By José de la Isla

When the national Minutemen Project “vigilantes” – so labeled by President Bush – came to Washington Feb. 8 to demonstrate in favor of sealing the U.S.-Mexico border, their number was barely half that of the press and foes on hand to greet them.

The group’s protest at the U.S. Capitol drew about 50 of its followers, a like number of vocal opponents, some three dozen journalists, a man waving a “Tancredo for President” sign, and three Nazis, whom the capitol police escorted across the street from the two competing demonstrations.

The rally and counter-rally carried markedly different messages, but were equally spirited.

Minuteman national leader James Gilchrist of Orange County, Calif., led off the interaction by calling for a much bigger and better-armed U.S. Border Patrol, telling his cheering followers, “We want the border sealed.”

But first, in a futile attempt to forestall any catcalls accusing him of being a racist, he introduced a trio of fellow Minutemen – an African American (Dr. Frank Morris of Dallas), a Latino (Raymond Herrera of Victorville, Calif.), and an Asian American (Yum-Ya Ling, who declined to say where he was from or confirm the spelling of his name to this reporter’s English-language inquiry by responding, “I don’t speak Spanish.”)

When Gilchrist spoke, protesters chanted: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay – Minuteman, Minuteman go away.”

On that chilly morning, Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a major influence in the House’s passage of its punitive immigration bill in December, addressed the Minuteman faithful briefly, calling them “American heroes.”

By next month, the U.S. Senate is expected to tackle immigration legislation, including a bill co-authored by Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that includes a guest-worker provision. Hispanic advocates are still pressing for some form of amnesty that would give undocumented immigrants an eventual shot at legalizing their status.

Among counter-rally participants were Jorge Cisneros of Mexico City and Carlos Zapata of Corpus Christi, Tex., who displayed a League of United Latin American Citizens logo.

They said they were protesting the “racists who are against the Mexicans.” Kim Felher held up a placard declaring, “I Am the Daughter of Immigrants – I Am a Citizen of the World.” Behind her a chorus was chanting, “They’re brothers, they’re sisters, immigrants are welcome here.”

Gilchrist, who won 25 percent of the vote in a special Orange County election to fill a vacant congressional seat in November, told Hispanic Link News Service afterwards that he was seeking no new legislation from Congress – just enforcement of current law.

“As long as we are a lawless society, there is no immigration enforcement. If the President really wanted to, he could secure the border tomorrow,” he said.

Another Minuteman leader, Robert Vásquez, a Canyon County, Idaho, commissioner who has plans to run for Congress, told Hispanic Link he is pressing the current Congress for full reimbursement to local communities for all public costs associated with illegal immigration, including schooling.. He promised to introduce next month to the National Association of Counties a resolution for that group to go on record with an “anti-illegal alien” policy.

So that no one underestimates his commitment, Vásquez says he intends to use provisions of the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act to block businesses from hiring immigrants who lack residency.

(c) 2006. Hispanic Link News Service