The Minutemen

GQ, Oct 2006

The stakes are high at the Mexican border. For the migrant the border is a frontier of hope and survival. For the Minuteman, it is the brink of America’s racial destiny. Sanjiv Bhattacharya came to the desert to find the firm line between the two and instead found a baking nether world of paranoia and loathing, a place where desperate men peer into the shimmer and find either doom or Canaan.

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Magazine Photographs by Chris Floyd, rest below by me

Hank Fields believes his country is being invaded by aliens. Not space aliens, but illegal aliens. Mexican aliens, most of them. So this weekend he’s doing something about it. He’s sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of the Arizona desert, with about 30 others, staggered along a 2 mile stretch. Most are like Hank – white, retired and armed.

“It’s quiet now, but oh it gets exciting,” he says, peering through his binoculars. “Especially at night, with those special night goggles, oh yes. Last time we saw a whole group coming through the wash there like ninjas. And the border patrol helicopters came with their big lights…” He smears a dollop of suncream over his face. “Oh, we had our excitement.”

Hank is a vigilante, though the word makes him bristle. “I’m vigilant, yes. But ‘vigilante’ sounds reckless. I’m 72 years old! You media need to understand – we don’t arrest the illegals.  We just observe and report to Border Patrol. And our guns stay in our holsters. Very important. You take your gun out, and you’re out. I’m serious. But you want to carry one for your protection? Well, this is dangerous country here. There’s drug smugglers with AK 47s, and they’ve got hits out on a lot of us. Oh yes. That’s why we use code names on the radio. In case they’re listening.”

His radio squawks and he snatches it up. “This is Joker, copy,” he says.

“Yeah, I’m looking for Hank,” comes the reply. “You know where he is?”

“Yes I do, Joker is at post one. Copy.”

“But I need Hank – Hank Fields?”

“Yes but Joker is… the name you mentioned.” Silence. “You’re supposed to call me Joker because we’re not using our real names.” He sighs and clicks off. “It’s always like this on day one. Chinese fire drill.”

Hank is a Minuteman. Nothing to do with the Minuteman missile, nor the Missy Elliot single “(I don’t want no) One Minute Man”, but a part of the Minuteman movement that has America all whipped up right now – ordinary citizens who grew so exasperated with their leaky Mexican border that they decided to patrol it themselves. In April and October the Minutemen hold month-long ‘musters’, or border watches. Last year, they claim over 1300 people showed up sealing off 35 miles of border. Other witnesses say it was more like 200 people, but either way, they caused a sensation – armed vigilantes in the Wild West! And ever since a controversy has raged between those who hail them as heroes and others who warn of lawlessness and a cover for white supremacists.

So far, they look more like Dad’s Army – harmless old duffers playing border cop for a weekend. With their sandwiches, sunhats and binoculars, they’re like twitchers with guns – as though Soldier of Fortune sponsored a picnic with SAGA magazine. Jim, who’s been cleaning carpets for 37 years, is huffing about the ‘world government’, which he read about on the internet. Billy, the carpenter, reckons “you’re crazy if you get on that internet. Them hackers will get right into you.” And Al Garza, the Captain Mainwaring of the operation, is ranting about how “illegals want all the freedoms, but they don’t want to pay the price.” A Hispanic ex-marine of 62, and one of 2 non-whites at the muster, Garza knows he’s turning on his own people, in a sense. But he’s a military man and his country comes first. Like most Minutemen he believes he is rescuing America and history will smile upon him. As small as they are, their mission could not be greater. It’s quite sweet really.

“I know they got a hit out on me,” says Garza, seriously. “I got my sources. But I’m ready to die for this cause. I should have died a long time ago. At least now I can die with a little dignity for Christ’s sake.”

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It is tempting to dismiss the Minutemen as just another wacko militia from America’s fringe. The ingredients are all there – paranoid Nam vets, guns and conspiracy theories. But this lot can’t be written off so easily. They have struck a national chord. Millions of Americans sympathise. After all, they are right about one thing – illegal immigrants are flooding across the Mexican border faster than ever before.

