At the Ready
Bill Parmley's dad was a sheriff, and his granddaddy was one, too, and one thing he learned early in life was the difference between right and wrong.
Now a month shy of 50, Parmley grew up in the small South Texas town of Sarco, back when it took hours to travel ten miles up the dirt road to the county seat. After going to college in Nacogdoches, where he earned a master's in geology, he moved back, planning to live there -- among the mesquite trees, longhorns and cacti--for the rest of his life.
But that was before undocumented migrants began destroying his land, he says, and before white vans loaded with people started speeding down the farm-to-market roads at all hours. He and other landowners found people in their barns or on their patios, refugees who had lost their way and given up. Livestock started to disappear, either eaten by migrants or let out by smugglers (who aren't the most conscientious when it comes to closing gates on their way through).
Parmley, who runs an oil-field company, knew local law enforcement was doing its best, but he also knew the problem was too big. He decided it was time to seek outside help.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
He placed a call to Arizona in February and got in touch with Chris Simcox, one of the founders of the Minutemen, the group that patrolled the Arizona border in April, documenting illegal crossings and reporting offenders to the authorities. Once Simcox completed his mission there (and dealt with the explosion of media coverage), he came to Texas and helped Parmley start up the Texas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group with similar goals.
That's when Bill Parmley, the activist, was born.
Two months ago, Parmley announced plans to patrol the Texas-Mexico border in October. "We are not racist," he said. "This is not a race issue. It is an issue of the law We do not care what color you are, who you are, but if you come into this country illegally, you are breaking federal law."
Adding his own twist to the Minuteman mission, Parmley, who became not only Goliad chapter president but president of one of the statewide Minuteman organizations, announced that operatives in Houston planned to film day laborers, undocumented workers given "sanctuary" by the city. "All we are doing is videotaping this type of violation of federal law," he said, "and in doing so we hope to remove federal funding from the city of Houston."
One month ago, he took a few visitors down to Goliad County to show them the damage done by undocumented migrants who had been using local ranches as makeshift rest stops, waiting for the next coyote to pick them up and haul them to Houston, Dallas and beyond.
He walked through the South Texas thicket, kicking piles of trash and watching out for rattlesnakes. "We found this by accident," he said, pointing to several dead patches of grass surrounded by pizza boxes, plastic bags and aluminum cans. "To wear that dirt down to the ground, shit, it takes a lot of people, man, a lot of traffic."
It was a humid day in South Texas. Huge thunderheads floated overhead, and each appearance of the mid-summer sun saturated the air with a dense stickiness. Parmley's black polo shirt bunched up near his belly, sweated into place. "It's nothing for us to walk out, when we're counting calves in our pastures, and to find 50 people standing out there," he said.
The problem's been going on for years, but it's become a lot worse over the last five or so, he said. "These coyotes have no regard for the people they're trafficking," he said. "They will leave them out in the brush for a week, maybe not even come back and pick them up. And these people are hungry; they're starving. A lot of these people have not eaten in a week, ten days."
Parmley's not a talking head; he's a man who stares the immigration issue in the face almost every day of his life. And he claims more than a thousand people have contacted him about the Texas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, folks from all over the state who want to pitch in and help out.
His group isn't the only one in Texas; several others have popped up, including the Texas Minutemen LLC, an organization based in Arlington that plans to patrol the border from Laredo to El Paso. But the Texas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps has received the most attention, due in part to being soclosely aligned with the national organization, but mostly because of Parmley's resignation, which came less than a week after the South Texas walking tour.
And just like that, Bill Parmley, the activist, died.
What was once a small group of anti-illegal immigration activists in Arizona has become a national movement: the Minutemen. The name conjures up images of men in long coats, muskets in hand, ready to fight in 60 seconds -- or at least that's what history tells us. The contemporary version, the one that's televised, shows us senior citizens in lawn chairs, binoculars and walkie-talkies in lap, just waiting for some action.
