The Minuteman movement, whose members were denounced early on as “vigilantes” by then-President George W. Bush, is growing increasingly fractured and radical as Congress prepares to make another run at reforming the immigration system.

Even Chris Simcox, a Minuteman Project co-founder who once claimed he had witnessed Chinese Red Army troops massing along the Mexican border, last year criticized other leaders of his movement for going beyond immigration to embrace unrelated issues, including tax resistance, Texas secession, and even insurrection.

Simcox’s comments were followed by the arrest of Shawna Forde, leader of Minuteman American Defense, for the May 2009 murder of a 9-year-old Latina girl and her father. The killing, allegedly carried out as part of a robbery intended to help support Forde’s group, put many tough-talking nativist groups on the defensive.

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which Simcox had founded and then left for a quixotic primary campaign against Arizona Sen. John McCain, disbanded in March after the group’s president, Carmen Mercer, sent an e-mail urging supporters to bring their long arms to the border and “forcefully engage” the “criminals” who try to cross without documentation.

Mercer backtracked almost immediately, sending an e-mail that said the group couldn’t take responsibility for what might happen and that the organization, which was having trouble raising funds, was disbanding. Most of the group’s leadership had already left, unable to support such aggressive tactics. Nevertheless, Mercer urged supporters in an e-mail to “take up arms to defend this great nation.”

Despite the turmoil within the movement, the number of similar groups continues to grow. Nativist extremist organizations–those that attempt to take direct action against people perceived as undocumented immigrants–skyrocketed by nearly 80 percent in 2009, rising to 309 groups from only 173 in 2008.

This surge has been driven almost entirely by the rapid growth of the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement (FIRE) Coalition. This hard-line nativist network had only 13 chapters in 2008 but had expanded to 135 chapters by the end of 2009.

FIRE Coalition activists have held aggressive protests across the country, frequently in front of Mexican consulates, and have staged other provocative actions targeting day laborers. FIRE also launched The Patriot Coalition, an antigovernment outfit battling “globalism,” “socialism,” and the “loss of national identity and culture.”

It seems certain that the nativist movement will only become more radicalized as its mainline groups crumble and as it cross-pollinates with other extremist movements, creating a potentially dangerous situation along an already-volatile border region. We don’t need armed vigilantes patrolling the border. What we need instead is for Congress to act without further delay to bring our immigrant workers out of the shadows and into the American community as full-fledged citizens. That, finally, would pour cold water on the nativist movement, which has nothing to offer in terms of real solutions.

Heidi Beirich is the Southern Poverty Law Center's director of research.

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