According to best estimates, some 750,000 illegal immigrants entered the US last year. That’s 2000 per day. They joined the 12 million who already live there – or 4% of the population (over five times the corresponding percentage in the UK). And they compounded not only the burden on schools and hospitals – the traditional complaints – but also the growing sense of demographic doom that hangs over white America. Because if current trends prevail a racial tipping point is inevitable. The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, whites will be a minority in America (down from 70% today), and of them a large quota will be elderly. A more youthful Latino population, however, will have doubled to 25%. For America, the writing is on the wall – in Spanish.

The Minutemen understand these anxieties – about the third world swamping the first, the brown hordes at the mansion gates. They sense the fear of being swallowed up by the other Americas and the greater fear of admitting as much and being labelled a racist. What their musters have done is force these fears out into the open. What once rumbled beneath the skin of American public life has now erupted into national politics. And it hasn’t been pretty.

In 2005, Congress passed a bill so severe that it upgraded the crime of illegal immigration from a civil offense to a felony – the most severe class of crime – and even made felons of anyone who so much as helped illegal immigrants stay in the country, a category that includes employers, landlords and the Catholic church which offers them shelter. Outrageous options were being sincerely considered, like building a 2000 mile fence or deporting 12 million people. Then 600,000 Latinos marched through Los Angeles – one of the largest demonstrations in American history – so the Senate replace the bill with a tamer version, which now awaits approval by the House of Representatives. But the new bill is confused and far from a sure thing. On the one hand it deters illegal immigrants by placing the National Guard on the border, and on the other, it offers them the incentive of citizenship should they make it.

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For the Minutemen, this kind of confusion has bedevilled the border for too long. Tired of equivocation and compromise, they’re trying to impose some clarity on the issue – a binary sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad, just like the old Wild West. But nothing about the border is quite so straightforward. That solid line on the maps is mostly just a perforated fence about hurdle-height that often peters out altogether. And the harder you look at it, across the pitiless desert, the more the lines blur and ripple in the heat. Cacti melt into their shadows. The horizon dissolves into the sky. It’s hard to tell where the lines are drawn.

For instance, the “illegals” seem miscast as bad guys. After all, America was built by impoverished foreigners emigrating for a better life. And Mexicans in particular have been travelling back and forth across the border ever since World War II, to pick the crops, gut the chickens and essentially do the jobs Americans don’t want to do. All that has changed lately is the scale of traffic which has spiked on account of a shrinking Mexican jobs market and a ready demand for cheap labour in the US. But this influx contributes to the economy as consumers, and their cheap labour means low prices, which benefit all Americans. Hence the cartoon showing an Uncle Sam figure holding a “No Entry” sign in one hand, and “Help Wanted” in the other. The caption: “Borderline Schizophrenia.”

Besides, the “illegals” are dying. Every day, one or two succumb to the desert. They once entered the US safely through California’s more manageable terrain, but then the state built a fence in 1994 – the notorious Operation Gatekeeper – and ever since, traffic has been diverted through the punishing Sonora desert in Arizona. In the last 12 years, over 4000 have died. It’s a huge toll – more than 9/11, more than US losses in Iraq. The message to poor Mexicans appears to be – there’s a job waiting for you but only if you can survive 3 days in the desert. And yet still they come.

All that is clear down here is that the stakes are high. For the migrant the border is a frontier of hope and survival. For the Minuteman, it is the brink of America’s racial destiny. I came to the desert to find the firm line between the two and instead I found a baking nether world of paranoia and loathing, a place where desperate men peer into the shimmer and find either doom or Canaan.

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It’s February 2nd, the anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, when America seized half of Mexico’s land, and a small rally has gathered near the border fence in San Diego, California. In a month or so, these 50 or so people will join a historic march through Los Angeles of over half a million, but this is how these things start. Small and grassroots, with one man and a loudhailer.

“The Minutemen are racists, they have to be stopped!” Enrique Morones addresses the crowd. “They have forgotten that America is a nation of immigrants. Their ancestors were Irish, Jewish and Italian and they’re calling Mexicans aliens? Mexicans are the least alien immigrant group to ever cross the border.”