Some call them patriots, others racists, but just about everyone's got a take. Even the movement's members have differing views regarding who, how and where the Minutemen should be. The original Arizona group has split into two factions, each led by one of its two founders: Chris Simcox continues border operations with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and Jim Gilchrist is using the Minuteman Project to go after employers who hire immigrants illegally.
"We're working together and that's what so many people don't understand," says Simcox, a former kindergarten teacher. "Our goal is still the same. We're unified. We want the border shut down You come in legally, through an authorized port of entry, or you don't come in at all."
Ray Ybarra, an Arizona native who headed up the team of American Civil Liberties Union observers in April and who's currently training people in Texas, says, "The purpose of the [Minutemen] was to mainstream violence towards people of color, namely towards immigrants, in saying it's acceptable to put a gun on your hip to go out in the desert and hunt for somebody because you don't like what you think they're doing to U.S. society."
This attitude has been accepted, says Ybarra, because of the Minutemen's media savvy, and it's Simcox who seems to have done the best job of modifying his rhetoric over the years. At a meeting last month in Houston, Simcox said, "What we're talking about is pro-immigrant. I'm tired of finding dead bodies out in the damn desert. We found two of them over the Fourth of July weekend. It's sad. These people are dying a horrible death."
But two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report quoted him as saying, "They have no problem slitting your throat or taking your money or selling drugs to your kids or raping your daughters and they are evil people," referring to immigrants flooding into southern Arizona.
It was this kind of attitude that imbued the members of the Goliad chapter of the Texas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, according to Parmley. At one of the first Texas Minuteman meetings two months back, one member wondered aloud why local residents couldn't just shoot migrants trespassing on their property. Disputes also arose over whether the Minutemen should give water to dehydrated migrants. "Part of the Minuteman thing is you're a humanitarian," says Parmley, "so I suggested us throwing some money together and going out and buying some Pedialyte water and they just went through the roof."
A lot of Parmley's woes seem to revolve around small-town politics, particularly his relationship with other members of the Sarco Concerned Citizens organization, which meets regularly in a white, one-room schoolhouse in Sarco. Members started complaining to elected officials a while back about the smuggling problem, says current chapter president Kenneth Buelter, but they didn't get much help. The white vans kept flying through, loaded with migrants, at all hours of the day. "So we started looking around," he says, "and the Minuteman organization was the place that has gotten us the most publicity."
And nothing generates publicity like a little bit of controversy.
Parmley claims other members of the citizens group, all of whom are part of the Goliad chapter of the Minutemen, have been trying to undermine the local sheriff, Robert DeLaGarza, because he's Hispanic. "DeLaGarza, he's a great guy, a very nice guy," says Parmley. "I've known him since he was little. I've known his daddy for a long time. I've known his family. They're good people. I couldn't care less if they're Mexican. This is South Texas. Get over it."
Parmley says it all started about a year ago when he went to a local meeting where citizens were discussing how they could replace local Hispanic politicians with Anglos. He says he brought these issues to the attention of Simcox about a month before quitting, but Simcox put him off. Parmley suspects he was off somewhere grooming himself for political office.
Buelter denies any racism in the group, saying they're critical of the sheriff because he allegedly can't keep his department within its budget. Buelter also has concerns that convicted felons, including a child molester, were allegedly left unattended while performing roadside community service. "If you consider that undermining the sheriff -- I think it's more of some concerned citizens wanting to know who's in their neighborhood and if those folks should be in their neighborhood."
DeLaGarza did not return phone calls for comment.
Al Garza, a former private investigator appointed by Simcox as the new state president, says he recently visited the Buelter home and saw no hints of racism. "They treated me with nothing but respect," he says. "They fed me. They provided me with a guest room, my own shower, my own toilet, and I lived among them for three or four days."
Says Parmley: "They've blown sunshine up Al Garza's ass."
The group will continue without Parmley, says Buelter, "and we will be part of the Secure Our Borders operation in October."
Parmley says he still supports the national organization, "the people in Houston and all the other chapters, but this chapter I do not support, at least the leaders who are in it."
