CHICAGO — Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently told members of the Arizona Minuteman border-watch movement that they could end up “seeing 30 rounds fired into them” if they’re not more careful where they point their guns.
Arpaio issued his warning after a Minuteman was arrested for aiming a rifle at a sheriff’s deputy he’d mistaken for a drug smuggler.
This is a sign of a quiet end to a rabidly anti-immigrant movement that started fading years ago and whose fate seemed sealed when some Republicans agreed to attempt immigration reform after the 2012 presidential election.
According to Harel Shapira’s deeply insightful book “Waiting for Jose: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America,” the Minutemen were destined to flame out because they were driven less by hatred for immigrants than by the desire to reclaim an active role in America.
Based on hundreds of hours living and patrolling alongside the Minutemen on Arizona’s border with Mexico, Shapira describes a lonely band of aging sentinels who feel purposeless and increasingly left behind by their beloved country.
Looking to get past the easy stereotypes of the Minutemen being, as liberal media portray them, “gun freaks, “sociopaths” and “lunatics,” or as conservative media tend to label them “extraordinary men and women,” “heroes” and “patriots,” Shapira finds a group of people who have both sympathy and anger for the immigrants they seek to intercept.
The sympathy is generally reserved for those who are exploited: the children whose discarded brightly colored backpacks litter well-worn trails, the women whose undergarments are hung as trophies from “rape trees,” the elderly who are smuggled across and then left to die when their bodies can no longer propel them across the harsh landscape of the desert.
But the anger is divided. There’s plenty for their “enemy,” as the Minutemen often describe those they are on the lookout for: human traffickers, drug smugglers, would-be terrorists and germ-carrying interlopers looking to take jobs from U.S. citizens. But there is also a distinct contempt for some of modern America itself.
Shapira says that the Minutemen are united not by political ideology or racial hatred but by a longing for an America where people worked hard, went to church, participated in their communities, sacrificed themselves by serving their country through the military, and just generally had a strong American identity that they were proud of. And, yes, they miss a time when there was no option to “press 2 for Spanish” because it wasn’t necessary.
Shattering well-worn stereotypes, Shapira, a detached academic observer who doesn’t share his personal opinions on immigration issues with readers, says the Minutemen are complex. “They aren’t ‘right-wing.’ In conversation, the Minutemen talk about immigration in a multiplicity of different ways — ways that alternately channel a variety of ideologies from across America’s political spectrum.” They vote Republican, Shapira says, but only grudgingly, vilifying Barack Obama but also former President George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
“The Minutemen,” Shapira says, “have no place in the system — neither in America’s political institutions nor in its social institutions. If sociologists are going to comprehend how the Minutemen think, we need to recognize how the Minutemen’s diagnosis of what is happening to America — the loss of community, the forfeiture of deep relationships to today’s temporary economic transactions — is not so different from the diagnoses of Robert Putnam or Richard Sennett, writers celebrated by liberal Democrats,” he says, referring to the authors of “Bowling Alone” and “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation.”
The only difference is that the Minutemen’s idea of “civic engagement” is “to get a gun and patrol the border” — and even that is cruelly disappointing. Shapira describes pitiable squads mostly comprised of elderly male veterans who run to the border to “catch illegal immigrants” but end up sitting out in harsh weather bored and able only to “observe and report.”
The U.S. Border Patrol — who, Shapira observes, mostly tries to keep the Minutemen out of its way and out of trouble — often waves off any reported crossers. But the Minutemen’s scant tip-offs are enough to make them feel that they’re doing something to be useful, to belong and to serve a higher purpose.
Reading “Waiting for Jose” to learn about the mythic Minuteman movement doesn’t simply satisfy the sociological curiosity of comprehending anti-immigrant warriors whose heyday may soon be coming to a close.
It’s also instructive in helping us realize that immigrants are not the only ones finding it difficult to “assimilate” themselves to a very different America than the one many of us grew up in.
Esther J. Cepeda is a syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.