Morones is the Minutemen’s most vigorous opponent. A 49 year old talk radio DJ, he runs Border Angels, a charity which since 1986, has left water and food for migrants out in the desert, an act that the Minutemen describe as “aiding and abetting illegal activity.” For the next two weeks, he’s leading a “Migrant March”, a caravan tour running from San Diego to Washington DC, along which he will stop to speak at anti-Minuteman rallies and plant crosses in remembrance of fallen migrants.

So I join him and his motley crew, about 25 in all. Like the Minutemen they are small and shambolic but with a grandiose agenda; most are retired and fiercely patriotic, though the flags here are Mexican not American; and while the Minutemen are largely white, the Migrant March is largely brown. The most telling similarity between the groups, however, is that both attract hardliners who don’t shy from stark, racial language. At every rally, there is a strong showing by groups like the National Council of La Raza (literally ‘the race’), and the popular student movement, MECHA, or El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan. The key words here are Chicano and Aztlan. Chicano came to replace ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ as a term for Mexican Americans during the civil rights movement, and Aztlan refers to the lands that were first settled by the Aztecs and made up northern Mexico before the American invasion – a territory that includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, much of Texas and parts of Nevada and Colorado. Many believe that a movement called La Reconquista is underway, to literally reconquer Aztlan for Mexicans through immigration.

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Morones scoffs. “That Reconquista stuff is just a conspiracy theory that racists use to scare people,” he says. “It’s a myth.”  But it’s a powerful myth – discussed on CNN and FOX – and the sentiment is real enough. Over the course of 2 days, I come across banners reading “This is Indian land”, “Who you calling illegal, pilgrim?”, “This is our continent not yours”, and “Racist Whites Keep Out”. At one rally at Riverside university activists yell “Aztlan is ours! Nobody should die for what belongs to them!”

“I don’t believe all that,” says Morones, quickly. He knows Aztlan nationalism doesn’t play well with “Anglos”. But he feels it. For Morones, the border fence is just a feeble suture on a deep historical gash.

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The founder of the Minutemen, Chris Simcox, suggests we meet in a car park in Phoenix. He’s the wiry white guy in the Levis, sneakers and a pale grey fleece. “Follow me”, he says. So I tail him to the Holiday Inn on the other side of town where he orders a whiskey and says, “OK let’s do the interview here.”

Why not your house?

“That will never happen,” he says. “Media can’t know where I live, I’ve had too many threats. Emails, phone calls, notes on my car saying ‘you’re going to eat Mexican lead’. And ‘check your car before you get in’.”

He gets straight to the point. “Don’t talk to me about national security,” he says, “when you’ve effectively left the country’s biggest border wide open. All those troops and resources securing Baghdad, when terrorists and criminals are coming over our border every day? Now, the military on our border would reclaim the sanctity of what it means to be an American citizen. And that’s what we’re trying to salvage. We’re just a dying breed who realize this is the last stand, the last attempt to save the republic.”

The way Simcox speaks, it’s as though he can hear the Stars and Stripes playing in the background. But I don’t get his point – surely Bush would leap at the chance to militarize the border, if only to keep people scared?

“No, he’s afraid it’ll start an all-out war,” he says, darkly. “And not with Mexico. With the drug cartels. I think senior government officials are scared, because the way the cartels operate, they go after your family. Your children.”

You think Bush himself is scared of the cartels?

“Mm-hmm. Bush, Cheney, all of them.”

Simcox has an odd background for a vigilante.  The only man in his family not to join the military, he started out as an A&R man for Capitol records in Chicago. By the mid 80s, he’d had enough of the night life, and wanted to start a family, so he became a schoolteacher in Los Angeles, at a quarter the salary. His wife promptly left him, but he married again and had a second child. Then they too divorced and 9/11 happened in swift succession. “My life changed forever,” he says.

He became obsessed with the idea that the Mexican border was unguarded at a time when America was under attack. So he packed up his job and went to Arizona, where illegal traffic was the greatest. He tried to join the Border Patrol but was refused – too old (he was 41). So instead, he settled in one of the hottest areas for migrant traffic, the town of Tombstone, and bought the local newspaper, the Tumbleweed, to rally support on the issue. By late 2002, he had started a vigilante group – the Civil Border Defense Group, which he rebranded as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps last year. And now it’s the biggest vigilante group in the country.

