Thursday, May 26, 2011

Utah Minutemen Project: Undercover Report

UMP participates in debate at Salt Lake City Library
The Utah Minutemen Project (UMP) is often pitted against immigration reform groups in public debates, and has found its way into the arms of Republican Party partnership. It seems like every time I read an immigration-themed article in a local newspaper, I find some quotation from Eli Cawley, UMP's long-time leader.

While I recognize that many conservative Utahns support deportation, I find it strange that Eli is so frequently called upon to represent mainstream Republican values.  I have, for several years, believed his views to be quite extreme, especially with regard to the UMP's essential belief that citizen's should literally take the border law into their own rifle-cocking hands. I met Eli in 2008, when I attended a UMP meeting and took notes. A couple of friends and I attended the meeting under the guise of possible interest in the cause, although our real intent was merely to observe the workings of the organization.

Arizona minutemen at the border (
 I'm interested in the sympathetic portrayal of all groups of people. Even groups that represent public efforts antagonistic to my own principles. I hope to offer a frank-and-fair peek into the values and views of the members of the Utah Minutemen Project. This can be best done, not through a rehearsal of my own opinion and analysis, but by presenting what was said and done while I spent some time among them. Below are my UMP meeting notes:

Utah Minutemen Project Meeting
February, 2008

I Take a Look Around

It's a conference room in a public library. There are 18 people in the meeting, not including myself and two accompanying friends (Katy and Darren). Only 6 are women. Of the men, 6 have gray or white hair. At the time that we arrive, all the people attending the meeting are white. My friends and I are the only attendees in our mid twenties. The others appear to be between 40 and 80.

We are sitting in the back row. The room is about 35 by 25 feet. The chairs are arranged in 4 rows. There are colorful amateur-looking paintings in frames all along the front and back walls.

A large man with a new-looking leather jacket sits to Darren's left. One of the men gets up from his seat and pulls three chairs out of a closet for us (we had arrived late.)

Eli Cawley
The leader (Eli) conducts the meeting standing behind two plastic-top tables joined together. A large American flag is set up to the left of the tables.

They Cogitate Over Legislation

The man with the leather jacket says, “This is a golden opportunity to get these bills through...don't get discouraged.” His name is Jeff. He's about 40 years old, and has a full head of dark brown hair which naturally shoots upward. He's wearing jeans and a tan polo shirt.
They've been talking about the legislation going through the senate right now (SB81) that will take driving privilege cards and in-state tuition away from "illegal aliens."

There are smells here that I associate with my grandparents.

“[They're] taking 30,000 identities,” a man with gray hair and glasses says. I believe he's referring to undocumented immigrants and identity theft crimes. This man sits directly in front of Darren, and had turned to smile and greet us when we took a seat behind him. He is wearing a blue sweatshirt with the logo: UTAH MINUTEMEN.COM in large yellow letters. After the meeting, he introduced himself as Wally. Eli is wearing the same sweatshirt.

Immigration Protest in Minnesota
A man with a dark mullet hair style explains his own experience as a victim of identity theft. He sits in the front row, and keeps looking up at the lady writing on the whiteboard on the right hand side of the room. She's listing the provisions of the proposed law.

Eli advises the members to send an “individually tailored email” rather than a mass email to each of their own senators with regard to their opinions on the above-mentioned legislation.

Another man with gray hair and a plaid shirt sitting next to Wally responds to Eli's comments by saying “I'm gonna have my kids do the same thing.”

A man somewhere on the left side of the room, responds by saying, “I wish I could get my kids to be interested.”

A man in the front row with long dark hair and short bangs says, "Let's not wear the minutemen shirts at the identity-theft meeting." I think he's talking about a senate debate. Eli and several others agree.

I am attempting to take my notes discretely so as not to evoke suspicion.

We Get Caught

Jeff raises his hand to comment something like, "I'm not sure I'm comfortable being recorded by these people here who have been taking notes, who are you guys, reporters?"

His comment creates an acute silence. The other people in the group don't know what to say.  Most of them probably hadn't noticed that we had a small digital sound recorder or that we were taking notes, because we are sitting in the back. Some of them have eyebrows raised as if to imply that they thought Jeff's comment was rude. Others give us distrustful looks as if they are just as nervous about our being here as Jeff is. Eli asks us to explain.

Darren answers that we are university students from Provo here to check out the group, and that we wanted to record and take notes so that we could share information from the meeting with friends who weren't able to make it. He offers this explanation quickly and calmly, and I notice a few of the group members nod or make an “O” with their mouths to confirm understanding. Eli is one of these. But the general feeling of suspicion reigns.

