In this environment, Gilchrist's movement is falling apart, overtaken by new members whom he describes as "troublemakers with personality disorders and criminal propensities." In contrast, he insists that the group's original members were able to give voice to the immigration concerns of ordinary Americans because they demonstrated "a passionate allegiance to the United States of America and its priceless principles." There is no doubt that the Minutemen--aided by sympathizers in the media like Lou Dobbs--drove the national conversation in 2005. But whether the enormous wellspring of American anger over illegal immigration that they claim to have tapped into actually existed is another question.
The press eagerly latched on to the Minutemen as representative of those hundreds of thousands of supposedly angry Americans as the battle over comprehensive immigration reform heated up on Capitol Hill. "The majority of Americans are fed up with illegal immigration and want something done about it, " declared Bill O'Reilly, who hosted Gilchrist numerous times. "Three cheers for the Minutemen!" Sean Hannity, toting night-vision cameras, went on border patrols multiple times with the Minutemen, trips he then used to scold McCain, one of the bill's primary backers. "It's a devastating problem down there," he told the senator.
Minutemen today fondly reminisce about this brief, golden period of influence. Luca Zanna, co-founder of the Mohave County Minutemen, breathlessly recounts the time he spent on the border with Gilchrist and his fellow activists. "That spontaneity, that independence--it was beautiful," he says. "When you control the show, you decide what will be on the show. We had that for a moment."
This year, there has been more evidence that, while immigration remains a legitimate issue, the supposed nationwide furor was a product of media hype. With the congressional debate over and the press increasingly ignoring the Minutemen, most Americans are professing moderate views on the issue. As of June, the percentage of Americans who want to reduce immigration levels has fallen within a percentage point of the 20-year low, while 64 percent of those polled say that immigration is a good thing for the country (the second-highest it's been since September 11). Even on Super Tuesday, the height of the presidential primary, exit polls found almost 60 percent of Republican voters favoring immigration policies that Lou Dobbs would deride as "amnesty."