Crossing the Line

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By Michael Leahy
Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Minutemen of Herndon are determined to stop illegal immigration. But does America really want that?

The deep bags under his eyes give him the look of a man who has spent an adulthood rising while most of the world sleeps. "I need some coffee," he says as he walks. He learned how to start a day at dawn during two long stints in the Navy, and nowadays, at 51, he typically gets up in darkness to begin his workday as a computer software engineer at 6 a.m. in a Maryland office, a considerable drive from his quiet cul-de-sac in Herndon.

But George Taplin won't be in his office early today. "If the day laborers get up early to get here, it means our people gotta be out here early, too," he says. "Simple as that. We'll see how many of ours come out today."

Taplin had quietly arisen on this winter morning so as not to disturb his wife. He left the house alone and is ready to log a few more hours on a volunteer mission: striving to rid Herndon of all undocumented workers and to "do our part to help discourage illegal aliens from crossing the Mexican border and creating problems for towns like ours."

The head of the Herndon Minutemen, part of a national organization devoted to repelling illegal migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and at labor sites across the country, Taplin is regarded in his town as everything from patriot to pariah. While a small band of loyalists flock to his early morning vigils, some acquaintances have been quick to give him the cold shoulder. One of his many volunteer activities around town involves teaching a religion class to children at his Catholic church, and he says a fellow teacher approached him to say his Minutemen activities were "un-Christian and hypocritical." These days, he occasionally turns at the sound of a blaring horn to see a stranger raising a middle finger at him.

He walks into a Herndon diner called Amphora, his secret gathering spot today, a one-block stroll to where a crowd of Latino day laborers has already gathered to wait for potential employers. "We'd prefer that no one from our group show up over there at the site alone," he says. "It's smarter and safer to leave together as a group. We alternate the meeting spot so no one from their side knows exactly where we'll be."

Taplin orders a coffee and cranes his neck toward the entrance, where, in the next few minutes, half of his little brigade trickles in: Bill Campenni, the retired Air National Guard fighter pilot; his wife, Kathleen, the Canadian emigre who is now a U.S. citizen; Diane Bonieskie, the retired schoolteacher; Jeff Talley, who says he's losing his aircraft repair job because it's being outsourced to Mexico; and Joe, who won't provide his last name or say what he does because "who knows who might get the information."

"Hey, Joe, have some coffee," George urges him. "Anyone know what it's looking like over at the 7-Eleven?"

"They're there," someone answers. "About the same number."

Taplin has two large cameras that dangle from his neck on cords and make him look like part of the paparazzi. He removes a walkie-talkie from a jacket pocket, swigs some coffee, clears his throat of its early morning huskiness and says, "Okay, we ready?"

He steps outside, looking down an alley that runs behind the 7-Eleven where the workers have gathered for years. He notices a couple of men observing him from a van, gesturing his way. One of them raises a camera to take a photo of Taplin. "Well, I guess we're not going to be surprising them today," he says, smirking. "We take pictures of them, and they take pictures of us. What they do now is run back to the 7-Eleven and tell all the workers that we're coming: The Minutemen are coming, the Minutemen are coming, the Minutemen are coming. Maybe they think if they photograph us, they can scare us away. Sorry. No way."

Not all of the Herndon Minutemen are happy with the scrutiny. A few in Taplin's group worry that some immigrant rights activists might be prepared to follow and harass them. Taplin himself says he is unworried, but a new caution permeates everything he does. He doesn't want anyone mentioning where he works. He says he has been "led to believe" that there could be some repercussions for him at his job if there is too much attention drawn to his work as a Minuteman. This reminds him of something. He turns to the group and says, "I need to be out of here at 9:30 to get to work."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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