washingtonpost.com
Crossing the Line

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."

Nods around him.

"Oh, look at that guy, the guy behind the wheel," he snaps, pointing at a van that is stopping to pick up two workers in the alley. In that moment, in his fury, Taplin makes clear why, even amid his wife's worries about privacy and his concerns about his superiors' reactions at work, he feels he must be out here. "This is why we must stop this. See that guy? He's a contractor; he was around here last week hiring. A repeat offender. I want to get his picture." But before he can raise his camera, the guy has driven off. Taplin, scowling, makes a note of the license plate. "That's okay, I recognize him . . . I'll get him next time."

His brigade is 10 strong today. "You know what? He was a white guy. Latino contractors are way down since we started coming. What does that tell you? What does that tell you? The number of day laborers is down some, but, if we keep this up, I think the Latino contractors are going to dry up completely. You know why?"

He touches his walkie-talkie, plays with the button. Crackle-crackle. "Because their culture is built around staying below the radar and staying away from authority. They don't want the threat of being exposed, because they're illegal themselves a lot of the time, and their [businesses] are unlicensed" with Herndon and the state of Virginia.

Taplin's interest in the Minutemen's cause was ignited last year, he says, when he heard that a drunken Hispanic man had talked crudely and sexually to elementary school children at a bus stop. But, if that moment served as the spark, the dry tinder had been building in his mind for a while. "I started looking at the mess that this 7-Eleven was becoming, the eyesore," he recalls. "People hanging out when there weren't jobs or after they were done looking for work that day. It comes back to their culture. I spent some time in Rio when I was in the Navy. They didn't respect the land in Rio. They urinated on streets, they threw trash, bottles . . . When you come here, you're going to do what you did in your culture. You're going to do what you know."

Last summer, he called the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps' president, Chris Simcox, who lives in Arizona and has come to be regarded by the membership as the organization's seminal force, a hero to admirers who have compared him to George Washington. Simcox granted Taplin a Minuteman chapter. Taplin, who once dreamt of running for Congress, now would lead people, play the role of the chapter's spokesman, appear on radio and television.

Minuteman chapters were forming in every region of the country by then -- from California to Connecticut, with many men like George Taplin eager to take the helm. By November, Simcox had phoned Taplin to express delight with the new chapter's effort. "I mean, it was Chris Simcox," Taplin says, sounding amazed.

IN HIS WHITE T-SHIRT AND BLACK LEATHER JACKET, Chris Simcox is dressed as the Fonz might dress, if the Fonz were wearing a bulletproof vest under his T-shirt. He stands on a sidewalk in his familiar pose. He's slightly hunched and furtive, his eyes scanning the surroundings as he answers the questions of milling strangers.

On this December morning, he has shown up to lead a protest at a day laborer site at East Thomas Road and North 36th Street in Phoenix. It is an event that was well-publicized in advance, which guaranteed that media, his admirers and foes, including an ACLU monitoring team, would be flocking there. Among the attendees are several Arizona television crews, a French documentary team and a German reporter, all ready to report on any fracas and hoping to get a few minutes with Simcox. Lean-faced with a salt-and-pepper beard and blue-gray eyes, telegenic enough to be a regular on the conservative talk-show circuit, the 45-year-old Simcox has reached that level of quirky celebrity where gushing strangers rush up and ask to have their picture taken with him.

His life changed forever last April, when he led, according to most estimates, about 100 people at a time, some of whom stayed for as long as 30 days, in taking up positions along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, near Naco, Ariz., their mission to spot undocumented migrants and report them to the U.S. Border Patrol. Many of the Latino day laborers who live in Herndon know Arizona well, having crossed various parts of it. Simcox had come to regard the state in general, and Naco in particular, as a sieve, and he was determined to stop border crossers there.

Disproportionately middle-aged or elderly, his volunteers parked their vehicles near stretches of barbed-wire fence and took up positions in lawn chairs, spaced in groups at 300-yard intervals. President Bush has characterized groups like the Minutemen as "vigilantes." The Border Patrol declared that the group's activities were of no benefit to the Patrol's operations. Minutemen opponents, including prominent Latino rights organizations, dispatched representatives to the border to protest against Simcox's group.