His choice of Tombstone is telling. The home of the OK Corral, where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had their famous shootout, is now a Wild West tourist town where $10 buys a stage coach ride and you can still see the bulletholes in the whorehouse walls. Simcox loves the cowboy machismo of the place, its history of defiance and individualism. He’s prone to nostalgia – the name “Minutemen” comes from a civilian outfit that rallied to fight the English in the 18th century.

“We’re not a republic anymore,” he says. “We’ve allowed a dozen Trojan horses into the centre of the city and we’re so paralysed by political correctness we’re afraid to even mention them.”

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This is the image he likes to present – the last-stand patriot. But there is another side to Simcox, buried in his marital record, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Alabama, which monitors extremist groups. In the court records of his custody battle with his 2nd wife, Kim Dunbar (an African-American), she describes a volatile man, prone to rages, who unravelled badly after September 11th. He ranted on her voicemail about the Constitution and looming mushroom clouds over Los Angeles. He was caught carrying a concealed weapon where he shouldn’t have been. He insisted on training their 15-year-old son in the use of firearms, and lectured him about how “horrible things were going to happen” and he was going on a “big adventure”, but he couldn’t say where, “because I don’t trust who’s listening to this conversation.” The court gave full custody to his wife.

When I bring up the SPLC’s investigation, Simcox steels his jaw. “It’s all absolute lies,” he says. “The gun thing was a set-up. Just ridiculous…” But there are transcripts of actual conversations, and court records. They even allege that he attempted to molest his 14 year old daughter. If it was an outright fabrication, Simcox could sue, but he hasn’t.

The lines are blurring again. How relevant are the allegations of aggrieved ex-wives? Does his post-9/11 meltdown discredit the Minuteman movement? And surely the facts that his second wife is black and his son biracial answer the charge that the Minutemen are racist?

“The point about Simcox is that he’s a scary, unstable character,” says Mark Potok of the SPLC, carefully. “We’ve never said that he’s a racist or that the Minutemen are based on a racist ideology. But that doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern.”

For the SPLC border vigilante outfits are the thin end of a neo-Nazi wedge. Anti-illegal immigration groups bleed into anti-immigration groups which traditionally harbour white supremacists – it’s a familiar pattern. And already, the demonising of illegal immigrants has begun. I heard from Al Garza how “they’re bringing in TB”, and from Hank Fields, how they “slit the throats of ranch dogs to keep them from barking and they break the water troughs so the horses die of thirst.” I even heard Minuteman Tim Donnelly tell a school group from Minnesota about “the rape trees, where panties hang like fruit.” As the students took notes, he said: “the coyotes, the guides for these illegals, rape the women in their group and they go to the same trees to do it. I know one rancher, who is kept awake at night by Mexican women being raped on her land. At first she thought it was dogs.”

There has been violence. While the Minutemen have a vetting process to weed out wanted felons or former Klansmen, not all vigilante groups are so thorough. In 2004, a neo-Nazi from the Arizona Guard group called Kalen Riddle was in a shootout with federal agents. That same year, brothers Roger and Donald Barnett, were charged with aggravated assault for holding people down at gunpoint. In 2005, the Ranch Rescue group in Texas was sued when two El Salvadorans were beaten on ranch land by the owner, Casey Nethercott. (Now Nethercott is serving 5 years and the immigrants own his ranch).

And then there are the occasional homicides, some just a rattle of bleached bones in the desert with their arms tied, shot to death.  Arizona sheriffs typically presume they are the work of “coyotes” or drug dealers. But like so much else here, that’s far from clear.

  

According to the SPLC, one of the border’s most rabid racists is Glenn Spencer, a 68 year old grandfather who has spoken at white power conferences and whose website, AmericaPatrol.com is banned in schools. Mark Potok calls him “a nut. His site’s cleaned up now, but it used to be a compendium of articles showing Mexicans in a bad light. He was like a Klansman compiling articles on black crime.”

