Manning the border


This year marks a decade since a group of private individuals launched the Minuteman movement, a self-appointed citizens’ patrol of the United States border to stop illegal immigrants from Mexico. What makes this organisation so reviled and celebrated in equal measure?

When a group of activists set up camp on the US-Mexico border back in April 2005 to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into their country, former US president George Bush called them vigilantes, while Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Governor of California, hailed them as heroes.

The modern-day Minutemen – named after the militiamen who fought in the American Revolution – have divided the nation in the 10 years since they launched their movement with 1000 people, declaring they were going to “do the job the government won’t do” by “securing” a 23-mile section of the border.

They have in turns been labelled racist, nativist, extremist, xenophobic, sexist and potentially violent. In short, “angry white men playing dress-up with camouflage clothes and night-vision’ goggles,” according to LSE PhD student Amanda Conroy, who has spent the past five years studying the movement.

Intrigued by their motivation and absolute self-belief in a cause that millions of people find abhorrent, the LSE Gender Institute doctoral candidate set out to understand the mindset of the Minutemen in a series of interviews and a study of their websites, chat rooms, blogs and discussion forums.

On the one hand, members of the US Congress have lauded them for their patriotism in patrolling the borders; on the other, they have incited angry protests from the left, with demonstrators labelling them “murderers” and “fascists.”

“But the group vehemently rejects each label levelled at them, even to the extent of claiming they are in fact pro-immigration – as long as it’s lawful,” Amanda explains.

None of the literature on extreme right and racist groups fits their profile and the very fact they are so difficult to critique makes them a fascinating subject for human rights and gender researchers.

“Being a Minuteman is not necessarily about an unsecured border or illegal immigration. It’s about performing a role that is meaningful and gives these men a sense of purpose, status and identity,” Amanda says. “I sometimes felt that even if they didn’t have a ‘border to defend’, even if they didn’t have some kind of grand threat, they would have constructed one.”

“In their eyes they are ‘fighting the good fight’ and ensuring their country’s laws are upheld. In this way they gained some traction because they have made the argument about legality, not race or ethnicity.

“Even though they are extremists, they can also be charming, polite and articulate. When they say they are not racist or xenophobic, but pro-immigration, that is what they honestly believe. There is no secret agenda among the rank and file and that is the conundrum about this movement.”

Although the Minutemen are no longer as strong a force as they once were – plagued by infighting and defections to the Tea Party – they have largely been successful in their mission: putting immigration back on the political map.

“I think there is indication that they have contributed to legally sanctioned vigilantism in many US States, Amanda says.

The group claims to be “multi-ethnic and tolerant” and “proud” of their country’s diversity and history of welcoming immigrants.

However, the welcome comes with a caveat: enter through legal channels, assimilate and leave your culture behind.

“Minutemen are highly critical of what they perceive to be immigrants’ attachments to their past, or to their ethnic, cultural or national backgrounds, such as the flying of the Mexican flag.”

Amanda’s research shows the group justifies their actions by linking illegality – crossing the border – with criminality, thereby indicating that irregular border crossers, by their very actions, are unfit to be part of American society.

The movement also represents a place for men to perform a ‘manly ideal’ characterised by decisiveness, assertiveness and self-restraint, while also playing the part of protector and guardian of their borders.

“It is easy to label Minutemen as xenophobic, racist white men, blaming their woes on undocumented migrants,” Amanda says. “I don’t share their beliefs or condone their actions, but the reality is far more nuanced. Part of what is so interesting, and so dangerous, about the Minutemen is that they really challenge the distinctions made between the extreme and the mainstream.”

“I always asked them why they did this, what they got out of it”, Amanda says. “As one Minuteman put it ‘You get older, you turn to booze or raising hell. It’s human nature to want to mean something. And I think this is meaningful. I need this in my life.’”

Additional notes

Amanda Conroy is a PhD candidate at the Gender Institute and the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.  A Frederick Bonnart-Braunthal scholarship holder, her research considers the co-construction of gendered subjectivities and racialised threat in the Minuteman movement, a US anti-immigration and border security movement that organises citizen patrols of the border. Her broader research interests include critical social and political thought; sociological approaches to borders and bordering; gender; race and racialization; and the works of Michel Foucault. She received an MA (with Distinction) in Gender Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2009 and a BA (Honours) in Political Science from Bryn Mawr College (USA) in 2007.

Posted July 2015