By then, Simcox had begun traveling with a bodyguard and packing a gun, explaining that he had been the target of anonymous death threats. He and his followers had tapped into something raw and angry in like-minded American psyches far from Arizona -- never mind that Border Patrol spokesmen would dryly comment later that most of the volunteers had not been back to the border since. Invoking the specter of a national crisis imperiling U.S. security, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) praised the Minutemen. The issue of illegal immigration was giving birth to political candidacies. In a six-candidate field vying for a California congressional seat during a December special election, James Gilchrist, a staunch ally of the Minutemen, finished third, with a respectable 25 percent of the vote. Simcox says assuredly, "We're the future when it comes to immigration policy, and that's what scares the politicians."

Back in Phoenix, the cameras are ready, but antagonism and drama are in short supply. Most of the day laborers, who had gathered near the normally busy hiring site, hurried away upon seeing Simcox and the other Minutemen. That has left only a dozen or so quiet workers and maybe twice as many Minutemen, as well as some drive-by hecklers, who howl epithets in two languages. "You're a racist," an Anglo man shouts from a big Chevy, tacking on an obscenity and roaring away, tires squealing, before Simcox can deliver his standard retort.

"I always tell those kind of people that my biracial son -- half white and half African American -- wouldn't be pleased to hear that," he says.

"Are he and your wife here?" someone asks.

"I'm not with his mother now."

"Your son around?"

"No." His eyes scan the crowd. "He's with his mother . . . That's fine. A custody thing. After our divorce."

She was his second wife; the divorce is a sore subject for him. Not much about that period of his life, when he lived in Los Angeles, led to much personal satisfaction. He dabbled at making it as an actor. He was a public elementary school teacher, annoyed with, among other things, the many Spanish-speaking kids who entered school not knowing English, he says.

He was in Los Angeles when the terrorists struck New York and Washington. In late October of that year, Kim Dunbar, divorced by then from Simcox for six years, went to court and asked for full custody of their then-teenage son. In documents filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Dunbar charged that, shortly after 9/11, Simcox left a series of troubling voice-mail messages in which he predicted an imminent nuclear attack on Los Angeles, vowed to teach his son to use a gun and announced his intention to leave Southern California in order to protect the U.S. border with Mexico.

Simcox says he made those calls from Arizona, where he was vacationing near the border and had seen numerous illegal aliens who had just made the crossing. "After that I knew what I was going to do," he says. He would settle in the legendary town of Tombstone, about 30 miles north of the border in eastern Arizona. There, he washed dishes at a restaurant and briefly had a part-time acting gig, playing a gunslinger in Wild West re-creations. He patrolled the border at night, passing on information about illegal crossings to the Border Patrol, which had deemed him too old when he tried to get a job there as an agent. In May 2002, determined to find a medium for promoting his fight against illegal immigration, he says, he used his retirement savings to buy the Tombstone Tumbleweed, a weekly newspaper.

Articles in the Tumbleweed attracted supporters, and a movement was born. "Things happened very quickly," he says. "I was doing patrols with people, and, as word got out about [last April's] rally, we had a lot of people calling. I think this cause was always just waiting to happen. People were quietly angry but didn't know what to do. It just took a few people to say it needed to be done."

The Minutemen say their members have reported more than 6,000 undocumented migrants to the Border Patrol, which says it has no way of verifying that claim. But even this figure, Simcox knows, amounts to a minuscule fraction of the 8,000 to 10,000 migrants a day estimated to be crossing illegally. "We need troops on the border," Simcox declares. "Some people are afraid of having our Army there, but that's what it's going to take . . . And if it takes building a wall, then build that, too."

In 2004, Arizonians did erect a wall of sorts, passing into law Proposition 200, which effectively prohibits the undocumented from receiving public benefits.

A car slows, and a young Latino man on the passenger's side shouts an obscenity at Simcox.

"That didn't sound nice, did it?" he says, smiling tightly.

