The immigration debate in the United States is often framed in terms of jobs and fairness and the rule of law. But at its heart, it has always been a conversation about race. And as has been the case throughout American history, racism inevitably leads to brutal acts of violence. Like the execution-style murder of a 9-year-old girl.
"911, what is your emergency?"
"Ma'am, somebody just come in and shot my daughter and my husband!"
It is with this frantic 911 call that Seattle author David Neiwert grabs readers and drags them from a dusty Arizona border town to Washington's Canadian border, all the while mapping the rise and fall of the Minutemen movement and its ill-fated volunteer border patrols. Part true-crime story, part history of modern American right-wing extremism, And Hell Followed with Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (Nation Books, $26.99) is a cautionary tale about how words have consequences.
"The book is kind of a plea for people to think of the shape of the debate we are having on immigration," Neiwert tells me. "When you focus the debate on demonizing brown people, evil results."
It is also a book that only Neiwert could write. As a Washington-based newspaper reporter, blogger, and author, Neiwert has tracked right-wing extremist organizations from the birth of the patriot/militia movement in the early 1990s through the Minutemen border patrols of the 2000s to the Tea Party of today. It was in this context, at an April 2006 town-hall meeting in Bellingham, that Neiwert first met Shawna Forde, an Everett housewife with "a rap sheet the length of her arm," dating back to her youth. Forde would quickly become a prominent spokesperson for the Minutemen movement. "It was this Northwest version of nativism that gave her a platform," says Neiwert.
In 2011, she would be convicted of the 2009 murder of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father during a home-invasion robbery intended to finance Forde's border-patrol activities. Forde now awaits execution in an Arizona death-row cell.
"It's the sort of thing that we really feared they'd do," Neiwert tells me. "But I never thought they'd descend this low."
Neiwert doesn't rely on florid prose to evoke an emotional response; the plain facts are jarring enough. It is with the same affectless voice in which he chronicles the rise of the Minutemen movement from its militia roots a decade earlier (and the movement's seeds in the KKK/John Birch Society before that) that Neiwert describes the way "escaping gases" from a point-blank gunshot blew apart the left side of Brisenia's face.
But the book is less about the crime itself than it is about the way the rhetoric, mission, and mismanagement of the Minutemen organizations made such violence almost inevitable. Minutemen organizers relentlessly insisted that they were merely about protecting the border. They fought back against accusations of racism, claiming they conducted background checks to screen out Nazis, white supremacists, criminals, and other dangerous elements. Forde's story exposes that lie.
But as Neiwert documents, it was the very nature of the Minutemen movement that proved the biggest danger:
By promoting an explicitly armed vigilante response to illegal immigration, in addition to the ordinary citizens they drew to their cause, they were riddled throughout by people with violent dispositions, people who advocated violent solutions to the immigration issue. A lot of people thought it was time to start shooting border crossers on sight. And even more loved nothing more than to dehumanize Hispanics.
Still, it's more than just the Minutemen that Neiwert blames for the tone of the debate—it's the fundamentally racist aspect of our immigration law itself, and its regime of effective, if no longer implicitly prescribed, racial quotas. Neiwert also disputes the widely repeated notions that undocumented workers are taking jobs away from legal residents.
"Bullshit," says Neiwert, who grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. "I've done farmwork."
When Neiwert was young, farmers often hired high schoolers like him to pick crops, but he says they much prefer the immigrant workers who now mostly man the fields. "They don't have to put up with flaky goddamn high-school kids anymore," says Neiwert. And it's not like high-school kids are competing for these jobs. "Part of the American dream is that we don't do unskilled labor anymore," says Neiwert.
Already in decline due to infighting and mismanagement, the Minutemen brand was destroyed by its association with Forde's infamous crime. But they didn't disappear. As the book documents, many of the leading figures of the Minutemen movement were present at the birth of the Tea Party, the rightful heir to the right-wing extremist tradition.
"I will still be tracking these guys for years," sighs an exhausted Neiwert. "They're like zombies."