By Michael Manekin
REDWOOD CITY — For three hours on a warm Saturday afternoon, a busy intersection on El Camino Real converted into a pressure-cooker for a national crisis without end in sight.
Two weeks after federal immigration officials arrested seven illegal immigrants in a surprise sweep — injecting fear into the city's heavy Latino community and inflaming the always-controversial immigration debate — the Minutemen arrived in the heart of the city for a rally.
The event, which drew some 75 anti-immigration advocates and a counter-protest of a couple dozen, pitched its "anti-alien" message to a crowd that organizers hope will persuade local residents to throw their lot in with the Bay Area chapter of a group which has attracted international headlines for their vigilante-style border patrol operations.
"The Minutemen are doing what the government has not done," said Harriet, a middle-aged resident who declined to give her last name. "I'm for everything they're doing because they're the ones protecting us from the garbage coming in here — all those illiterates who can't read or write in their own language."
The rally, organizers said, was arranged prior to the local controversy aroused by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations, and was being held to support two U.S. Border Patrol agentswho have been sentenced for more than a decade in prison for shooting a drug smuggler in the buttocks after he had crossed the border.
But many of those in attendance had turned out to vent their frustration on the state of affairs between North and South.
"My relatives came here legally — they had to wait in line," said Richard Kusialek, who drove up from Mountain View for the rally. "Why is it that these folks can just walk across the border and get free hospital, free education for their kids? And, of course, they think they have a right to a job, too. It's ridiculous."
Saturday's demonstration and counterdemonstration, though peaceful, were not without tension.
"Go home. We can pick our own vegetables," Kusialek shouted at a group of Latinas who were crossing the street to join the smaller pro-immigrant protest.
"If they really pick their own vegetables, then what are they doing here?" snapped Violeta Ortega in Spanish.
"Speak English," Kusialek shot back.
Ortega, a city resident since 1970, sighed. "It hurts me what they're doing here," she said. "For me, this is a lot of ignorant people."
The counterprotest remained small because city immigration advocates kept a wide distance. "A lot of us feel they're not worth our energy," said Sheryl Bergman of the International Institute of San Francisco, whose Redwood City office educates undocumented immigrants about their constitutional rights in the face of federal immigration.
"The Minutemen are scared because other local communities, such as Richmond and San Francisco, have taken very strong pro-immigration stances, and they're afraid that the positions that respect and honor diversity will spread," Bergman said.
Less than a year old, the Golden Gate Minutemen, the Bay Area chapter of the Minutemen, formed in May 2006 in response to the nationwide pro-immigration rallies, Charles Birkman said. The rallies — which brought out hundreds of thousands Latinos across the nation to protest a controversial congressional bill for immigration reform — are widely credited to have put immigration reform in the national spotlight.
Accusations that the Minutemen are racist, Birkman said, are attempts to smear an organization opposed not to immigration itself — but illegal immigration. In fact, said Birkman, members of the Bay Area Minutemen are screened for racist tendencies and violence prior to admission. Members of the Bay Area group do not focus on monitoring the border for illegal immigrants — although some do carpool south to join militias in Arizona and southern California — so much as political lobbying.
Regional members of the Fremont-based group numbers near 800, and recruitment is going strong, Birkman said.
"This rally was very successful," he said, adding that "awesome" attendance far exceeded his expectations. In the future, he said, there would be more rallies on the Peninsula, and he was optimistic about starting a Redwood City chapter which would lobby local politicians to enforce federal immigration laws.
Ultimately, he said, he would like Bay Area cities to adopt a policy similar to that of Hazleton, Pa., whose City Council passed a measure last summer that fines landlords for renting to illegal immigrants and punishes employers for hiring them.
That way, Birkman said, illegal immigrants would stop pushing down wages for the rest of us.
"We're working class guys," Birkman said of the Minutemen. "We want to preserve the very things cause people throughout the world to come here."
Art Bush, 65, who organized Saturday's rally, is not yet a member of the Minutemen, but he thinks he may join soon. His pool cleaning business has suffered from competition which is undercutting his services by 50 percent.
Although Bush can't prove it, he feels that "illegal aliens" are behind the startup business.
Bush, whose wife came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico at the age of 18 and now disapproves of the term "Mexican," believes that undocumented immigrants should cut out "the bilingual stuff" and quit cramming dozens of people into houses, where in his Latino neighborhood on the city's southern fringes, there are 14 cars parked outside a single home. "That don't happen in a normal neighborhood unless you're trying to turn it into a Third World thing," Bush said.
Greg Wareing, 45, of Brisbane is not a Minutemen member, but he attended Saturday's rally to voice his opinion that illegal immigration is a national threat. A printer who has been laid off in the past due to competition from undocumented immigrants, he tried to explain his point of view to counter-protestors — to no avail.
America's laws are being destroyed," Wareing said, holding his toddler son in his arms. "What kind of country am I bringing my son into?"
A young counter-protester, on the verge of tears, started up a rallying cry in Spanish: "We're here, we're not going; we're here, were not going."
Wareing, shielding his son's ears from the shrill cries, attempted to cross to the other side of the street.
"We're a land of immigrants with common bonds and rule of law — and without that our country will fail," Wareing said. "We're slowly slipping into anarchy."