He reaches under his T-shirt for a moment, making some adjustment to the padding beneath it. Simcox, who last year married for the third time, is concerned for his safety these days. He frequently tells crowds that he has been struck by rocks and shot at by people on the other side of the border. He smooths the T-shirt, looking over his listeners' shoulders.

A question from a supporter brings him back to the point of his visit to this street corner. "Yes, we're trying to bring attention to the business owners in Phoenix who are fed up here with the crime being committed by the illegals, and all the litter," he says.

In a sign that, at least in Arizona, the group's appeal has come to extend beyond a core conservative constituency, a chiropractor named Melody Jafari is waiting down the street for the Minutemen when they gather for a post-protest debriefing in a parking lot. A self-described "apolitical moderate" careful not to label herself a Minuteman, Jafari is nonetheless supportive of Simcox's efforts, in part because her office parking lot is a gathering spot for day laborers. "There are so many of them, and they are all over . . . and they are hurting my business," she says. "I may not agree with them on everything, but the Minutemen are the only ones who've stood up for people like me."

The morning ends with Simcox telling the Minutemen that they have sent a message to day laborers in Phoenix and across the country that their criminality will soon be halted. He shakes hands and leaves. Within an hour, a pack of day laborers has gathered near and around 36th and Thomas. First haltingly, then regaining its everyday momentum, the hiring resumes.

"See, they are already coming back," Jafari says.

"It's easy," says a day laborer named Francisco Hernandez, a Mexican national who has been in this country for five months. "You just wait for the angry people to go."

TAPLIN HAS REACHED THE CORNER OF ELDEN STREET and Alabama Drive, the site of the Herndon 7-Eleven, where about 80 workers stand behind a blue line in the parking lot. "We need to get going here," he says, turning to one of his crew. "Joe, you ready?"

Joe runs a hand through his gray hair and takes a deep breath. "All set."

It is not clear what Joe is set for, because Joe won't say, leaving it to Taplin to disclose any specifics. "It's on a need-to-know basis," says Joe, who won't give his last name "because who knows who might get ahold of it. Nothing personal. I didn't give my name out to a lot of people down at the [U.S.-Mexico] border, either. They want to make a big deal about it if you carry a gun."

"Okay, Joe needs to get going," Taplin says.

Taplin and the rest of his crew take positions across the street and start clicking photos of arriving contractors and the workers, who placidly stare back. When the Minutemen first appeared here in October, many of the undocumented workers assumed the worst: U.S. immigration agents in street clothes had come to the hiring site to gather evidence and apprehend them. Some workers bolted from the parking lot and didn't leave their apartments in search of work for days, with a few of the most frightened fleeing Herndon altogether, according to other workers. But the laborers' fears have receded. They've learned that neither federal immigration officials nor town leaders have played any part in what has been happening, that the strangers are simply local residents with a beef against them, powerless to do anything more than protest.

Still, even as the leery day laborers trudge back to the 7-Eleven, they worry that frightened businessmen will be reluctant to hire them. This is Taplin's strategy: Photograph contractors who drive to the 7-Eleven to pick up day laborers, and, when possible, follow a contractor and laborer to a work site. Next, identify a contracting company and some of its clients, then crosscheck the company's name on governmental Web sites to determine if the contractor is licensed in Virginia and Herndon. If not, the contractor will be reported to local authorities and, perhaps, to the IRS.

"Hold on for a second," Taplin says. He grabs his walkie-talkie and flicks a button: "Check-check. Copy?"

No voice answers. Taplin inspects the walkie-talkie and flicks the button again. "Check-check, check-check. Copy? Joe? Joe, you copy?"

"Yes," Joe says from a nearby street.

"Joe, there's a truck moving out of the 7-Eleven with an illegal. See it? See the name on the side? I know that one. Definitely a repeat offender. Could you follow where he's going with that laborer?"

