[From The Brownsville Herald Sept. 18, 2005]
Taking a stand Minuteman count down to border campaign launch amid slings, arrows and appreciation
By Sara Inés Calderón
The Brownsville Herald
FALFURRIAS, 18 de septiembre, 2005 — They say Don Pedrito Jaramillo healed anyone, from anywhere, at any time, at no charge. The infamous bearded Texas curandero lived near here a hundred years ago; his grave is now a shrine for those with ailing family members who ask for his help.
A hundred years after Don Jaramillo’s death, Falfurrias has become the main stage for the national anti-illegal immigration group, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, whose campaign to keep undocumented immigrants out of Texas has formed a rift between those who are either with them or against them.
And as the issue heats up between neighbors here, more will be needed to heal the discord than can be found in an old man’s medicine bag.
“This border is wide-open — anybody with a backpack can get through,” said Michael Vickers, a veterinarian here who has become the point man for the organization’s efforts in the area.
“We gotta stop it — and that’s what the Minuteman are going to attempt to do,” he said sitting in his office in August, surrounded by his awards, mounted deer heads and other game trophies. The group’s activities consist of setting-up along designated areas and reporting illegal activities to the authorities.
The main group originally organized in Goliad, however, it dissolved last week. The group did not offer and explanation.
A group of about 20 leaders from Texas and other states met the first weekend in August at Vickers’ ranch to form a statewide strategy in Texas. A week later, the head of the Minuteman, Chris Simcox, came from Arizona to train volunteers in a handful of Texas cities.
The group launched Operation Forward Air Control over Labor Day weekend, using 30 planes to search the area for undocumented immigrants, organizers said.
“We haven’t even gotten kicked-off yet, these are just kind of reconnaissance patrols and training patrols and we are reporting people,” Vickers explained. “The main deployment for the operation Secure Our Borders will be during the month of October, it is going to be a big success.”
The operation, though, kicked off a month early after hundreds of Border Patrol agents were moved off their watch to help hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Minutemen have been indecisive about whether to come to Brownsville, but as of Friday the Valley was not in the cards for the group. However, Al Garza, the state president, said coming to Brownsville was still a possibility, given proper manpower.
Falfurrias’ 6,000 population is more than 90-percent Hispanic. Brownsville is close to 170,000 and with about the same concentration of Hispanic residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yolanda Pérez works at The Heritage Museum at Falfurrias, where the history of the town, from Edward Lasater to Falfurrias Dairy to famous hometown musicians, is documented.
Pérez was born here and has made her entire life in this town. She described the town’s glory days, showing photographs of luxury hotels and restaurants that used to be across the street from schools she attended. And then, she said, something changed in Falfurrias.
“People used to be really excited about the town, and they wanted to make it nice … but I don’t know what happened, we used to have a lot of things we don’t have anymore,” she said looking at the dull and faded photographs in the museum.
Surrounded by cattle ranches, Vickers said the area is part of a north-to-south pathway for immigrants and smugglers traveling to the interior.
The Minuteman are training and recruiting volunteers here and Vickers said the response is enormous.
Around town, all fingers point to the bus station. Dozens of immigrants line-up every morning, taking notices to appear in immigration court and hopping on buses to big cities. Most never return. Immigration officials say the majority of undocumented immigrants do not appear in court as instructed after release.
“I can’t stand the bus station,” said Dolores Villarreal, owner of the Don Pedrito Jaramillo Curio Shop, near the medicine man’s grave. She said she’s his great-granddaughter.
“People in town don’t want all these people coming through our town,” Villarreal said, referring to immigrant traffic.
“We’re being invaded by these guys — I’m all in favor of the Minuteman. At least somebody is trying to help,” she said.
A woman who works at the local bus station said the majority of riders don’t want trouble.
“They come all the way out here to make a new life for themselves and the majority of people around here take advantage of them,” though she believes the immigrants do damage the ranches.
This was an issue at the Minuteman meeting in August, where Garza was among the 20 present. The ex-Marine replaced Bill Parmley of Goliad, who resigned citing organizational problems and racism within the group.
“It was merely a misunderstanding and misinformation,” Garza said, referring to the charges of racism.
Frustration caused a few people to say things that were then taken out of context and interpreted as racist, Garza said, after looking into the matter.
He also addressed accusations that Goliad Minuteman was plotting against the Hispanic sheriff of Goliad County, Robert de la Garza.
“It had nothing to do with him being Hispanic, it was taken out of context,” Garza said, adding that the original comments stemmed from ranchers’ frustration.
Immigrants that go through local’s ranches break into homes and barns, tear down fences, steal vehicles, let animals out and all of them are potential terrorists, Vickers said in his veterinary office.
The Minuteman is about national security and stopping the hundreds of undocumented immigrants who travel through his ranch each day.
“Some of the big ranchers don’t want them in there,” Brooks County Sheriff Balde Lozano said.
He was also concerned for the group’s safety.
“It is real different down here,” Lozano said. “If they do come over here, they need to be real careful.”
The strategy the group worked out in August involves creating what they term a “laundry line” of volunteers through different ranches in the area, from east to west. This line will be able to notify the Border Patrol of the traffic traveling north to south through the area.
The vast majority of Minuteman volunteers are retired military and law enforcement individuals, and the majority is aged at least 50, organizers said. Life experiences of these volunteers add to the Minuteman’s strategy to combat illegal immigration, Vickers said.
But the strategy for Texas is different than in Arizona — where the group originated. The Minuteman should take care here, Lozano said. There has been an increasing amount of immigrant traffic through the area, and a “dangerous element” that flows through as well. He worries that the group has not made contact with his office.
With the whirlwind surrounding them, some Falfurrias residents shrug off the matter. AJ Treviño, 17, has lived here his whole life and just shook his head at the idea that undocumented immigrants are invading his city.
“They’re just people,” he said, while taking a moment at the local Whataburger restaurant where he works. “There are some of them that are bad, but some people are good — all they do is work.”
The Minuteman’s arrival in Falfurrias may affect illegal immigration here, but the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol spokesman Roy Cervantes would not comment on how.
“We do not know when this group is coming to the area,” he said. “We will address that issue when the time comes.”
The Minuteman’s nationwide operation Secure Our Border is scheduled to begin Oct. 1, until that date, Vickers and his followers will be preparing.
“We’re in an infancy stage,” he said of the group, which is currently training, recruiting and preparing for October.
“The point is to stop it (illegal immigration), and if we have to do it ourselves, we’re going to do everything we can to stop it,” Vickers said.