Jeff Henry could be the poster boy for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Mild-mannered, trim, saccharine-sweet and bilingual thanks, he says, to a two-year Peace Corps stint in Nepal he espouses a cautionary restrictionism that could give the national anti-immigrant group the kind of PR makeover its leaders have been craving for the past few years.
As the leader of one of MCDC's newest chapters, Henry compares his fledgling Colorado Springs group to an undisruptive neighborhood watch program albeit one that seeks to ferret undocumented immigrants out of the city and back over the southern U.S. border.
"There is nothing racist about what we do," he says. "If I saw someone breaking into your home, would you like me to call the police? Is that racist?"
Henry, a 48-year-old private business owner, requested that the Independent not print his profession, saying, "I just don't need people showing up on my doorstep, being nasty and doing that type of stuff." It's not about him, he adds, but a concern for his homeland, a place that "nobody in the world has a right to come to."
The newly planted Minuteman group, which hosted its first meeting Tuesday night, has already stirred the anxieties of some immigrants and their advocates in Pueblo and Colorado Springs. These people say they see beyond Henry's neighborly visage to an organization that was seeded by xenophobia.
"I really wonder if people want to take a lead from these kind of folks, [who] pick up arms and target powerless people who are trying to feed their families," says Margaret Mora, Pueblo director for the Colorado Progressive Coalition. "I believe that if it were some years back, they would be wearing white hoods."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a tolerance education group, the Minutemen's tactics mirror those of the the Ku Klux Klan, whose leaders staked out the Arizona border in the late 1970s. The Anti-Defamation League reports that the Minutemen have been endorsed by the Aryan Nations and the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi organization that has distributed thousands of white-supremacist pamphlets throughout Colorado Springs and other U.S. cities over the past few years.
But Henry insists that his chapter is unconnected to hate groups, and says each prospective member will have to clear a background check. Convicted criminals will not be allowed membership.
MCDC's vast expansion into the interior of the country there are now over 200 local chapters in 38 states coincides with recent efforts to mainstream the group. Once a small team of renegade citizens, the group now boasts more than 7,000 members who are eligible to go to the border, including Colorado state Rep. Dave Schultheis and House District 14 candidate Kent Lambert and his two sons. The Minutemen count their general membership at 400,000.
Tuesday's introductory meeting at the Falcon Police Substation aroused concerns that the Minutemen and the police were colluding to target immigrants, though each group has denied any relationship with the other. In the public part of the meeting this Independent reporter was asked to leave for the potential-members-only segment Henry detailed the safety risks of a porous border.
The audience, dominated by several dozen white male veterans, jeered at the single protester who yelled, "You're right-wing and racist!" from the back of the room before he was escorted out of the building by the police. Schultheis and Lambert spoke, and a representative for Republican state Sen. Doug Lamborn thanked the Minutemen for their endorsement in his campaign for U.S. Congress.
The Minutemen's upcoming in-state activities will include distributing flyers to educate area business owners about the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement, or SAVE, program, in which employers can check the legal status of potential hires.
Henry also plans to create an online list of local restaurants where "people can go and be assured that their food is not being prepared by somebody who may have a disease that hasn't been caught because they are here illegally."
Amber Tafoya, a Pueblo-based immigration lawyer, says that plan smacks of 1920s-style discrimination.
"This is a typical xenophobic response, rather than something that is actually proven," she says. "Everyone is coming from a country where they have vaccination programs."
Henry's campaign is typical of the inland minutemen groups that alternate between local outreach activity and organized trips to the border. Henry himself visited the New Mexico border for the first time last October and saw thousands of footprints, or "tracks," as he calls them, from the undocumented immigrants who scuttled through the desert. He plans to take a delegation of 30 or more back with him this fall, for his fifth visit.
Rocio Castro, a 33-year old janitor in Colorado Springs, has been to that place, too. She crossed the border with her baby seven years ago, receiving her U.S. residency just last month.
"They are going to defend their country with screams," she says of the Minutemen. "The people who are coming here are defenseless."