"Hey, can we put on our KKK bedsheets now? Please? Please?" asks Bill Campenni, the retired Air National Guard pilot who is now an engineering consultant. Taplin winces slightly. While Taplin is a somber presence, Campenni is the Herndon Minutemen's irrepressible jokester, a wise-

cracking 65-year-old counted on by the group for irreverence and levity that Campenni himself knows sometimes crosses lines. Elfin-looking at 5-foot-5, Campenni radiates whimsy, but, like Taplin's, his politics are seriously conservative. Having gotten to know George W. Bush when they served in the same squadron of the Texas Air National Guard in the early '70s, he publicly came to the president's defense during the 2004 campaign, insisting that Bush had faithfully fulfilled his Guard duties after critics called Bush's service into question. Nowadays, in front of media, he relishes conjuring what he regards as crude stereotypes of the Minutemen, partly because he wants to laugh and partly because he wishes to send a signal to the media that he presumes their bias and will be on the lookout for any journalistic wrongdoing. He turns to a reporter, grinning. "Let us know whenever it's good for you, and I'll put on my sheet," he says cheerfully. "Oh, here's an opening for your story: 'Behind the beautiful homes, in the serenity of the beautiful town, the racists gathered.' "

Taplin clears his throat. "I wonder where Joe is," he says softly.

"I want to help you get whatever you need," Campenni says to the reporter. "Do you want to see my big swastika T-shirt? Or my really big T-shirt with 'White Power' on it?"

"William," his wife groans.

Taplin slices in. "The kind of T-shirts that we might actually want are 'Herndon Power' T-shirts," he says, turning to the rest of the group. "And, while I'm thinking of it, how would everybody feel about purchasing 'Herndon Minutemen' caps?"

Taplin is looking at a white van pulling into the 7-Eleven parking lot. "Repeat offender coming, repeat offender," he announces. "I need to get this guy's picture." The van is swarmed by workers. The Latino driver holds up two fingers and wags them. Taplin scuttles sideways down the sidewalk, focusing the lens of his camera, clicking. "I think this is a painting company," he whispers, looking through his viewfinder, clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking. "Smile big for me, buddy. Oh, these are good ones."

The van picks up two workers, cruising right by Taplin. The driver abruptly leans across the front seat, looks at Taplin and his camera, and raises his middle finger. Laborers in the parking lot cackle and whistle.

"A few of them are starting to do things like that," Taplin says.

"It might be a bigger challenge with the new thing coming in," Campenni says.

Taplin grimaces. "The new thing coming in" is the official day laborer site at the old Herndon police station, funded in its first year by a grant of about $175,000 from Fairfax County. "The voters will punish the Town Council for taking that money and for their appeasement," Taplin seethes, thinking ahead to the elections in May. "Those who voted for it on council are politically finished. They have no idea about our anger . . ."

His walkie-talkie squawks. "Got an incoming, hold on. This could be Joe, hold on." He pushes a button, smiling. "Joe," he says. "How are you? Where are you? You copy?"

"Copy?" Joe answers, sounding unsure. Is he having problems with his button? "Copy, copy?"

"You sound close," Taplin says.

Joe says something muffled by the walkie-talkie's crackling.

"I didn't copy that, Joe. Repeat that."

Joe repeats it.

"You lost them?"

"Yes. They made a turn somewhere."

"Oh. Well, what's your 20?"

No answer.

"Joe, what's your 20?"

"Copy."

Taplin sighs. Okay, so not everyone evidently knows what a 20 is. "Joe, where are you?"

"Near Pizza Hut."

"Okay, you might as well come back, Joe. Thanks for trying. 10-4."

"10-4, okay."

A repeat offender is out there, on the loose, Taplin says. "They're all over." He shrugs, mumbles that Joe is coming back. "Okay, it doesn't always work," he says.

But sometimes it does. Taplin's small surveillance unit has begun getting results, successfully tracking contractors and their laborers to work sites in and around Fairfax County. However, Taplin is uncertain whether the government will do anything with the Minutemen's reports. All officials ever tell him is that they are looking into his accusations.

On another morning, with their surveillance finished, Taplin and the crew head over to the Amphora diner. Sitting near a window, Taplin has his cameras ready, just in case. The group has just ordered something to eat, when a vehicle pulls up to the diner and workers rush to the driver's side.

