Employers, brace yourselves. From Atlanta to Chicago to Denver, the Minutemen are setting their sights on you. This army of angry citizens plans to police your workplace, and if they find any illegals, they'll report you to the government.
In case you've never heard of it, the Minuteman movement originated two years ago and gained notoriety for sending members armed with binoculars to states that border Mexico. When the volunteers spot people entering the country, they call the U.S. Border Patrol. Critics, including President George W. Bush, characterize them as "vigilantes."
Now dozens of branches are popping up in the heartland. They're targeting companies as well as workers. "If we can take one big employer down -- handcuffs, federal prison terms, their property seized -- we will make a great step forward toward having our laws enforced," proclaims Jim Gilchrist, a 56-year-old retired accountant who founded the Minuteman Project in California in 2004 out of anger at illegal immigration. He says his group, which is supported by dues and donations, has seen its national membership jump by 1,000 since April, to 2,500. A like-minded group, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which claims 8,000 members in 49 chapters, also has begun targeting employers who use day laborers.
To get a feel for the motivation and methods of the Minutemen, consider Daniel Switala. The 43-year-old general contractor closed his small contracting business near Atlanta early this year because of what he saw as unfair competition from rivals who hire undocumented workers. On a muggy August morning, he jumps into his aging gray SUV and heads to a day-labor hiring site. It's under a shady tree in the parking lot of a thrift store in suburban Roswell, Ga. When Switala pulls in, several of the few dozen men waiting there come over and ask: "How many do you need?"
But Switala isn't looking for cheap labor. Instead, he has a question for the men, all of whom appear to be Latino. "Are y'all legal?" he asks. Some walk away. Others warily respond, mostly saying no. A few say yes, and one, Miguel Escobedo, even produces a green card. It expired last December, and he explains to Switala that he has applied for a new one. Escobedo later tells a BusinessWeek reporter that he came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1987. Earlier that day, Switala stopped at a local electrical company, where he posed as a job applicant. But his real aim was to grill managers about the staff's legal status.
The in-your-face tactics of Switala and other Minutemen could help drag companies directly into the fray over immigration. Although civil rights groups decry their methods as harassment, Switala says he and other volunteers in Atlanta -- mostly workers in landscaping, painting, and construction who feel threatened by illegal labor -- aren't going after immigrants. Rather, they snap pictures of drivers who pick up day laborers, call to tell them they may be hiring illegals, and report them to the local office of the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). They also ask employees for tips on co-workers who might be illegal at Atlanta-area employers, from local contractors and restaurants to Home Depot Inc. (HD) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT).
At the same time, the Bush Administration is attempting to placate the GOP Right by stepping up enforcement against employers. In April, Homeland Security Dept. Secretary Michael Chertoff announced an ICE campaign to focus on those who knowingly hire illegals. In the past most violators got off with a fine. But as of July, ICE has made 445 criminal arrests of employers and labor contractors, vs. 176 last year, according to ICE.
The new effort gives the Minutemen an opportunity to funnel complaints to officials. The Atlanta chapter, opened only in April, already has reported 200 employers to ICE, says Donna Walker, chapter president. (Walker decided to join the Minutemen after her son-in-law closed his painting business due, she says, to cheap illegal labor.) "Regardless of where [it] comes from, we look forward to information coming from the public," says Ken Smith, a special agent in ICE's Atlanta office. He says he has received complaints from the Atlanta Minutemen, although no prosecutions have resulted so far.
Atlanta is only one of many active Minuteman chapters. In Herndon, Va., Minuteman Corps chapter head George Taplin, a 52-year-old software engineer who got involved when his city approved a day-labor site, says local contractors now pick up day laborers in unmarked vehicles after his group began photographing them. In Chicago, a Minuteman group has mounted protests against Dutch Farms Inc., a meat processor, after employees claimed that 15 workers had been replaced with illegals. (Dutch Farms didn't respond to calls for comment.)
This explosion of activity presents a potential hazard for U.S. employers. The immigration debate in Washington is deadlocked between hard-line House Republicans who want a border crackdown and a Bush-backed guest worker/legalization bill that passed the Senate in May. To take their case to the public, GOP Representatives running for reelection in the fall are holding hearings around the country to highlight illegal immigration. That could play into the hands of the new activists. Meanwhile an outpouring of sentiment against illegals has resulted in the passage of 13 employment-related immigration state laws this year. And numerous cities are considering variations on the "illegal immigration relief" ordinance recently adopted by tiny Hazleton, Pa., which levies fines against businesses that hire illegal workers.
The tactics used by Switala and others are hugely controversial. Critics say they raise the specter of discrimination and civil rights violations. After all, you can't tell by looking whether a day laborer or anyone else is authorized to work in the U.S., points out Sara Gonzalez, president of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "If I'm standing at a corner with a group of friends, I don't have a sign on my chest that says I'm undocumented," she says. Says Enrique Morones, founder of San Diego immigrant rights group Border Angels: "These are a bunch of racist vigilantes that represent the worst of the American spirit."
Switala doesn't see it that way. He and many of the 80 to 100 Atlanta Minutemen consider themselves patriots defending the law. So they target day-labor sites and employers such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Home Depot denied receiving calls from them. Wal-Mart says it reached out to the group after seeing press reports. "We were afraid they were profiling people," says Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley. After avoiding charges last year related to illegal contract workers cleaning its stores, Wal-Mart created an immigration hotline. Simley says it also encouraged the Atlanta group to call company immigration counsel Maggie Esquivel. This kind of increased scrutiny from the public, he says, should serve as a "call to action" for businesses. "You have a phenomenon where everyone is taking [illegal immigration] more seriously."
Such talk is what Switala and other activists want to hear. Marietta (Ga.) resident D.A. King, who quit a job selling insurance in 2003 to battle illegal immigration, isn't a Minuteman but also goes after employers. He's sure many are worried: "We may not be the federal government, but we are watching them, and we are making reports."
By Susan McMillan, with Roger O. Crockett in Chicago and Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles