HEREFORD, Ariz. – Standing on his front porch, about 1,000 feet from the Arizona-Mexico border, Glenn Spencer looks south as storm clouds gather and a cool breeze stirs across the darkening desert.
Spencer, 73, runs a civilian border patrol group that claims 12,000 supporters. But today, he stands alone, his eyes scanning the horizon as a light rain begins to fall.
Then his seven German shepherds start to bark.
“What’s wrong?,” he yells, turning to them. “Didn’t I tell you we were having visitors today?”
Spencer, in a dark blue polo shirt and a cream-colored baseball cap, walks to a piano in his living room and sits down. His face hardens in concentration, and his fingers move swiftly over the piano’s keys.
One by one, the dogs lay down, comforted by the music.
“There we go,” he says as he rises, smiling. “It works every time.”
Border patrol volunteers diverse, leaders say
Since March, when the most famous civilian border organization, the “Minutemen,” disbanded, smaller groups like Spencer’s American Border Patrol have jostled for donor dollars, volunteers and the chance to influence the future of the civilian border patrol movement.
Though they are often portrayed as one-dimensional racists and dangerous vigilantes, the movement’s volunteers come from all walks of life – retired grandmothers, active duty soldiers, people with a wide variety of political beliefs and even Latinos.
Like Spencer, they have complex personalities. Some volunteer for groups like American Border Patrol, which flies missions over the border in small planes and uses heat-sensing cameras to detect illegal immigrants.
Others, however, resort to more aggressive tactics.
Some members of one new group, U.S. Border Guard, which patrols an area 60 to 80 miles north of the border, carry machine guns and grenade launchers.
The group’s leader, Jason “J.T.” Ready, who the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a neo-Nazi, says volunteers on patrol in early October even chased drug smugglers for 30 hours at one point.
For his critics, Ready, 34, has a defiant message.
“If they don’t want people out there who are controversial, then come secure the border and those people won’t be out there,” he says. “I’ll send them home to a barbecue or something.”
Rancher death, Arizona law fuel revival
Several events this spring, all in rapid succession, helped fuel a revival of the civilian border patrol movement.
On March 23, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, as the group was officially known, announced it was disbanding.
Four days later, Robert Krentz, a rancher in Cochise County, Ariz., the same county as Spencer, was shot and killed, allegedly by an immigrant or drug smuggler.
“There’s no political way to spin people with fully automatic weapons and grenades from another country bringing in drugs and shooting at you,” Ready says. “There’s just absolutely no excuse for that.”
In April, a month after Krentz died, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070, a controversial law that once again thrust illegal immigration into the national spotlight.
Krentz’s murder and the controversy in Arizona served as rallying cries for a new batch of border volunteers. And with the dissolution of the Minutemen, they have increasingly joined smaller groups or started their own organizations.
Groups confront accusations of racism
In order to grow and in pursuit of mainstream influence, leaders like Spencer and Pat Byrne, executive director of the Patriots Coalition, say they’ve had to overcome the perception that their groups are motivated primarily by racism and xenophobia.
Spencer, who notes that he once ran a company with Native Americans and counts many Jews as friends, and Byrne, who says his group includes Latinos, seem especially sensitive to charges of bigotry.
“Our group chaplain was a guy named Gomez,” Byrne says. “Got a Villanueva. Got some real great guys in Houston who are Hispanic.”
Moderate leaders like Byrne and Spencer are quick to distance themselves from people like Ready, who has been labeled a neo-Nazi, though he disputes the term.
“To me, that’s like calling a black person a nigger,” Ready says. “I don’t think you’d do that. But it seems to be socially acceptable to call someone a neo-Nazi.”
Personal beliefs aside, Ready says he welcomes all volunteers into his group.
“I don’t care if you’re a Black Panther or a neo-Nazi,” he says. “It’s about patrolling the border. And if that means having so-called neo-Nazis on the border, I’ll utilize anybody.”
Volunteers share common goal, but diverge on methods
While the groups share a common goal, leaders like Spencer and Byrne complain they are often clumped together, even though they have very different, nuanced methods.
Spencer – who founded American Border Patrol in 2002, and whose ranch is dotted with all kinds of gadgets – has a $100,000 thermal imaging camera in his yard that can spot humans from five miles away. To demonstrate the power of the technology, he hops on his computer, brings up a live image and zooms in on several white blobs walking a mile away on the Mexican side of the border.
“Cows,” he says.
But Byrne’s group, the Patriots Coalition, has taken a different route than Spencer’s technology-centered approach, or Ready’s heavily armed patrols, by focusing on finding a political solution.
Volunteers hold rallies, lobby politicians, picket locations where day laborers congregate and, in some instances, photograph people coming in and out of Mexican consulates.
“It makes them crazy,” Byrne says.
On Veteran’s Day, Byrne, who served in the Marines in the 1950s and ’60s, puts on his Marine Corps League costume, “a real cool costume with all kinds of medals and crap,” he says, and confronts politicians at parades.
“Because they can’t mess with a six-foot five-inch, 250-pound Marine on Veteran’s Day, right?,” he says, laughing.
Immigrants, volunteers face more danger
The proliferation of smaller, locally-organized groups has endangered immigrants, says Jennifer Allen, executive director of the human rights group Border Action Network.
“There are no checks and balances, a way to control and contain them, and the potential for egregious acts of violence is much greater,” she says.
Between 1999 and 2005, when the civilian border patrol movement really took off, Allen says her organization documented about 1,000 cases of immigrants who were detained by what she calls “vigilante groups.”
“In some of those instances, people have been shot at, they’ve been kicked, they’ve had their hair pulled out, they’ve been verbally and physically abused,” she says. “The implication, the consequence of groups setting out and patrolling along the border is that, indeed, Latinos are huntable prey, are less than human.”
Border volunteers, too, face increased danger, as Mexican drug cartels wage an ongoing war.
The Border Patrol says it has warned the groups of the dangers they face.
Eric Cantu, a spokesman for the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol, says the groups are “completely independent” of the agency, and it “has nothing to do with them,” although Spencer, Byrne and Ready all dispute that.
Thousands protest illegal immigration with small flags
Spencer, having calmed his dogs and attended to a brief emergency – “The camera may have been hit by lightning,” he says – walks to a large golden Hummer parked in front of his ranch.
As he traverses the short drive to the aptly named “Border Road,” which parallels the border, he apologizes for the dirt-caked interior of the vehicle.
Border volunteers are more energized than at any point in the past five years, Spencer, Byrne and Ready say. But they are also aware that the civilian border patrol movement is at a crossroads.
So far, the movement has succeeded in its main goal, they say – drawing national attention to illegal immigration – but it remains to be seen if volunteers will be as successful now that they have splintered into smaller groups.
After briefly chatting with a passing Border Patrol agent, Spencer hits the brakes and jumps out. Navigating over small puddles of caramel-colored mud, he points to hundreds of small, weather-worn American flags tied to a section of the fence.
“There were 13,000 of these,” he says. “People sent them from all over for me to put up.”
The messages attached to these flags hint at the boiling discontent that motivates thousands to volunteer their time and donate money to civilian border patrol groups.
“We Americans have had enough,” one says. “Stay on your side of the border.”