Taplin walks outside and clicks a few shots of the driver, an Anglo contractor named George Griebel, who, furious, confronts Taplin in the restaurant. He demands an explanation -- and the film from the camera.

"You were hiring an illegal," Taplin says. "And I have the right to take your picture."

Griebel says Taplin has no such right.

"Please go away," Taplin says, smiling, shaking his head.

Griebel curses Taplin and walks closer to him.

The restaurant manager calls the police. By the time they arrive, Griebel is gone. "I know who these guys are, the Minutemen -- whatever they call themselves, right?" he says later. "But what was I doing? Who are these people? I've lived in Herndon more than 20 years. I was there to pick up a guy who's worked for me for three years, and he's a good worker, and he's not illegal, for your information. What -- I can't pick up a legal Hispanic guy anymore? I think [the Minutemen] are trying to create a split in this country."

GEORGE TAPLIN GREW UP ON BUCOLIC SHELTER ISLAND, a summer resort for the well-heeled, nestled between the north and south forks of Long Island. Taplin remembers it as a place where change came gradually or not at all. He recalls his family casually leaving the house unlocked and the key in the vehicle ignition. "You felt safe," he recalls. "There was respect for the law. You could go anywhere on the island during most of the year and see the same people and know who you'd see."

His father was in the merchant marine for a while and labored as a carpenter, but money was scarce. Taplin went to work early, according to his account -- washing dishes, and stripping and waxing floors, at age 12, in a Catholic monastery. The boy rankled under the suspicion that some people on Shelter Island looked down on the Taplins. "I had to buy my own clothes, so I could forget about any chance for saving money for college," he says.

He mowed lawns, went out on commercial fishing boats and cleaned scallops. It was the start of years of tough work that, as he recalls, included digging graves and cesspools. He remembers nothing more keenly about his youth than being cold. He slept upstairs in the family's old house, whose lone source of heat came from a furnace sitting on a dirt-floor basement. "We'd go to bed, and it'd be 20 degrees up there; you'd be shivering," he remembers. "I only mention it because when somebody says, 'You don't know what it's like to be one of those people, to have to go through what the day laborers do,' the fact is I do. I know what it's like to go to bed hungry and to be freezing . . . I also know what it's like when people don't treat you with respect because you're poor . . . But being poor is no excuse."

After high school, Taplin joined the Navy and eventually took college courses while at sea, obtaining bachelor's and master's degrees in the computer field while rising to the rank of chief petty officer.

He was also intensely interested in politics. But he encountered a flaw in himself: He had problems getting along with colleagues. "I was a quick study when it came to everything except people," he says. "I didn't suffer fools gladly. My last [commanding officer] said to me: 'If you weren't so good at [your job], you wouldn't get anywhere, because your people skills suck.' " Self-examination led Taplin to ratchet down his ambitions: He decided that running for office "probably wasn't a realistic goal."

He later found jobs in technology and contracting, but he was frustrated by his lack of advancement. "I was working at a job, and a promotion was coming up, and I was the most qualified, head and shoulders above everybody else," he recounts. "One woman was chosen because she was black and female. It was a female-heavy group."

In 1998, he and his wife moved to Herndon, her hometown, and settled in with their baby daughter. His life was private and quiet, until the day he heard the story about a drunken Latino man who had allegedly talked to the schoolchildren at the bus stop.

By then, the day laborers and their presence at the 7-Eleven also irked him. "The town's policy was to appease some people and ignore the rest of us," he says. Disturbed by reports that Herndon's mayor, Michael O'Reilly, was pushing plans for the creation of the formal day laborer work site, Taplin organized a meeting of neighbors last July. For the first time in his life he was occupying the spotlight.

His crusade was in motion.

IN MID-DECEMBER, ON THE SAME MORNING the Herndon ordinance effectively banning the solicitation of work at the 7-Eleven becomes operative, the town's new formal hiring site opens in the large parking lot of a building that once housed the police department. Town officials -- as well as Project Hope and Harmony, the nonprofit group that received the grant from Fairfax County to manage the day laborer site -- have forbidden Taplin and his comrades to set foot in the parking lot.

