In Houston, debate gives way to confrontation of illegal immigrants, their supporters
By JAMES PINKERTON | Houston Chronicle
Nov. 6, 2007
It's become a Saturday morning ritual on a street corner in Spring.
Two dozen U.S. Border Watch volunteers, some wearing combat boots and military-style garb, face off with Hispanic day laborers and a half-dozen of their supporters.
"Stop the hate! Stop the fear! Immigrants are welcome here!" boomed a woman's voice recently over a portable loudspeaker.
"Thou Shall not Steal America," reads a sign waved by a member of Border Watch, a group based in Spring.
A similar scene has unfolded over the past months at the busy intersection of Steubner-Airline and Wimbelton Estates Drive in northwest Harris County. The day laborers, many of them undocumented, gather each morning in the Speedo gas station parking lot.
And nearly every Saturday morning since September, dozens of Border Watch members have attempted to drive them away. They chant slogans, wave signs and film employers who pick up immigrants for work.
Far from the halls of Congress and the front lines of the Southwest border, the divisive immigration debate is being played out in local neighborhoods, including the Houston area. A number of groups have upped the ante by moving from debate to confrontation, attempting to take immigration duties into their own hands.
Since the Minuteman group staged a border surveillance operation in Arizona in 2005, more than 250 new anti-immigrant groups have formed, said Mark Potok, director of Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence project, which monitors such organizations.
"There's been a prairie fire in the last couple of years — these groups have really exploded," Potok said.
In April, the center listed 144 "Nativist Extremist" organizations that go beyond debate and target individuals, Potok said. There are 13 immigration-related activist groups in Texas, and Border Watch was among three in the Houston area.
"The most significant danger posed by these groups is the poisoning of the democratic debate" about immigration levels, Potok said. Instead, the groups have turned "the discussion into a diatribe about how Mexicans are destroying our culture, bringing diseases to our country and killing dozens of Americans every day," he said.
'It's about being illegal'
The president of Border Watch, Curtis S. Collier, said his members don't have a racist agenda. Their goal is simple: Expel the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States.
"To be racist, you have to target someone because of their race," Collier said. ''We don't care who you are. If you're here illegally we want you to go home. It's not about being brown-skinned, it's about being illegal."
Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton era, said groups such as Border Watch have proliferated due to frustration over the government's inability to control illegal immigration. And while Meissner characterized the groups as "spot outbreaks," she considers them a threat.
"They are dangerous because they do border on vigilante activity," said Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
But groups lobbying for limited immigration see the growing activism differently.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform, said the explosive growth of immigration as a domestic issue — fueled in part by the Internet — and the formation of activist groups was triggered by the Bush administration's failure to crack down on illegal immigration. "It is a truly magnificent populist action, in a way we haven't seen in decades," he said.
They keep close watch
Border Watch was co-founded by Collier, a 47-year-old Spring resident who spent eight years as a U.S. Army policeman before opening a small pest control company. He claims 1,628 members nationwide, with chapters in El Paso, San Antonio and Arkansas. Twice a year, Border Watch tracks illegal immigrants crossing the Texas-Mexico border
Collier, who speaks about border security at events across Texas, repeats claims that 25 Americans citizens are killed each day by undocumented immigrants. Islamic terrorists are slipping across the Southwest border, he says, camouflaged as illegal immigrants.
"There have been reports of Spanish-speaking schools popping up in the Middle East and teaching people in that part of the world to speak Spanish so they can blend in easily," Collier said.
Potok, with the poverty center, said those claims are common to this new breed of anti-illegal immigration activists. ''These are the paranoid fantasies of people with difficulty handling reality," he said.
Border Watch monitors some of what Collier said are 57 day labor sites in the Houston area.
"We do day labor observations ... workplace investigations, undercover operations," Collier said. ''Like, we'll go to day labor sites and pose as employers to figure out if they're here illegally and what their wages are going for."
He has even posted a video on YouTube documenting one of his "investigations."
So when church leaders in the Spring area proposed a center for day workers who use Stuebner-Airline as a gathering place, Collier and his group pounced.
"All hell broke out," recalled pastor Franklin Moore, part of a local-interfaith group working to establish a center.
"All we wanted to do was get a place for day laborers to be safe, to get out of the sun and rain, to get a drink and go to the bathroom," Moore said.
Border Watch volunteers marched on the Chamber of Commerce, and scores of members dominated a September meeting on the proposed center.
After weeks of Saturday demonstrations by Border Watch volunteers, several pro-immigrant organizations have shown up to support the day laborers. One recent Saturday, the two sides again faced off yards apart at the entrance to the Speedo convenience store. Two police cruisers were parked nearby to keep protesters apart.
Facing off on one corner
"Border Watch has been out here for several weeks harassing the day laborers, and we're out here to oppose the racism and harassment," said David Michael Smith, a professor at the College of the Mainland in Texas City. He has helped sponsor protests by the International Socialist Organization and the Progressive Workers Organizing Committee, among others.
Smith's wife, Rona, an elementary school counselor, used a loudspeaker to lead chants. About a dozen day laborers, with nothing to do since only two employers appeared all morning, held up protest signs. ''Racists! Fascists! Hey, hey, Border Watch go away!" Rona chanted.
Collier stood at the head of the Border Watch volunteers and unsuccessfully challenged Smith and his wife to debate. "David, you and Rona look alone over there," he chided.
Soon after the protest began, sheriff's deputies had to intervene when neighbors upset with the noise confronted Rona. With the loudspeaker turned off, confrontations continued.
"You are the real traitors of the country, you are dividing the country. All these people are here to work," shouted Cristobal Hinojosa, with Mexicans in Action, who approached Border Watch volunteers.
The demonstration ended shortly before noon. Moore, the pastor, said both sets of protesters have hurt efforts to find a safe place for day laborers. "It's gotten so convoluted, I don't know how to fix it," he said.