At the Ready

The Minutemen have come to Texas

The bill has 46 Republican co-sponsors.

"Do you have papers?" he says they often ask, after he's already done a day's work in the sun. When he shakes his head no, they shrug and drive off without paying him a cent. Hispanic-Americans are the worst, he says, when it's time to pay.

Honduran immigrants Jose (left) and Carlos wait for 
work near one of the city's day labor centers.
Daniel Kramer
Honduran immigrants Jose (left) and Carlos wait for work near one of the city's day labor centers.

His name is Pedro and he's one of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Every morning he gets up at the crack of dawn and stands on the corner of Commerce and York in Houston's East End, right around the corner from a center the city has set up for day laborers. He waits here hoping to catch a contractor en route.

Before Bill Parmley left the Texas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, he set up a Houston chapter and encouraged its members to begin monitoring day labor sites. Their mission was to film employers picking up undocumented laborers, eventually gathering enough evidence to challenge the Houston Police Department's hands-off policy regarding the enforcement of immigration law.

The Minutemen have already begun filming, despite the announcement that they would start in October. The group's goal is to challenge the city's federal funding. If Houston can't follow the nation's laws, they say, it shouldn't get federal money.

Politicians don't want to address the problem, says George Klages, the spokesman for the Houston chapter, "but we've got to force them to and the only way to do it is if we have such a confrontation."

A 65-year-old vet whose wife is from Mexico, Klages says he favors a guest worker program, although he can't speak for the rest of the group. Day laborers are "being preyed on because they can't do anything about it," he says. "If we had some kind of a legal workers program, that wouldn't happen."

And Pedro couldn't agree more, even if he does say the Minutemen have mini mentes, or little minds. When he crossed the Rio Grande five years ago in search of work, he says he lost all the photos of his family in the river. He'd like to go back and visit, but doesn't want to risk crossing the border two more times. "When I do go back, my children won't recognize me," he says. "They will say, 'Who is this man?' and my wife will have to tell them, 'It's your papa.' "

Members of the Minutemen say they have no intention of confronting day laborers (and there's little reason to believe otherwise -- the Houston chapter is a small group of retirees while your typical day laborer is a strapping young dude), but this plan presents its own problem: How can they be sure the people they're filming are undocumented immigrants and not just down-on-their-luck, homegrown American citizens?

"We do know that they are illegal," says Al Garza, the man who replaced Parmley as state president. "There is a certain formula that is in conjunction with these things. Your average American doesn't pile up into groups and look for work."

Groups in opposition to the Minutemen have been popping up all over Texas, from Brown Berets flexing in Pharr to ACLU observers training in Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso. Just last Sunday, a member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps got into a shouting match with Rick Dovalina, district LULAC director, after Dovalina was seen writing down license plate numbers at a Minuteman press conference in the parking lot of the West Houston Airport.

At a press conference held last month at St. Anne Catholic Church, Houston City Councilman Adrian Garcia said the police department would watch the Minutemen as they would the Ku Klux Klan or the Black Panthers. The Reverend Oscar Cantu of Holy Name Catholic Church said comprehensive immigration reform was necessary, asking for family reunification and a program that would allow undocumented immigrants to earn their citizenship. "We have exploited workers, divided families, deaths in the desert and fake documents," he said. "Now we have an anti-immigrant group coming to Houston to intimidate workers in our community."

Back when Parmley was president, he had a response ready-made for comments from the Catholic Church: They need to take a lesson from the Minutemen and do background checks because "you don't find a bunch of child molesters in the Minutemen." He's since lost a bit of his bite, although he says he still supports the goals of the Minuteman movement. The exploitation of people and destruction of property isn't going away, and it's happening in his own backyard. But there's no way in hell he'd ever sign up again, he says, as long as the national organization refuses to boot some of the Goliad folks out.

"You'll probably see me out there helping La Raza," he says, referring to the national Hispanic advocacy group. "I mean, honestly, if this is the type of people" the Minuteman movement is going to allow.

Garza says he'd love to have Parmley back. "He's a very good guy. In fact, he belongs as the president," he says. "I only took his place primarily because I liked what I saw in him." But Parmley seems fine just where he is, running his company and spending time on his ranch, walking through the thicket and watching out for rattlesnakes.

He's got fences to mend.

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