Already irritated, Taplin fumes when told that he cannot stand on a newly constructed sidewalk used by laborers to walk onto the site. Town officials pledged, he reminds his friends, that not a dime of Herndon money would be spent on the site. Herndon has already spent about $12,000 for a fence meant to discourage workers from taking shortcuts through subdivisions, he points out. Now what was a sidewalk doing here?

Taplin oscillates between courtesy toward and disdain for the workers who stroll by. Sometimes he tells his fellow Minutemen to step aside so that the laborers, walking alone or in pairs, can get by. He turns toward the workers, calling out amiably, "Buenos dias, buenos dias, buenos dias."

"Good morning," one worker answers in English, glancing at Taplin in unsmiling reproach.

His name is Mario Rodriguez, and he has come from El Salvador. "He [Taplin] pretends he is being polite, but what he wants to do is ruin our chances here," Rodriguez says in Spanish, away from Taplin. "But there are more of us than there are of him and the Minutemen."

Taplin has already moved on, standing in a long line for coffee behind a file of workers. When he returns, he has another thought for his colleagues. "You know something else: When they hire these guys they also have to hire a Spanish-speaking foreman," he says. "Because most of these guys can't speak a word of English. I'm standing in line there, and if you talk to them, all you get is, '¿Que? ¿Que? ¿Que? ' "

He is a party now to a lawsuit trying to shut down the day laborer center. He will be throwing his support behind like-minded candidates in the May town elections. He has already considered what he will do if the Minutemen lose their battle in Herndon. "I'll get out of Dodge if that happens," he says. "My wife and I would leave Herndon as soon as our daughter graduates from eighth grade."

Meanwhile, it infuriates him that local politicians refuse to admit that the presence of undocumented day laborers has created slums in Herndon, ushering in squalor, crime, danger. Take a ride down Alabama Drive, near the former day laborer site, he says. "Nobody in Herndon will walk around those apartments at night; they're afraid . . . Here's a question: Would [people] walk over to that public park behind [the apartments] where all the drug deals go on at night? Would they let their daughter walk over there at night alone?"

Town authorities deny the park is crime-infested or riddled with drug sales, he knows. But he's convinced it's political denial.

Are you saying that undocumented Latino day laborers are involved in drug deals in the park? he is asked.

"Oh, I didn't say it was," he replies. "I just said, Are you, would you allow--" He pauses in mid-sentence.

There could be Anglos in the park, too, right? he is asked.

"Oh, no," he answers. "I can tell you that. Because no Anglos will go to that park."

So, who is selling drugs there?

"It's part of the Hispanic community. It's probably gang-related. MS-13."

Are day laborers selling drugs in the park?

"I didn't say they were."

ON AS MANY DAYS AS NOT IN DECEMBER, the contractors and townspeople come to the workers center in a disappointing trickle. The first question that many potential employers pose, looking at the contingent of roughly 100 Latino laborers, is whether the workers are "legal."

"We don't ask about that, sir," Esther Johnson, a Hope and Harmony volunteer, answers one morning.

"So, if I decide to hire somebody, are some of these guys illegal?" another potential employer asks. "Can I get in trouble?"

"We don't know that anyone is here illegally, sir," Johnson answers.

"You don't ask about it?"

A pause. "That's correct, sir."

There is often this elaborate dance before a potential employer even begins filling out a form. The official position of Hope and Harmony is that it never has to lie about the status of an individual worker, because the organization never asks about status. That is the only way to legally sustain a day laborer site in 2006, a reflection of the entire immigration system's loopholes and brokenness.

A man named Brett Nunn, whose business this morning involves painting and cleaning up a rental property, pulls up and, gesturing at the workers, asks, "Are they inoculated?"

Johnson hands him a form.

"What's this?" Nunn asks.

"Well, sir, it's a form we ask everyone to fill out, if you don't mind."

Among other things, the form relieves Hope and Harmony of liability in the event an employer hires someone undocumented, placing the responsibility upon the employer.

"I gotta sign this?" Nunn asks. It is at this point in the process that a few contractors drive off. But Nunn needs somebody. "I really gotta sign this?" he asks again. He signs with a sigh.

Bill Threlkeld, a former Peace Corps volunteer who runs the day laborer center for Project Hope and Harmony, can't conceal his concern that his mission will fail if the hiring rates do not substantially improve in the next couple of months. Hiring rates have averaged only about 15 percent since the official site opened -- which means that more than 80 men generally go home each day without getting jobs. He knows that a few workers have already drifted out to freelance, in violation of the new ordinance. If enough workers abandon the site, the Hope and Harmony effort will be deemed a failure. The workers will return to wandering through the town in search of work; and Taplin and his cohorts will have acquired new political ammunition.

Threlkeld does not speak much with Taplin, other than to issue soft-spoken reminders that the Minutemen need to keep their distance. But, as with difficult neighbors whose faces have become part of the environs, they have come to look for each other. "Where is he?" Threlkeld asks one day. A Project Hope and Harmony volunteer points. Taplin is poised on a grassy berm about 40 feet away, partially concealed by a tall bush, peeping around it and raising his camera.

While Threlkeld dismisses the notion that the Minutemen's presence has reduced hiring at the center, some anxious workers believe they can feel the impact. Mario Martinez has worked only a couple of days over the last three weeks. "It's not all because the Minutemen come here," he says through a translator. "But some of it is employers that don't want to come because they don't want the Minutemen to photograph them . . . And now there are all those [forms] to fill out. Some of the employers don't want to do it; maybe they think it was easier for them at the 7-Eleven."

THE STORIES OF HOW MARIO MARTINEZ and many of his friends sneaked into the United States have this detail in common: The men crossed from Mexico into Arizona. Of the 20 sectors the Border Patrol presides over, on the northern and southern borders, the busiest is its Tucson sector, which extends 262 miles from the New Mexico-Arizona border west to Yuma County, Ariz. In fiscal year 2005, according to Border Patrol statistics, the Patrol made 1.17 million arrests of illegal aliens nationally, and the Tucson sector accounted for about 438,000 arrests, more than any other sector.

Being the most active sector also means being beleaguered. Assaults on Border Patrol agents are way up in the Tucson sector, as they are nationally. And not even Border Patrol officials contend that the agency has come close to stemming the flow of illegal migration into the sector. To catch the most means to miss the most, too. "We don't have operational control there yet," says Salvador Zamora, an assistant chief for the Border Patrol.

Immigration research groups often place the number of illegal border crossers at about 3 million a year, which translates to about three successful crossings for every apprehension. "There's no way for us to count," Zamora says, "though we're not disputing anything. We just know that we have too many people coming in. But we believe we're making progress, and we're anxious to show people that progress."

Still, there are some Border Patrol agents who believe the Patrol is undermanned, that its national pool of about 11,000 agents needs to be substantially increased. Many agents, even those who disagree with the Minutemen's approach, credit the group with helping to revive the discussion about border security. But Border Patrol officials are routinely dismissive of the Minutemen's impact. "The Minutemen have driven a successful marketing campaign, but nothing much more, because real law enforcement means being on the border for more than 30 days in chairs," says Zamora.

A lack of manpower isn't all that is hindering the Border Patrol, Zamora says. "Right now, 50 percent of the country on one side of the issue wants us doing more, and 50 percent of the country on the other side wants something different. People have to make up their minds what they want."

In the meantime, a savvy migrant understands that, with persistence, he will likely make it into the United States. One afternoon, Border Patrol agents apprehend 21 illegal aliens in the desert and order them to sit. One young man leans back in the dirt, smiling affably at the agents. His name is Javier Angel Hernandez and, at 21, he already has lived twice in the States. He says that, after crossing the border the first time, he worked for about a year in Willcox, Ariz., picking cherry tomatoes, until he was caught in a 2003 sweep by the Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico. He was arrested and expelled again in 2004, after he sneaked over the border to work for the same company.

"Why did you go back to Willcox after being picked up there the first time?" Zamora asks him.

"Because I liked it, and it was closer to Mexico," Hernandez answers in Spanish. "It paid good. $600 a week, no taxes, eight hours a day. I just paid somebody $10 to cash my check."

