News & Politics » Feature

Kick 'Em Out and Keep 'Em Out

Meet Rosanna Pulido, the face of the Minuteman Project in Illinois.

by

comment

On January 29 a dozen members of the Illinois Minuteman Project marched in the drizzling rain down Keller Road in Waukegan toward a grassy area the police had cordoned off for them across the street from Holy Family Parish. Two weeks earlier members of the church had met with village officials to protest a crackdown on drivers who didn't have licenses, many of whom were Hispanic. Now the Minutemen were holding a counterprotest. They carried signs that read COME LEGALLY, WORK LEGALLY, DRIVE LEGALLY, and AMERICANS ARE THREATENED. WHY? They waved American flags, Spirit of '76 flags, and Gadsden flags, with the coiled rattlesnake warning DON'T TREAD ON ME.

When the marchers joined the other Minutemen in the grassy area they formed a crowd of 50 to 60 people, a third of them women. In the middle stood a Hispanic woman, Rosanna Pulido, wearing a floppy Uncle Sam hat and holding a poster that read IF YOU CAN'T PAY THE FINE, DON'T DO THE CRIME.

Pulido founded the Illinois Minuteman Project at the end of last summer as a chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a national organization started in 2004 by Chris Simcox and Jim Gilderist, who thought President Bush and his administration weren't doing enough to keep drugs, criminals, illegal immigrants, and terrorists from crossing the border. "We just want people to respect the law, no matter their ethnicity," Pulido says. "This isn't about race. It's about defending citizens who are here. We want the people of Illinois to be outraged enough that they get off their couches and take back their state."

A white van slowed down, and the passenger yelled at the protesters, "You can get your ass kicked like that!"

"C'mon and do it, then!" one man yelled back. "We're right here!"

The van pulled away, the passenger's middle finger raised.

Pulido, who lives in Rockford and has a job providing transportation for the elderly, is the daughter of two Americans of Mexican descent, both born in the U.S. "My dad grew up a long time in Mexico," she says. "He's got tons of half brothers. His father married four times, so there's probably 13 kids in his family." He bounced back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico until he married.

Now 49, Pulido was born and raised near Wrigley Field. "It was very middle-class," she says, and very different from what her parents had known. "My mother would tell me how she grew up in Texas and she'd get off the sidewalk to let the whites walk by," she says. "My dad didn't want us to learn Spanish, because he had a hard time having a strong accent. My dad's thing was always, 'You're in America--learn English.'"

Pulido went to work for Illinois Bell right after high school and stayed with the company for 20 years. "At one point they sent me to school to learn to be an auto mechanic," she says, then laughs. "I think I was part of a quota. I was working on big trucks. I didn't mind it, but after a certain point you can't get all that black gunk off your hands. I hate to say it, but it really is a man's work."

In 1988 she and other members of the Philadelphia Church on North Clark went to Mexico with the Calvary Missionary Institute. She stayed for a year. "I was a missionary," she says. "I lived in garbage dumps. I was working as a teacher. I was cooking, cleaning--I did whatever was needed by those families."

After she returned Pulido worked as a purchasing coordinator for the Victor C. Neumann Association, which serves the disabled, then in 2001 got a job as a dispatcher for the Northfield police department. She says it was there that she first saw the impact illegal immigrants could have on communities. "It really opened my eyes as to how many illegals were running around with no license, no insurance--and were getting away with it," she says. "I've had people who were in car accidents, and the driver of the other vehicle--when they got out they could tell they were Hispanic--would just run down the street and leave the scene. I've seen it too many times."

Pulido was badly shaken by 9/11 and the subsequent homeland-security threats, and she grew increasingly angry about illegal immigrants who broke the law, especially when they used services--schools, hospitals--that had been paid for and set up for citizens. "VA hospitals are closing and cutting back across the country," she says. "These people built our country. Now they're getting old and gray, and they need a little help. But we have politicians that would rather give the money to illegals."

