

Minuteman president, Chris Simcox. EPA/Mike Theiler

In 2006, the US went mad for border barriers. President Bush announced Operation Jump Start, which deployed National Guard troops along the border to supplement resources and construct border fencing. In June that year, the Texas Virtual Border Fence was launched; the program put the idea of mobilising citizens to “do the government’s job” into use, making live video surveillance feeds from cameras placed along the border available to the public.

In October 2006 the Secure Fence Act was signed into law, authorising and partially funding the construction of 700 miles of physical fencing. The Republican Party’s 2012 platform stated that “the double-layered fencing on the border that was enacted by Congress in 2006, but never completed, must finally be built”.

Some of the Minutemen are backing Trump, but their dogged pursuit of a border barrier has a far longer history than Trump’s campaign, and it will long outlast it. It has spent years percolating in extremist anti-immigration groups that have both borrowed from and subsequently resonated with the mainstream. If Trump fails to get to the White House, that won’t put their dream of a border barrier to rest.

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