Jeff thinks we should agree to turn the sound recorder off. "I've been misquoted before, and I don't want someone to misunderstand me and accuse me of being a racist." I conscientiously make eye contact with Jeff, and give him a smile and a nod as if to say that he has every right to be concerned. Someone makes the comment that they have nothing to hide. Eli suggests that the group vote. I recall that there were at least 5 votes in favor of allowing us to record. Darren turns the sound recorder off.

At some point, one of us mentions that we are BYU students. This dramatically changes the climate of the room. Members who hadn't looked at us before turn to smile. Wally says, “Welcome. We're glad you're here.” The topic of conversation is now the new bill that would deny in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. Someone mentions that immigrants can't enroll at BYU without residency or a student VISA. One of the group members asks, “So, there are no illegal aliens at BYU?” The three of us speak all at once. I answer truthfully, “No, they can't enroll.” Several group members, including Eli, clap and cheer.

They Distinguish Compassion from Amnesty

Minutemen Project members in Arizona
The discussion shifts to concern and criticism of the LDS Church's public statements encouraging compassion for immigration.

A 65+ year old lady in a salmon-colored sweater with poofy brown hair says, “be careful about getting angry at churches...I've had some blessings from the keep your loyalty where it belongs.”

Another member says, “Here's my thing, I'm LDS, too..we should love the people..We don't want to hate these people just because they're Mexican..but we just want them to keep the law.”

In between comments, Jeff leans closer to us, and says, "I've got a degree from BYU, so I welcome you." At this point, I feel that we are officially “in.”

The woman who had been writing on the whiteboard now sits a row ahead of us on the left side of the room. She's wearing a blue corduroy button-up shirt with a gray-blue undershirt and lots of shiny rings. She tells (with disapprobation) a story of someone testifying in church about how illegal aliens should be able to have driver's licenses.

Eli Explains What it Means to Be an American

For the next few minutes of the meeting, all the discussion is directed toward the three of us BYU students. I begin to feel that I am being indoctrinated by friendly people who not only want to convert me to their cause, but who care about me as a person.

University Students Protest against National Minutemen Leader, Chris Simcox
“I'm gonna exercise a prerogative to ask the BYU students to tell us more," Eli says. "What is your perspective about what the two sides are?” He feels defensive about the way people define the different sides as compassion vs. bigotry or racism. He wants to know if this is the way the two sides have been characterized to us.

He says, “Just ask your friends one simple question...what does it mean to be an American?” He explains, "When you ask people this, you usually get one of three responses: a blank stare, the answer that it's all about diversity, or the answer that it's all about freedom from oppression." He continues, “But the real question is, what does it mean to be an American?” He mentions that in other countries there are traditions, food, and other things that unite the people as a single culture. He mentions that his wife is from Vietnam, and that her country has this kind of desired defining culture. He's concerned about the loss of the U.S.'s “national character.” He then makes a list of the most important things that define us culturally as Americans. 
      1. Loyalty to the constitution
      2. English language
      3. Tolerance
      4. Christianity
His point is that illegal immigration threatens all these defining characteristics. I remark silently to myself that #3 is strikingly ironic.

Eli continues (statements abridged): “What about our future, and the future of our children? We see the U.S. as a market instead of a nation. I don't consider those that come illegally to be immigrants. They are illegal aliens. 'Immigrant' implies a legal process.” He explains the difference between settlers and immigrants. “I resent people saying we're a nation of immigrants.” He says that settlers were not immigrants, but originators; that they created the initial culture, and that only those that came in with different cultures later were really immigrants. Later, he adds, “I don't think there's such a thing as a hyphenated American...either you're an American, or you're not...I don't want anyone calling him [my son] a Vietnamese-American. By God! He's an American.”

Wally comments, “We need limits to legal immigration, too.” To this comment, Eli responds by making a “psha—psha” sound while waving his hand at Wally. This sound, and gesture seems to say, yes I agree, but that's a topic for another day. It's also possible that it means he disagrees, I consider this a possibility in part because I remember that he said his wife is a Vietnamese immigrant. Eli immediately calls on another person and the discussion topic changes.

The woman (Caucasian) who wrote on the board at the beginning of the meeting says, “I don't think you can get away with saying, 'Native Americans.' I'm a native American...” She says that it's more correct to say 'Indians.'

A group member says regarding immigrants, “We're not going after them, we're being suppressed by them..we're being invaded.”

An older woman (about 70 years old) who has not yet spoken says, “It's not just about illegal immigration.” This implies that even legal immigration is a concern.

Eli says that it's "the most delicious irony of history" that we, whose forefathers attacked and oppressed the Indians, are now dealing with the same problem that the Indians had, being oppressed by immigrants.

The Man in the Pink Scarf Decries Border Crossing Dangers

A man who had come in later than my friends and I stands to speak. I can't help but notice his clothing looks old, and very unique. He is wearing a tweed suit, and the kind of tie my uncle wears, made of a pencil-thin leather strap, and held together with a metal clasp. He's also wearing a colorful (mostly pink), decorative scarf, and a tweed hat. His hair and mustache are gray, and his eyebrows are black. His complexion is dark. I have difficulty determining what his race is.

He gives a long speech about illegal immigrants crossing the border. He says that many women who hire coyotes to help them cross take birth control, and make sure their daughters take birth control too, because they know that the coyotes will probably rape them as part of the deal. He directs his comments to Katy, Darren, and myself. He explains his story. He was born in the United States, but his mother is Mexican. She entered the U.S. with a temporary work visa that she had to keep renewing over and over again. He says that what the minutemen do is not like a witch hunt or anything, that it's compassionate.

He believes that the anti-immigrant legislation is compassionate, because it will discourage immigration and all the problems that come with it, such as becoming exploited laborers. He compares cheap immigrant labor to slave labor. “Why don't you just buy the person?” he says sarcastically. He adds that there may be economic problems in other countries, but that in Mexico, it's not as bad as they say, that coyotes cost $5,000, which would be enough to keep a family alive for up to three years.

They Pass the Hat

Eli tells the group about a “border patrol official” named Glenn Spencer who was harassed by the police. I assume that Spencer is a minuteman, not a government border patrol guard. Eli says, “I don't usually do this, but I'm gonna ask for donations.” The donations are to support Spencer. Eli describes Spencer as “courageous,” and speaks about Spencer's “heroic efforts” in trying to inform the people about the duplicity of the border patrol. He says they are trying to inform the American people “that border patrol can't do their job.” Eli's voice becomes loud, emphatic,“If they really wanted to protect the border they'd have military down there!”

Volunteer Patrols Arizona Border (
The woman who wrote on the board at the beginning of the meeting stands up and says, “Aren't you energized by Eli? We have the spirit, let's keep going. If you can't be in the trenches on the there vicariously by donating.”

Eli explains that donations can be given to Nellie, who sits on the second row on the far left side. Someone asks, “We get a receipt, right?” Eli says yes, but Nellie explains that she has accidentally left her receipt book at home. Someone mentions that they can donate online.

The man with the mullet says, “Is that why the government's been putting it's own border patrol people in jail?” I assume he means putting minutemen in jail. Eli answers him, “Yes, because they were enforcing the law!” Eli's comment is sarcastic. By “they,” he means minutemen. He's upset that they have trouble with the police. I wonder if the money they are raising is for Spencer's jail bail. I don't dare ask.

After the meeting, several group members approach Katy, Darren, and me. They thank us for coming, shake our hands, and some chat for a few minutes. On scraps of paper, they jot down for us websites, university faculty names, and scripture references. I know they want to recruit us. I feel guilty, because I have no intention of coming back.

* * * *

I certainly don't claim to have the same periscope that a fly on the wall would have. Keep in mind that my personal opinion about immigration subconsciously affects what moments from this meeting I chose to record, and the language with which I described the characters. That said, I must add that everything stated in the account is true. I submit the task of conclusion to the reader.


  1. Quote: 'The man with the mullet says, “Is that why the government's been putting it's own border patrol people in jail?” I assume he means putting minutemen in jail.'

    He was probably talking about actual agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, not private citizen minutemen vigilantes. Perhaps this story:

  2. B.C., Thanks for posting, I think you may be right. At that point in the conversation, they might have actually been talking about official patrol agents. That got me thinking, maybe Glenn Spencer was also a Border Patrol employee, which made me confused, because during the conversation, I felt certain that they were raising money for him, because he was part of the Minutemen organization. So I googled him, and found this:

    "Setting up operations in the Pueblo del Sol Subdivision in Sierra Vista, Ariz., Spencer created American Border Patrol —a slightly changed name for his old American Patrol group — a private organization that would serve as a 'shadow Border Patrol.' Using high-tech sensors, infrared video-cameras, and citizen volunteers roaming the often mountainous terrain on ATVs, Spencer's operation was designed to embarrass the federal government into fully militarizing the border by capturing images of undocumented workers on film and uploading them onto for all to see."

    ( I dislike this website because it's generally harsh and judgmental, but it at least cleared up the question of government employment.