According to the PEW Hispanic Center, an arm of the PEW Research Center, an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now live in the U.S., a 30 percent increase since 2000; between 400,000 and 500,000 live in Illinois. The center also estimates that 80 percent of these immigrants are from Mexico or other Latin American countries, and a 2004 study by Roosevelt University's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs found that 92 percent of recent Mexican immigrants in the workforce were undocumented. Obviously many of these people are using services provided by governments and government-funded agencies, and the Minutemen cite research from the Center for Immigration Studies showing that services provided to undocumented immigrants in Illinois cost the state $150 billion in 1994. But many of them also work and pay taxes. According to the New York Times, illegal immigrants generate as much as $7 billion a year in social security taxes alone, money they're unlikely to ever collect under current laws. A 2002 report by the Center for Urban Economic Development at UIC found that around 70 percent pay taxes and that spending by illegal workers in the Chicago area generates more than 31,000 jobs and adds $5.45 billion to the annual gross regional product. No one's sure how all the costs and payments ultimately balance out, but Pulido doesn't care. "The laws are there for a reason," she says. "We're a generous country, but we can't help everybody."

Pulido read about the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps on the Internet in early 2005. She was irritated to learn that Bush had called for an additional 2,000 border guards a year but that the money appropriated wouldn't pay for nearly that many. (The 2006 budget pays for 210.) "There are men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan that are fighting a war, so it's up to civilians to do our part in protecting our borders and homeland security," she says. "Our government is not doing the job." Last April she spent four days working with the Arizona Minutemen on a monthlong patrol of a 23-mile section of their state's border. The patrol attracted media attention and a lot of new members to the Minuteman groups; Connie Hair of the national organization says more than 120,000 people now volunteer with or support the Minutemen nationwide.

In Arizona Pulido hooked up with a Chicagoan she knew from a chat room: Rick Biesada, an ex-marine, operator of a trucking company, and author of the self-published memoir Angry White Male and the Horse He Rode in On. After the two came back they started their own Minuteman chapter. As Pulido explains it, illegal immigrants in Illinois create the same problems as the ones in Arizona.

The Chicago Minuteman Project began last summer by collaborating with the Indiana Minutemen, protesting home loans that banks in Lake Calumet offered illegal immigrants but not citizens. At the end of the summer Pulido and Biesada decided to split the group into two chapters. Biesada stayed with the Chicago Minuteman Project; its members were last seen in late February outside the Mexican consulate, protesting the help Mexican officials give undocumented immigrants. Pulido started the Illinois Minuteman Project. "We were too eager when we got back from Arizona," she says. "We started the Chicago group and then realized that the other projects were all statewide. So Rick is focusing on local issues. My goal is to organize the whole state into a political action committee." Anyone who wants to join simply fills out the online application and sends in a $10 donation. Pulido says 450 people have signed up so far.

In October the Illinois Minuteman Project held an inaugural meeting in Arlington Heights, where they were met by some 200 vocal protesters, five of whom were later arrested. They had three more meetings and rallies last fall, including one at a veterans' hall in Elgin, and ran into protesters each time. Pulido says that in Arlington Heights the protesters "were calling us racists. Because of that kind of thing, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. The most important part of being a Minuteman is following the standard operating procedures. I hate to say it, but we've had to ask people to leave meetings. Our people cannot be provoked by name-calling. If they can't act civilly we can't have them. If they can't behave appropriately they can go start their own group." Among the items listed under "standard operating procedure" on the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps Web site are "Minutemen do not respond to any taunts or harassment from outside agitators" and "Minutemen are courteous to everyone with whom they come into contact." The site also states that Minutemen "never discriminate against anyone for any reason. . . . There is no tolerance among Minutemen for racism or bigotry." Simcox has clashed with new groups that use the Minuteman name but refuse to abide by the rules. Yet according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, three years ago he told a hard-line anti-immigrant group in California that illegal immigrants were "trashing their neighborhoods, refusing to assimilate, standing on street corners jeering at little girls walking on their way to school."

Pulido always expected to be harassed. She didn't expect to be attacked because of her heritage. "I felt like I had to take leadership on this particular issue because I am of Mexican descent, but it's proved to be a joke," she says. "I've been interviewed by Spanish newspapers and TV, and they've said to me, 'Why are you betraying the Mexican people?' And they call me a racist. It's not about race. It's about American sovereignty, it's about enforcing the laws on the books."

Pulido, who says she talks to Simcox at least once a week, sees her main role as that of a community organizer. "What I really love to do is meet with communities, talk to them, see what their needs are," she says. "I help get them started, and then they're on their own." She says local chapters are now organizing in Fox Valley, Lake County, Elgin, and Rock Island.

She says she has two goals for her group. First is building a power base through the local chapters, which can pressure politicians to crack down on illegal immigrants. As she points out, the current U.S. code states that any person who "knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection, such alien . . . shall be punished." Violators can be fined and imprisoned for up to 20 years.

Her second goal is driving politicians found "aiding and abetting illegal immigrants" out of office or preventing them from getting in. "They're going to know that we're not giving them a pass," she says. "Our biggest targets are [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Bill Brady and Steve Rauschenberger." Last summer she and the Chicago Minuteman Project went after Rauschenberger, a Republican state senator and former candidate for governor who supported making foreign ID cards such as Mexico's matricula consular a legal form of identification for undocumented immigrants who want to do such things as open a bank account. "We were following him around Chicago, and we were handing out his voting record," says Pulido. "When people who in the first place liked Rauschenberger saw his voting record they were disgusted he voted to give [college] tuition to illegals and was pushing for driver's licenses for illegals."

Plenty of politicians have taken note of the increasingly emotional debate over illegal immigrants--according to a Pew Research survey last November, more than half of Americans think illegal immigration should be a top national priority. The Sensenbrenner "Border Security" Bill (HR 4437) was introduced in December by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and approved ten days later by a vote of 239 to 182. Despite the harsh measures it contains, 36 Democrats voted for it, including Melissa Bean, Jerry Costello, and Daniel Lipinski. Among many other things, the bill would make being in the U.S. illegally a felony; authorize local police, not just federal authorities, to enforce immigration laws; require employers to verify the social security numbers of all employees; authorize building a barrier along the length of the Mexican border; and make it a felony for anyone--even relatives, teachers, clergy, social workers, or lawyers--to help an undocumented immigrant.

Pulido says the bill is weak, but she's willing to support it until something stronger is proposed. "If you have a leak in the sink and you keep mopping the floor, you're not fixing the leak," she says. "All anyone is doing here is mopping the floor. Our borders need to be sealed." That's why she's contemptuous of the Senate bill sponsored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy, which would allow foreign nationals to get temporary visas and allow people who are already here illegally to become legal through a long process that involves paying penalties. "Passing the McCain bill would be selling out the American worker, American sovereignty," she says. "It would really be a violation of their oath of office to protect America from foreign invaders."

Pulido says she saw why people want to come to the U.S. when she was in Mexico: "I understand these people want a better life, but there are ways to help them not by opening our borders." She says she's listened to what organizations that work on behalf of immigrants have to say. "I've been to several pro-illegal-alien conventions," she says, including a recent conference at Navy Pier held by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an umbrella organization representing more than 70 church and community groups, union locals, and school districts. "I feel they're not being truthful with what they want to do. Their vision is to build a political force. They're not just bringing these people here to have better lives. They're going to push to get those people their licenses and then motor-voter registrations, which is going to change our whole process of elections. That doesn't sound to me like people who just want to do the jobs Americans don't want to do. They have a whole agenda. I believe they are trying to take over Illinois, I really do."

She also believes some of these organizations are trying to prevent the Minutemen from getting their message out. "We have the ICIRR following us around, as well as anarchists and communists who join in with them and try to terrorize and intimidate anyone who wants to come and join our meetings," she says. "It's interesting that they want to stop us from having our First Amendment rights. Joshua Hoyt sends his henchmen in to try and scare us."

"That's absurd," says Hoyt, the ICIRR's executive director. "At the Elgin event we had a candlelight vigil outside the veterans' hall where they had their meeting. We were invited by residents in that community to come join them in prayer. We said prayers and went home." He adds that other groups that weren't praying were holding their own protest outside the hall. The Elgin police reported that one protester was briefly held and then released.

Commander Mark Stevenson of the Waukegan police department says the January protests and counterprotests in his city "started with the Waukegan seizure law, which a lot of Latinos in the community feel is targeting them." The law, passed in 2002, states that drivers pulled over without a license will have their car impounded. The car can be retrieved if a $500 fine, a $150 towing fee, and a $25-per-day storage fee are paid within 30 days. "If a person can't pay the fines," says Stevenson, "they end up losing their car."

Father Gary Graf, the pastor at Holy Family Parish for 11 years, wanted to start a dialogue on how the law affected Hispanics, and on January 16 Waukegan officials met with him and 500 city residents, most of them Hispanic, many of them parishioners. When Graf asked how many people in the audience didn't have a driver's license nearly 200 stood up.

