Jim Gilchrist can speak nonstop for more than an hour about the flood of illegal immigration that he predicts will bring the United States to its knees. But he can also talk warmly about his Mexican son-in-law and his half-Mexican "grandbrat." The distinction is not a complicated one for Gilchrist: His son-in-law is legal, while the immigrants he targets with his all-volunteer civilian border patrol, the Minuteman Project, are not.
That distinction is much less clear for Gilchrist's many vocal critics, who say the Minuteman Project and its supporters are "shot through" with racist ideologues and vigilantes who have polarized the nation with their misguided protests.
Now, nearly a year after he first gained national prominence by leading a 30-day patrol along the Arizona border, Gilchrist, 57, is focusing on reinventing himself as a budding politician, congressional watchdog and lobbyist for immigration reform.
His next step is to lead a protest Wednesday on Capitol Hill against a proposed guest worker program, legislation that is backed by U.S. President George W. Bush.
"This is a bloodless revolution. Nobody's getting hurt, but we're changing the way our country thinks and we're changing its immigration policy," said Gilchrist. "We're changing it back to the way it used to be the enforcement of the law."
The former tax accountant and Vietnam veteran traces the first rumblings of his immigration activism to the early 1990s, when he says his mother was rejected for a rent subsidy program because illegal immigrants had used up all its funds.
"For the past 40 years, we've been subjected to something I refer to as politically correct paralysis," he said. "There will be no debate on immigration, there will be no discussion on immigration. Because if you even think about it, I will label you a racist, I will label you a bigot. I will tell everyone you're a Nazi or in the Ku Klux Klan."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Gilchrist says, he "lost all faith in our political leaders, in their ability to lead this country, to protect us and our families."
Three years later, the Minuteman Project was born _ and the criticism came pouring in. The project has organized hundreds of volunteers to patrol the border in California , New Mexico and Arizona and report to authorities any efforts to cross it illegally.
Bush has denounced the volunteers as vigilantes, as have a number of civil rights groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center is concerned that Gilchrist's emphasis on enforcing immigration law is a front for racist activities.
More than 40 Minuteman Project spin-off groups have emerged since 2004 a phenomenal rate of growth, said Mark Potok, director of the center's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups.
"What the Gilchrists of the world do is they take a real problem and they metastasize it into an invasion of people intent on doing ill to the United States and that's just not true," said Potok.
Immigrant rights groups, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, go further, accusing Gilchrist and his group of fostering fear and hate.
"These vigilantes are examples of the great harm that extremism can cause," said Laura Rodriguez, a spokeswoman. "It's unacceptable and dangerous for people to take the law into their own hands."
Despite such criticism, Gilchrist managed to earn more than 25 percent of the vote last year when he ran on the American Independent ticket for the 48th Congressional District seat. Gilchrist's showing in a staunchly Republican district showed him that he had hit a nerve.
For now, Gilchrist is focused on lobbying and forming an all-volunteer group of retired law enforcement officials to go after employers who hire illegal immigrants.
He also favors revoking birthright citizenship and a temporary moratorium on legal immigration. He claims to have the support of Americans who are tired of sharing public resources with illegal immigrants.
"If the Senate refuses to move at the request of 240 million Americans, then we will move them out of office one by one or en masse," he said, reports the AP.
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