So I’ve come to visit him in his trailer home, only 1000 ft from the border itself. He lives alone but for eight German Shepherds barking in the back. And it crosses my mind – maybe they’ve been trained to attack brown people like me. In fact, I’m way off. The dogs are friendly, as is Spencer who is both unarmed and relatively unparanoid – his address is on his website. And for a hatemonger, he’s really quite jolly.

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“Look at this!” he says, giggling. He finds a video clip of the ex-President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo saying “the Mexican nation extends beyond the territory enclosed by its borders. And Mexican migrants are a very important part of it.” Spencer looks shocked, open-mouthed, like Frankie Howard. “This guy just declared war on the United States! He said ‘we’re occupying you by migration!’ It’s an invasion without firing a shot!”

Spencer seems less like a Grand Wizard than an eccentric inventor who spends his day before a sweep of seven computer monitors, all of them active with tickers and graphs. In order to expose the “invasion” and the Border Patrol’s paltry response, he has built an unmanned surveillance plane which he operates from his office. The plane’s camera sends images back to ground control and when it spots any migrants, he alerts the Border Patrol, giving precise GPS coordinates. Sometimes he streams live video on his website.

“The border patrol has one of these planes, but they hardly ever use it,” he says. “They also have balloons to detect low-flying aircraft which they could easily fit with infra-red cameras to detect people at night. But they haven’t. Why?” His eyes light up. “I’ll tell you why – this system is designed to fail! They don’t want it to work!”

Spencer believes there’s a conspiracy afoot to dissolve the border completely. It involves the major newspapers, the SPLC and the Catholic Church. What he can’t fathom however, is why the USA is allowing it. “If you give citizenship to all the illegals that are already here, and you let them bring over their families, that’s 50 million people,” he says. “And they’re not becoming Americanised – America’s becoming Mexicanised. In 20 years, the US will be a 3rd world country. The first 3rd world country with 6000 nuclear weapons.”

He’s not laughing any more. “Have you been to Mexico? Their government is so corrupt that people have to cheat to defend themselves. That’s why lying is part of Mexican culture.”

That’s a racist thing to say, Glenn.

“That’s not race, that’s culture. It’s not in their culture to value education either, that’s why they drop out of school when they come here.”

When you see a Mexican in the street, is that what you think – they lie, they’re uneducated?

“Not on an individual basis no. But if Americans knew when they saw a Hispanic-looking person on the street, that that person had come into the country legally, and done everything right, they’d look upon them more fondly.”

I’m a Hispanic-looking person, so this will sound odd, but I quite like Glenn, the giggling conspiracy theorist, the batty scientist. I think he’s wrong about Mexicans but his openness is refreshing and I suspect most Minutemen agree with him, but are too scared to admit it. And I understand where he’s coming from. There’s always a personal reason behind these vigilantes. For Simcox it was seeing illegal immigrants entering the US a week after 9/11, when he was out hiking in a national park. For Spencer it was the Los Angeles riots of 1992, as he watched the neighbourhood he grew up in getting torn apart by Latinos, many of whom were undocumented.

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Border Patrol Headquarters, Nogales, Arizona. The holding cells are heaving again. Some days they’ll process 1500 migrants a day here, and you can see it on the agents’s faces – like harassed bank tellers at lunchtime. I’m looking at Cell Two where about 100 men are sitting, silent and sullen, waiting to be bussed back to Mexico. And there’s no sign of Paulinho or his brothers. Maybe they made it.

I met Paulinho, 19, yesterday in the town of Altar, Northern Mexico, a hub for migrants heading to El Norte through Arizona. Altar is booming with all the traffic. New motels are going up and stalls full of rucksacks, balaclavas and mats to sleep on. Paulinho was one of hundreds of men and women in the town square, waiting quietly for his coyote.

His story is typical. His village in Oaxaca, down south, had a bad crop this year so he and his brothers could not find work. But he has cousins in Oregon who get $8 per hour for farmwork – 6 times what he’s used to – and a coyote could take him there for $1500 which he could pay once he was in his new job. For Paulinho there was no choice. He took the cross country bus journey to Altar, where he waited, a turmoil of hope and trepidation.