"Why did you try to cross this time?" Zamora asks.

"I had no choice," Hernandez says, explaining that he had been cultivating and harvesting coffee beans near his home in Chiapas when torrential rains and mudslides ruined crops there and ended his work. He headed north, happily. "You get paid a lot more here," he says. "I like Willcox. That is where I want to go."

Zamora motions for him to get into the van. Hernandez will be driven to Nogales, where he will be processed and then escorted to the border, from where he will make a short walk back into Mexico. Once across, Hernandez will be free to contemplate his next move while standing about 200 yards from the United States. If he is like many of the apprehended, he will make another attempt to cross the border in the next day or two, if not that very night. The young man is coy about it before getting into the van. But, as Zamora turns away for a moment to deal with someone else, Hernandez grins and says, "Si, si, Willcox, mañana."

Willcox, tomorrow.

Ephraim Cruz, a Border Patrol agent on indefinite suspension and under indictment for allegedly driving the Mexican girlfriend of a fellow agent across the border into the United States, has his own perspective on America's ambivalence about illegal immigrants. "Everyone knows here [in Douglas, Ariz.] who builds the homes of the top people in Border Patrol," he says. "Illegal aliens do. Everyone knows who serves them in the local restaurants where they eat. Everyone knows who picks the tomatoes they buy . . . Everyone knows that there are several agents who have relationships with Mexican women . . . But then there are other [instances] when no one other than the woman and maybe the agent knows the truth -- where the woman by all appearances looks like she is an American citizen because she is embedded in the social fabric of a town on the American side of the border. Her kids go to public schools here. She and her kids are in public housing here. She has a membership at a local gym."

Awaiting trial in federal court on a charge of smuggling an illegal alien, he maintains his innocence and says that he had no knowledge that the woman was illegal. Cruz views the indictment as retaliation after he charged that the Border Patrol had neglected and abused migrant detainees. He sees hypocrisy in immigration law wherever he turns. If nothing else, he shares one thing with the Minutemen: a loathing for big business's labor practices. "We [arrest] migrants because they are the easiest to get," he says. "But it is the big employers who hire them who are creating the pull for their labor. Where is the justice in letting them get off if migrants suffer? . . . You know why the Minutemen can't win this thing? It's simple: There are many more employers who use migrants than there are Minutemen who don't."

AFTER THE NEW YEAR, George Taplin has his moments of exhilaration, but he also experiences small indignities. One morning, he steps out his front door to discover spray-painted messages on the sidewalk: "NO PERSON IS ILLEGAL." And "LOVE HAS NO BORDERS."

A couple of weeks later, on a cold weeknight in February, he is being heralded for his Minuteman leadership. In a half-filled Herndon Middle School auditorium, a security team uses a detector to check invited guests for weapons at the door. Chris Simcox, wearing his black leather jacket and white T-shirt with the padding beneath it, has come to Herndon to present Taplin with the Minutemen's Eagle Award.

The award, Simcox says, recognizes Taplin's "outstanding contribution toward saving the republic." To cheers, Simcox forecasts victory in Herndon and everywhere else the Minutemen have engaged their foes. A slate of speakers from across the country have come to provide inspiration. One man, taking note of a group of protesters on the school grounds, shouts into the microphone: "The people outside have a different set of values: They want to rape America of her bounty."

The audience gives him a long ovation. Taplin proclaims to the crowd, "What a patriot."

Afterward, Taplin shakes hands and poses for pictures, holding his trophy. He has a new sense, he says, that the battle will never end, that "these people" are "all over the place out there." He will never quit, he says.

But, at that hour, resolve can be found on both sides of Herndon's streets. A few minutes later and a few blocks distant, three Latino workers in paint-splattered windbreakers stand quietly near a Starbucks, blowing on their hands, waiting. A van with a ladder pulls into the parking space closest to them, and an Asian man gets out, grins and approaches.

"Hola," one of the men says, clasping the Asian man's hand. The handshake seals a deal.

"Gracias," the Asian man says.

He will see them in the morning. There is work to do.

Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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