Participatory Journalism: The Night Shift

THREE POINTS, Ariz., April 3, 2006—The sun is fixing to set on southern Arizona and all the secrets the U.S.-Mexico border hides, and I am jammed into the back of Sandi Dujean and Steven Ungetheim’s Chevy Tahoe as we head out to the observation post the husband and wife—and I—will occupy tonight. They’ll be looking for illegal immigrants, part of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps’ monthlong push to secure the nation’s borders by sitting in lawnchairs and reporting who crosses.

Dujean and Ungetheim have been Minutemen (Minutepeople?) since January, when a long-term concern about illegal immigration spiked after they discovered a hiking area covered with immigrant trash. They live in the unremarkable middle-class Phoenix suburb of El Mirage, and they own a business that designs and builds after-market detail parts for four-wheel-drive vehicles. They are in their mid-30s and have been married for almost 14 years. I chose them because they look like me.

We are driving into the soft light of Arizona dusk and talking about a high school outside Phoenix where a group of Hispanic students took down the American flag and flew a Mexican flag and then a group of American students pulled the Mexican flag down and burned it. All the kids involved will be punished, but there is a rumor floating through the Minutemen that the Anglo kid who led the flag-burning will spend a night or two in jail.

“It should be more of a crime for them to enter the country illegally than it is for the kid to burn the flag,” Ungetheim says. A minute later we turn on to the road where the observation posts are located.

We’re Post 2, about a quarter-mile off the main highway that runs to the border. The post is in a scrub flat, directly across from a dirt road that runs underneath a power line and is surrounded by foot trails that show signs of fairly recent use. The first immigrant group spotted by the Minutemen last night was found just up the road. We set up folding chairs.

The sun is beginning to set, and the Cerro Colorado Mountains, which make up the eastern perimeter of the valley, are glowing red and purple. Dujean and Ungetheim tell me about their first night out—last night—when they worked the very end of the observation line, about five miles from the highway.

“We didn’t see anything, but we heard a lot of scuffling in the brush around us,” Dujean says. “The posts down from us saw people. Two guys at the next post over were sitting in their car when someone knocked on their window. They looked, and it was an illegal, holding his hands up in surrender. The guys got out, and all of a sudden another guy appeared out of nowhere. But he was holding his hands up. A coyote left them, the man told the Minutemen. There were 20 others in the bush. The Border Patrol was called in and took the two men, but they never found the others.

The Cerro Colorados are dark, looming shapes. The Baboquivari Mountains, to the west, are purple silhouettes. A couple in a Hyundai Santa Fe stops at Post 2. They live in the area, they say, in one of the new subdivisions being built a few miles north on the road. The guy wants to be a Minuteman. We talk for a minute, and the woman asks lots of questions. They leave soon after, and Ungetheim speculates they are from the ACLU or Humane Borders, trying to ferret out the observation-post locations.

The sky is purple-black. A call comes over the radio that a family of four, including a baby, is making its way east toward us, paralleling the road we’re sitting on.

One of the Minutemen leaders radios that the Border Patrol is reporting a group of 100 to 150 immigrants coming north on the other side of the highway. It is doubtful that it’s true, but everyone breathes a little faster, looks around a little more.

The sky is getting darker, the moon is a well-defined crescent, high clouds are beginning to creep in from the west, and stars are beginning to peek out. We’re talking in nighttime voices about the 14th Amendment, specifically the clause that grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Dujean and Ungetheim would like to repeal it. Only the children of U.S. citizens should be citizens.

I bring up the “Wilson Four,” a group of high-school students brought—illegally—to Phoenix by their parents when they were young. They grew up to be honor students, only to be threatened with deportation when they re-entered the country from Canada while on a school trip.

“It’s too bad,” Dujean says, “but they’re here illegally and rules are rules.”

“Their parents brought them here when they were young,” I say, because arguing keeps me warm. “They didn’t have any choice or fault in the matter. There’s no inherited sin. You can’t visit the sins of the fathers on the sons.”

“They broke the law. We can’t keep having loopholes.”

“We have loopholes,” I say, “but that gives us flexibility.”

“Do we really?” Dujean shoots back. “We have loopholes and people are unhappy on both sides.”

Clouds are coming in, and the moon is getting lower. “What’s that red light?” Dujean asks. Ungetheim cranes his head, and I look over where she’s pointing. The adrenalin starts rushing—migrants using a red lens!—and my mouth tastes like copper. But it’s just a tail light, and we go on trying to keep warm.

A car pulls off the road nearby and starts idling. Sandi calls in to the Minuteman communication center “Comms, this is Post 2. There’s a car that just pulled off the highway and is idling. Is that the Border Patrol?”

Comms can’t hear her or is preoccupied with something else. The car cuts its engine and we hear footsteps. The moonlight and the clouds and the darkness already have been playing tricks on the eyes and ears, and now imagination takes over. Is it a smuggler waiting to pick up a group? Is it the Border Patrol? No one’s doing radio checks, no one can hear us. What if it’s a drug runner over there and he comes over and caps us?

The truck starts up, and the three of us run behind the Tahoe. It turns out to be another Minuteman heading down to help out Post 8, which has some illegals and is waiting for the Border Patrol to show up.

It’s another anti-climax.

The sky is 80 percent cloudy, and the moon has fallen like a bomb behind a dark cloud bank. It’s dark as sin at Post 2. I mention that there was a layup—a little shelter to stay in—in one of the washes in my neighborhood back in Phoenix. I saw some diapers there last summer, and one day I hiked a water jug over and left it. “I thought, ‘What if it’s a baby?'”

Sandi thinks about this for a minute before answering. “That’s tough,” she says. “A baby.” And there is silence.

Steven speaks. “Just think, if they weren’t able to be here, you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

The sky is getting darker, and the night is uneventful. We sit and wait for contact that never comes.
April 7, 2006