“I’m not scared of the desert,” he said, defiantly. None of the migrants I met were worried about thirst, sunstroke, blisters, rattlesnakes or even the Minutemen vigilantes. “Oh the migrant-hunters? No, I don’t care about them. But I heard la Migra [the Immigracion, the Border Patrol] beat you up.”

Paulinho heard right. Most Border Agents have beaten up a migrant or two. “I’ve never pulled my gun in three years service,” says Agent Sean King as he passes Cell Two. “But fights, sure. Some people just don’t want to be arrested. They’ve been walking for days in the desert with no shower. So you know this place stinks in the summer. Boy! They want to take off their shoes when they get here, but uh-uh, we don’t let them.”

Do you ever talk to them, find out why they’re crossing?

“Sometimes, yeah, to practice my Spanish,” says King breezily. “My wife’s Mexican, so we speak at home, but it’s a different kind of Spanish. I don’t go home and tell her to sit on the floor, shut up and put her hands on her head.”

King, 33, has been an agent for 3 years. It’s one of the oddest jobs in law enforcement. While beat cops travel around in pairs, border patrol agents work alone, some on horses. They drive the dirt roads looking for trucks that ride low in the back but have empty passenger seats – perhaps a surreptitious cargo? They wait under trees in border towns that are nearly 100% Latino, watching for groups marching single file as they would across the desert – a telltale sign of a migrant. And often, they will park in a ditch and follow a footprint trail into the desert for 6 hours on end, determining from the prints how many are in the group, how many women and children and so on. “They use all kinds of tricks to throw us off,” says King. “Walking backwards is one. Or wearing hooves under their shoes so we mistake them for cattle.”

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Like Chris Simcox, King turned to the border patrol after 9/11. When I mention the similarity he smiles, as though he was wondering when I would ask. “The Minutemen have done a great job of bringing attention to the border,” he says. “But in practical terms, they don’t help. In fact, they make our jobs harder because we need to protect them too.”

We head out into the corridor where King meets his pal Roy and sniffs the air. “You reek,” he says. “I know!” says Roy, grinning. “We picked up 478 pounds! Want to see?” Without further ado, we follow Roy, noses aloft like the Bisto Kid to a tube-lit office room, empty but for a stack of backpacks of marijuana fashioned from potato sacks. It isn’t long before I’m posing for pictures with 50lb of weed on my back. Roy can’t stop laughing. It’s fun being in charge of that much drugs.

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“You better hope a border cop doesn’t pull you over when you leave. You’re going to smell of that all day!”

After all the conspiracy theories and rhetoric and massive street marches, it’s a relief to hang out with the Border Patrol. They seem so relaxed. Not overly troubled by the fact that thousands of illegal aliens and tonnes of drugs get past them every year. Where the vigilantes see an emergency, the men on the front line are not nearly so urgent. I can understand the anguish of the likes of Spencer and Simcox. In their eyes, the border is a grotesque reflection of their country. It exposes the gulf between America’s idea of itself and the reality, between word and flesh. And this is always a traumatic experience for a nation, particularly one like America that is based on an idea, not some accident of race or geography. It happened during Vietnam, and it’s happening again. Here is a nation of laws which selectively permits their disregard, which trumpets its unfettered capitalism and yet relies on a vast black economy, which extols the virtues of the American working man and then replaces him with foreigners who are forced to undergo a gauntlet of death to arrive at their jobs.

While the latest bill sits stalled in the cogs of government, and the Minutemen gather once again for a muster, I’m standing with Agent King at one of the border’s highest points, in Nogales, looking down the spine of the fence, undulating towards the horizon. King’s getting his picture taken, the sun flashing off his shades, and as the camera clicks, I spot a number of figures scuttle up to the Mexican side of the fence. And one by one, they emerge on the American side, running over the street and into the nearest backyard.

“Look!” I’m pointing them out for King. “They’re in that house there, there’s 11 of them.”

He watches them briefly and returns to his photoshoot, raising his chin and looking out into the distance. “Guess I’d better call that in,” he says. The camera keeps clicking. “That fence, soon as we fix a hole, they kick it in from the other side.” He raises a radio to his ear. “Tch. Gotta get that fixed.”