A Waukegan member of the Illinois Minuteman Project told Pulido about the meeting, and she immediately applied for a demonstration permit for Sunday morning, January 29, saying her group wanted to show it supported the police for enforcing the law. "People shouldn't be allowed to break the law [even] to go to church," she says.

Stevenson says he wasn't expecting trouble, but 30 officers, three mounted police, and a K9 crew waited near the area set aside for the protest across from Holy Family. Parishioners set up folding tables next to the cordoned-off area and set out cartons of coffee and boxes of doughnuts for the Minutemen.

Graf, who was born and raised on Chicago's south side and worked for five years in Mexico, had asked his parishioners not to confront the protesters, but some swore at them anyway on their way to church. "I wish Ms. Pulido had come to talk with us before doing this," Graf said before going inside to celebrate mass. "I think we could have at least had a talk that would have made this unnecessary." He knew the Minutemen would accuse him of protecting people who are here illegally, but, he said, "I can only meet my parishioners where they are, and I am not going to try to get someone deported. I'm trying to work with the people who God has placed me before. If that means I'm aiding and abetting, well, I don't accept that term."

Charles Gutman, an ESL teacher at Waukegan High School who volunteers with the ICIRR, stood outside the church with a few of his students, some of whom were in the U.S. illegally. "I'm not naive," he said. "I understand there are issues about wages and taxes, but this is a matter of restoring some sort of sanity to the immigration system. We know it's broken, but closing the borders is not a solution." He was dismayed that the Minutemen, few of whom were from Waukegan, were holding their protest across the street. "These are outsiders coming to our community and our church and telling people they don't belong here." He said his students just want what most other high school kids want--to get jobs or go to college. "A lot of our students came here with their families," he said. "A lot of them have siblings who are citizens. How can you tell someone who's been here--brought by their parents when they were babies--that this isn't their home?"

Phil Hayes from Fox News was looking for someone to interview, and Gutman said he could interview one of the students as long as he didn't use a surname. Hayes agreed, then pushed his microphone in one boy's face. "So why are you the spokesperson here?" he asked. "You're only 16. What's the problem?"

The boy started to answer, but Hayes interrupted. "So where are your parents?" he said.

"They're working."

"Are you a legal citizen?"

The boy mumbled that he'd lived here since he was two years old, that he wanted to go to college and make something of himself, that there was a 15-year wait and if his parents had waited he didn't know if he'd be in this country at all. "These people are not offering any solutions," he said. "This is my home."

"Do you think it's right to break the law?" asked Hayes.

The boy shrugged, and Hayes pulled the microphone away.

The rally permit ended at noon, and as the clock ran out the Minutemen stood together for a couple of group pictures. It was still raining. They were drenched, and their shoes were thick with mud. The police were scattered along the road or huddled under the awning of a mobile unit.

A little after 11:30 Father Graf walked out of the church and crossed the street to talk to Pulido. "Some of your parishioners were cursing and giving our people the finger," she told him. "There was some very crude words used, and I just want you to know."

"That is unacceptable," Graf said. "I apologize. I don't know who did that, but I will bring this up when we all talk." He shook his head. "What I would like to do is invite you and whoever else you wish to come inside, and we should dialogue about this. I would like to find a solution."

"I would too," said Pulido. "But I'm cold and wet and muddy. Can we schedule another time to do it?"

"Of course," he said, then suggested that she warm up by drinking some of the coffee the parishioners had set out. During the protest a few Minutemen had quietly taken a few doughnuts and some coffee, and now Pulido picked up one of the coffee cartons and headed for the parking lot.

Pulido and Graf met the following weekend, along with a Catholic supporter of the Minutemen, a deacon of the church, and a city administrator. "The meeting started off a little rough," says Graf. "But it got better."

Pulido told Graf he was wrong to suggest that the seizure law be changed. "I understand her concerns," Graf said afterward. "I think she is under the impression that I was going out of my way to break the laws and be disrespectful to the police, when that's not the case. The situation is unfair to everyone. This country always has to make adjustments. It's not ideal, but that's the situation."

"I don't get how he can reconcile what he's doing with scripture," Pulido said later. "Romans 13 says to obey the government and follow laws as if God had placed them there. I asked him that question several times during the meeting, but he didn't answer. Maybe he couldn't--other people who wanted to argue kept cutting him off." She paused. "It would have been nice to talk to him alone."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Zak Mucha, Miie Theiler/EPA/Corbis, Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Add a comment