Member of Granny Brigade adamant about securing U.S. borders
By Carol Morello, Ernesto Londono and Allison Klein
Feb. 12, 2006
WASHINGTON – As she breezed off the plane from Salt Lake City, the woman who had come to protest illegal immigration crossed paths with a man who first set foot here as an illegal immigrant.
Carmen Mercer bustles into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport wearing a big red and white sticker on her jacket that said, “Secure America Now! No to Amnesty.”
It was amnesty, granted a few years after he entered the country illegally from El Salvador, that allowed Cadelario Reyes to build a landscaping business in Gaithersburg, Md. As Mercer’s flight landed, Reyes’ 24-year-old son was about to depart for duty in the Navy, and the two men embraced near the security gate.
Mercer, 51, a petite grandmother, had come to Washington for last week’s Capitol Hill rally by the Minuteman Project, an activist group that wants to seal the nation’s borders against illegal immigration and torpedo President Bush’s proposed guest-worker program for illegals. Locally, a Minuteman chapter has tracked immigrants at a site where day laborers gather in Herndon, Va.
Although she runs a diner barely 30 miles north of the Mexican border in Tombstone, Ariz., Mercer said she once was oblivious to the tide of immigration.
“For years, I never was aware of it,” Mercer said as she headed toward the baggage carousel, near the newsstand where Gilda, from Guatemala, and Maria, from Mexico, chatted amiably in Spanish in between ringing up purchases. “Now I see it everywhere.”
In the Washington region, where an estimated one in six residents is foreign-born, she would see a thousand faces of immigration during her visit.
Her eyes were opened to them by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As she was becoming more vigilant, Arizona had an influx of people after crackdowns along the Mexican border in California and Texas.
“I can guarantee terrorists have come across the border,” she said. “I don’t want 9/11 to happen again. It’s a national security thing.”
Mercer walked toward the rental car shuttle, past cabdrivers from Russia, Africa and Asia waiting by the curb, and by Olawoyin Dauda, a Nigerian who moved to the United States after his computer business tanked. He now stood beside his blue Super Shuttle van.
For now, the buffalo burgers in her Tombstone diner are being served by her 13 employees, freeing Mercer for what she considers her patriotic duty.
Many nights, she has headed into the Arizona desert in her Chevrolet pickup, on patrol with another woman. Locals call them the Granny Brigade.
They sit on lawn chairs perched on hilltops or in the brush, armed with night-vision goggles, walkie-talkies and guns. Mercer’s is a .45-caliber Colt. She holsters it in a custom gun belt with leather loops to hold bullets, like a bandoleer.
But it has become harder to find time for patrolling. Mercer is vice president, chief fundraiser and national recruiter for Minuteman, as well as director of the Tucson chapter. The group started less than a year ago with 400 members. Now, she estimated, they have signed up 8,000.
She said that part of the solution would be a tall, concrete wall erected along the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border between California and Texas.
“All they have to do is secure the borders,” she said. “We won’t have fear of terrorists coming across. We won’t have fear of the sex-slave trade. We won’t have criminals crossing.”
Noticing a young man in an Army uniform struggling under a pile of green bags in the rental car terminal, she dashed to hold open the door for him.
“He’s going to Iraq,” she said, returning to her seat. “I love soldiers. They’re our protection. They should be on our border.”
At the Holiday Inn in Alexandria, Va., a man with a Jamaican accent helped check in Mercer, who has a slight accent of her own. Outside, where taxis lined up four and five deep, the accents of the drivers were those of the Mideast and Africa.
“It is very hard to survive here if you want to live in a proper place,” said cabby Khalil Siddiqui, 48, who has a master’s degree from a university in Pakistan and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
The corner gas station three blocks away was staffed by a man from Pakistan and two women, one from Ethiopia and the other from India.
“Foreign people are hard workers,” said Tahir Younis, 28, the mechanic. “You go to McDonald’s, and who works there? Foreigners. If there were not foreigners, what would you do?”
At a nearby fast-food restaurant, a 21-year-old woman mopped the floor. She chatted openly in Spanish, until the topic of a green card was raised. Then she lowered her head, hushed her voice to barely a whisper and said she could no longer speak because she had to return to her work.
When Mercer last visited Washington in May, she said, she and another Minuteman asked the drivers of all the cabs they took whether they were citizens. If they said they were not, Mercer and her colleague asked for their green cards. Mercer said they wanted to prove a point and did not report anyone to immigration authorities.
Recently, Mercer’s landlord paid for a new roof on the building housing her diner. She fed every member of the crew, except for two who stayed in the trailer. She later learned that they did not have green cards.
“If I’d have seen them, I would have reported them,” she said.
In a dimly lit alley behind a row of restaurants in Alexandria, workers slipped out of back doors to smoke or haul heavy trash bins to a dumpster. The alley was slick with fetid puddles and dirty with discarded cigarette butts. The only light shone through the bars of an adjacent parking garage.
Nelson Posada emerged from a restaurant door into the alley dragging a garbage can. Originally from Honduras, he crossed the border illegally, traversing the Arizona desert in 1994. He left behind a 6-month-old boy who knows his father only from phone conversations and the money he wires home.
Posada, who works two full-time jobs six days a week, has relatives who talk of following him here. He tells them the border is not what it used to be when he crossed by paying smugglers $2,000.
Now, immigrants face a beefed-up U.S. Border Patrol and private citizens scouring the desert, on the lookout for undocumented foreigners.
“I’d like for the United States to give us papers,” he said. “We come to work, and that benefits us both.”
Mercer moved to Tombstone in 1992 after a divorce from a soldier ended the migration from base to base – Florida, North Carolina, New Mexico, Germany and Arizona – so common to military life.
They’d met when he was stationed in Germany, where Mercer was born and raised in a small town near Cologne.
She might never have become a U.S. citizen had she not been kicked off a local planning and zoning committee in Arizona when it was discovered she was not. In 1999, almost a quarter-century after coming to the United States, she was naturalized.
She remembers being one of about 500 people naturalized that day.
“Two of us were from Germany, one was Russian, one was Japanese and two were from Korea,” said Mercer, who speaks with only the slightest hint of a German accent and thinks and dreams in English. “The rest, about 480 of them, were from Mexico.”
About the Minuteman Project
The Minuteman Project organization first gained national attention when its members began civilian patrols of the Mexican border to combat crossings by illegal immigrants.
Undeterred by criticism from President Bush and Mexican President Vincente Fox, the group extended its high-profile efforts to the Canadian border last year. It gained local prominence when a chapter in Virginia began to photograph immigrant day laborers who gathered daily to meet potential employers at a center in Herndon. The group said the photographs would be forwarded to federal authorities.
The group’s founder, Jim Gilchrist, a Californian who recently made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as an independent, said in a statement, “Our goal is to stop the illegal alien ‘guest worker amnesty program’ dead in its tracks.”