His only complaint against the national group is its lack of organization. "Even though they're three and a half years old, they don't have a constitution and bylaws," he says. "Any group, even down to the garden club, has that."
Lee Beane likes her nachos without jalapeños, her Coke with a splash of water, and her immigrants assimilated. "I don't want you to be an economic citizen," she says, enjoying a postprandial smoke at a Chili's in Las Colinas, a suburb of Dallas. "I want you to want to be an American, to assimilate."
This 65-year-old, self-described "computer granny" is one of the founders of the Texas Minutemen LLC, the Arlington group that boasts a letter of support from Jim Gilchrist and plans to monitor the Texas-Mexico border in October. Beane was in Arizona in April and rejects the notion that there are racist undertones in her organization. "I don't know if you're aware of the DNA studies that have gone on in the last 15 years," she says, leaning forward. "I guarantee you, if you take blood from, say, 50 people, you'd be amazed who you're related to." She says the Texas Minutemen LLC has been queried by white supremacist groups, but she's turned them away.
"If they want to do something besides drinking beer and chanting, they should've been doing it already," quips cofounder Shannon McGauley, in the booth beside Beane. (Both of them agreed to be interviewed on the condition that they wouldn't be photographed; they prefer to operate in relative anonymity, although photos of McGauley can be found pretty easily on the Web.)
The two met in a way that would've been perfect for a love story, jokes Beane, if she weren't 24 years older than he is. McGauley, a former private investigator, was also in Arizona in April; organizers asked him to leave when they determined he wasn't keen on following the rules. When Beane left Arizona, she says, Gilchrist asked her to monitor McGauley to make sure he wasn't slandering the Minuteman name. They got to talking and formed a pretty strong relationship, not to mention a Minuteman chapter.
Like many Americans, Beane and McGauley think their country is being overrun by undocumented migrants. "We are, more than anything else, pro-law," says Beane. "We are not against legal immigrants. We've got them in our group [But] when you come in illegal, you hide, you do other things illegal." In this post-9/11 world, Beane and McGauley harbor fears about what kind of people are entering the country.
They also object to the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born on American soil, irrespective of whether the parents are documented. "They've actually had women run across the Nuevo Laredo bridge with the baby hanging out," says McGauley, "so it's born in the U.S." Calling for the repeal of a constitutional amendment might seem like an extreme notion, but two weeks ago House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did the same thing at a press conference -- and somebody out there keeps voting for him.
When it comes to civil rights, Beane and McGauley think more are being afforded to undocumented immigrants than to American citizens. Beane has a beef with the way hospital personnel aren't allowed to ask the immigration status of patients, but she's required to give her name, address, social security number and insurance information the moment she walks through the automatic doors. She wants to know how asking for such information isn't a violation of her civil rights.
Anti-illegal immigrant sentiments and the organizations supporting them are nothing new in U.S. history. The Minuteman movement is just the latest model-- although it's already started splintering all over the place.
Beane and McGauley's group is not affiliated with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. The two object to the Corps charging $50 for federal background checks; they see the fee as a cash cow for Simcox.
"They've chosen to stay independent," Simcox said last month at the Houston meeting. "That's what we're concerned with, these groups popping up and saying they're Minutemen. And then if they go out and do something wrong, it's going to change all of us."
"McGauley is a young man," chimed in Parmley, at that time still president of his chapter. "He's out to more or less kind of prove himself. That's the way young people are, so we prefer to have more mature people who understand the reasons for discipline."
"They're not doing background checks," added Simcox. "They're taking a much more aggressive approach and I'm concerned about that."
McGauley says Simcox didn't treat his volunteers with respect in Arizona, another reason he decided to form his own group. And he says the Texas Minuteman LLC will do federal background checks, paid for out of his own pocket. He admits, however, that he's let his access to the database expire and must wait to regain clearance before he can start vetting others.
Come October, his group will head for the border, primarily between Laredo and El Paso, setting up quasi-military outposts on land owned by ranchers who've given them permission to patrol. Their goal, they claim, is to observe and report, and generate a bunch of buzz for their cause.
