Could infighting end Minuteman movement?
One of the most visible groups in the anti-illegal immigration movement could be defunct in seven months, its leader says.
"We've lost the battle," said Minuteman project founder Jim Gilchrist. "My intuition tells me … this entire movement will fizzle to nothing by the end of the year."
Gilchrist, a former California accountant, founded the project in October 2004. In two years, the grass-roots border-control group had grown to boast more than 200 chapters across the country.
Today, Gilchrist says, a host of internal problems are bringing the movement to its knees.
More than 20 chapters, including the Skokie-based Illinois Minuteman project, have disbanded, leaving fewer than 180 in operation.
Dozens of chapters are fighting with one another and vying for attention, he said.
"Donations are way down. Communication is way down … instead of people getting organized and unified, they're attacking each other more than the issues," Gilchrist said. "We're still fighting the fight, but I want to be clear: I'm firing a warning shot."
Lindenhurst resident Rick Biesada, director of the Chicago Minuteman Project, calls the infighting "disheartening. Everyone wants to be a chief these days. But nobody wants to be an Indian."
When chapters close, Gilchrist said, more times than not members do not join another chapter -- they leave the movement.
The hundreds of members of the Illinois Minuteman Project, which shut down after leader Rosanna Pulido went to work for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, haven't joined the Chicago project, Biesada said.
Jack Martin, a project director for FAIR, could not comment on whether his organization has reaped the benefits of the Minuteman chapter's collapse.
"I don't think that we have any good idea as to whether people who come to us have been members of Minuteman chapters or are members, we don't have that data," he said.
Still, Martin said, FAIR numbers and operations remain steady.
Though Biesada says the two remaining local Minuteman chapters, the Chicago Minuteman and the Minuteman Midwest, are staying strong for the time being, "as far as staying together as a national movement, it's up in the air right now."
That type of conjecture, immigration experts say, is reasonable.
"For all these reasons and more, plus the current context," said Barry Chiswick, an immigration and economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, "the anti-illegal immigration movement could very well collapse."
Two factors, the presidential election and the economy, have shifted focus away from the issue of illegal immigration, taking the wind out of the Minuteman sails.
Candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain all have kept the subject on the back burner, Chiswick said.
"Hispanics are a key demographic group in this election," he said. "A large number of them are interested in easier immigration. If you come out for stricter enforcement during a campaign, you're only risking making people angry."
Then there's the economic downturn, says Notre Dame's Institute of Latino Studies Director Allert Brown-Gort.
"There are other things to talk about that are more pressing," than immigration, Brown-Gort said. "It's taken the wind out of the movement."
Rising fuel prices make it more difficult for many to attend meetings and protests.
Biesada, who runs a trucking business, says "normally, if I'd go to a protest or rally, I'd hire someone to work for me. Now I can't afford to do it. The price of diesel fuel is just killing us."
Economic woes may even blunt the Minuteman Project's reason for being.
The construction industry, traditionally a draw for Hispanic immigrants, according to nonpartisan Pew Research Center, is at a near standstill.
"If you're not likely to find a job, I think we're going to see a serious downturn in the number of people coming across the border. It's a response to the market," Brown-Gort said.
Fewer job opportunities and the falling value of the dollar "means that coming to the United States is less attractive than it has been," Chiswick said. "Even if you find a job, that job is less valuable."
With a combination of the economic downturn, the lack of national attention and a slowing of illegal immigrant traffic, McHenry County Latino Coalition director Carlos Acosta said he believes it's getting harder and harder for anti-immigration groups to connect with the general population.
"Their message has become a little stale," Acosta said. "Because the economy has gone down, everybody's out of work. It's harder to blame an immigrant for losing a job."
Still, Acosta said, if the Minuteman movement were to dwindle, in some ways it could hurt immigration advocacy groups.
Local Minuteman protests have created a few unexpected alliances, Acosta said.
"We have been able to reach out to other groups locally that have not been traditionally involved -- a much better relationship with the McHenry County Peace group -- they had not historically been involved in immigration matters."
"The Minuteman movement, in some ways, really strengthened immigrant advocacy groups," Acosta said. "It forced us to find ways to really explain to the general population what are the benefits of comprehensive immigration reform."