Sal Zamora, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says his agency's ultimate concern is the safety of anyone who chooses to hang out near the Rio Grande. "The border is a very dangerous area," he says. "Not too long ago, there were two [U.S. border patrol agents] who in essence engaged in gunfire with a group of what we presume to be illegal aliens who were trafficking in drugs. There was an extensive exchange of gunfire in broad daylight Incidents like that could occur at any given time, at any given place along the border."
"We know how to protect ourselves," says McGauley, "and we will be able to protect ourselves."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection might be tepid in its response to the Minutemen, but not so the Texas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "The Minutemen are not needed and they're not wanted in Texas," says state LULAC president Roger Rocha. Should someone get shot, be it a migrant, a Minuteman or an innocent bystander, Rocha worries about the potential for a backlash against the Hispanic community. The Minutemen "can claim all they want that they're here just to observe, but you and I know that's not the case," he says. "These people are coming in armed."
Rocha says ranchers can and will be held responsible for any violence towards immigrants: "If they're willing to take on the financial responsibility, that is their decision, but since the Minutemen are already being considered racists, such an action would probably be looked at as a hate crime."
Arturo Sandoval is cruising through a poor neighborhood in Laredo, a few hundred feet from the Rio Grande, when he see three guys walking briskly against traffic on a one-lane road. He makes the block in his white Chevy Tahoe, rolls the wrong way down the street and creeps up behind the three men, who turn and bolt the minute they see he's wearing the green uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol.
The game of cat and mouse has begun, although border patrol agents prefer you not call it that.
Sandoval calls for backup and hits the gas, shooting past the neighborhood's one-story brick and adobe houses, each butted right up to the next. He turns a corner and hops the curb to avoid a police car slowly coming his way. The cop stares and rolls on.
Violence is erupting across the river in Nuevo Laredo, with gangs battling for smuggling routes and city officials getting killed. These three suspects could be drug mules, although they're more likely just economic migrants coming across in search of work. Either way, it's Sandoval's job to track them down.
One suspect splits off from the group and Sandoval goes after the other two, revving his engine while relaying his position on the radio. The two fugitives quickly disappear around a corner, only to pop up a minute later leaning against a wall with a group of people. They sprint at the sight of the Tahoe and turn yet another corner, running smack dab into another border agent, who grabs one of them and wrestles him to the ground for resisting arrest. "Sometimes you don't know who you're encountering when guys don't want to listen to your commands," says Sandoval. "You don't know, first of all, what he has on him."
Sandoval, a Laredo native, says captives sometimes accuse him of selling out his Hispanic heritage; he simply says he has a job to do. He gets on the radio and describes the suspect who split from the group, but that fellow won't be found. He either headed back across the river to try again another day, or to a safe house somewhere in the neighborhood, where he'll save up his energy for the journey north.
Any border patrol agent will tell you more help is needed; there just aren't enough agents to respond to every situation. But few will tell you they want a bunch of civilians running around the river. Underground sensors are placed along the border to detect abnormal vibrations and these sensors can't distinguish between the footsteps of a smuggler, an economic migrant or a Minuteman. And then there's the common refrain, "What exactly do the Minutemen expect to do?"
Inside the sector command station at Laredo is a vast network of computers and monitors tracking tripped sensors and motion detectors. Cameras are perched along the Rio Grande and monitored by support staff here. Sandoval says border patrol agents are often alerted to two groups of migrants at once, and they have to choose which ones to pursue.
Which once again raises the question, "What exactly do the Minutemen expect to do?" The U.S. Border Patrol is already understaffed and incapable of responding to every call, so it doesn't make a lot of sense, except for the sake of publicizing the immigration issue, to have a bunch of people down there pointing out undocumented migrants.
U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Houston, perhaps wishing to grant the Minutemen the right to detain migrants, introduced a bill three weeks ago to let Texas and other states establish armed militias for border protection. These militia members would be able to "use any means and any force established by state law."
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.