We are becoming what we hate

Trump’s agenda erodes the very foundation our nation was built on: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Immigration is a contentious debate. It has divided our nation. But the human story here is one we can’t turn away from, not when so many lives are being ruined. Living in our country elevates people’s hopes. Many who came here illegally have children who have served or are serving in our armed forces, in Iraq, Afghanistan and were under the assumption that one day they too could become American citizens. Their children risk their lives for our country, and some paid the ultimate price.

We are now in an era of zero tolerance. ICE is rounding up those who are the most vulnerable. We were all forewarned. Many who snuck in here made mistakes. In their defense, fleeing oppressive regimes and gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and areas of Mexico forces people to do desperate things. And for those who simply wanted to provide a better life for their family, they sadly were fooling themselves that this day would never come. Now facing the painful drive across the border, with no idea when they will ever see their wives, husbands or children again.

 Lives are being destroyed and we must not be silent.

© Tish Lampert. All rights reserved.

We have all heard what happened to Guadalupe Garcia de Royas last week. Guadalupe is no threat to our society.  She lived in Phoenix for over a decade. She made a mistake when she first came here and made up a social security number. She now finds herself on the wrong side of history. She showed up at her local immigration office, every year for the past ten years and followed orders. Once again this year, she came with all her documentation. But instead of her green card being stamped she was taken into custody, a mother of two American teenagers, and deported to a small city deep in the heart of Mexico, where she hasn’t been for twenty-one years. 

Per Trump’s orders ICE is storming people’s homes, workplaces, schools, bus stops, outside of markets, laundromats… On this past Sunday, thousands protested in Milwaukee to stop Sheriff Clarke from appointing his deputies to act as immigration agents.

Something very wrong is happening in our country today.

It is up to us now to create a firestorm of opposition.  We may not have been able to impede Trump’s cabinet appointments, but the public is showing up on the streets, in town hall meetings across the U.S., and we are defiant. 

Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, cites a new study that finds foreign-born residents contributed $233 billion to Los Angeles County alone in 2014. The mayor is implementing a program to help veterans, who come back from their tour of duty and find their parents deported, and they have nowhere to live. I spoke to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office and they released this statement:

Mayor Garcetti spoke to the Deputy Director of ICE’s Los Angeles Field Office and made it very clear that he wants greater transparency about ongoing operations and the status of all Los Angeles residents who may have been arrested or detained. He told the Deputy Director that he will do everything in his power — working alongside our City Attorney, the LAPD, immigrants’ rights advocates, congressional delegation and outside lawyers — to make sure that the legal rights of all Angelenos are respected and upheld at every stage of the enforcement process.

Angelenos should not have to fear raids that are disruptive to their peace of mind and bring unnecessary anxiety to our homes, schools, and workplaces. The Administration should take a just, humane, and sensible approach that does not cause pain for people who only want to live their lives and raise their families in the communities they call home.

Zero forgiveness is what the alt right wants in place. What goes on in the minds of Americans who have become so headstrong they can’t find forgiveness?

I wanted to try and understand this far right white mentality, and their obsession with discrimination. I decided to interview Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minute Men. I was apprehensive about meeting Jim Gilchrist. My aim was to learn more about Operation Normandy, a movement he had hoped to launch in 2015, right before Donald Trump stormed through the 2016 primaries.

© Tish Lampert. All rights reserved.

I met with Jim about a year or so ago, before the election of 2016 got underway. Jim believes the critical problem of immigration in the US today is the malfunction of our government to protect our border. He was quick to blame Obama and his failure to stop illegals from taking our jobs, being treated at our hospitals and securing free education for their children. Odd when Obama was often called the Deporter in Chief and under his administration over 2.5 million were sent home. Jim and his Minutemen believe in zero forgiveness that includes prohibiting citizenship to children born here, if their parents are not in the U.S. legally. I learn about Project Normandy and their mission to bring together a citizen watchdog patrol, from California through Texas, to take the law into their own hands.

We decide a field trip to the Southern California border seems the best way to get a real sense of the extreme conditions, and to view the new Israeli designed fencing system.

En route, our conversation in the car is broken up between three radio interviews, with Gilchrist as the featured guest. At one point I had to take the wheel so Jim could speak to Rush Limbaugh and his audience without the distraction of driving. Jim tells his listeners that 31 million illegal aliens are in the US today, posing a real threat to our homeland security. Buzzwords are used ISIS, ebola, and terrorist attacks on the home front. He arouses them with conspiracy rhetoric and mentions that he’s on his way down to the border to check that border patrol is doing their job.

We finally arrive at a dead end dirt road, a mile and a half from the border.

© Tish Lampert. All rights reserved.

Jim is confused because the gate is closed and there is no one around to grant entry. Jim is hesitant about how we will get to the border. I suggest we walk the distance, even though it’s isolated terrain. I carry my backpack of camera equip, water, hats, sunblock, passport. Jim is holding a 4 oz. bottle of water. A woman passes us on horseback and shouts back to watch where we walk. She just saw a rattlesnake. Jim and I begin the trek making small talk at first. The brutal surroundings encourage me to search for a more compassionate side to Jim. He admits he loathes all cruelty to animals, listens to Bob Dylan and is entertained by Jon Stewart. When he isn’t pushing his extremist rhetoric Jim is a good conversationalist. There isn’t a soul around and we both get a real sense of what it must be like to be stuck out in this arid, lifeless plain, open to all the elements. The brush is the only protection yet it is craggy with razor sharp thorns. The sun beats down on us and I ask Jim does he think about the conditions that force human beings to risk their lives crawling through this unforgiving landscape? He does express empathy for those who make this journey, but that doesn’t change his stand on zero entry.

To understand Jim Gilchrist is to go back to 1969 with his tour of duty in Vietnam and his purple heart. He was not prepared for the hate he felt upon his return. He did not see himself as a baby killer but as a hero. He says would never risk his life today fighting for an America he no longer believes in. I learn he was a Democrat and then a Republican and then an Independent before signing on to the Republicans again in 2009. He was against Bush’s war in Iraq and against all war, knowing personally the toll it takes on a human being. His views are conflicted. He says he’s not a push over for the usual spin on Fox News, although he watches Fox as well as Aljazeera and BBC. His views are

Independent of the Republican platform but he admits he leans towards a tea party doctrine. I ask him if Obama were not black would there be such obstruction from the over sixty white male conservatives in the US today?

 “Could be a factor, “ he replies.

We get to the border and I see the wide expanse of steel fencing that’s constructed outside the older primary fence. The Trojan like barrier presents a foreboding message, even though its not completed. Flashing red lights, and a patrol car pulls up out of nowhere and stops. The border patrol agent asks what we are doing there? I look to Jim to explain, thinking he’s been here multiple times before. Jim doesn't respond. I thought he was well known at the border? Before the agent can tell us to leave I explain I am photographing Jim on the job. That’s when Jim identifies himself as ‘ the head of the right wing group, The Minute Men’. The agent nods with a smirk, “Oh yes, I know who you are.” I add that Jim has come down today to check up on how things are going down here.

There is an awkward moment and the agent tells us that he cannot be in any photos. This is his first day back from a five-month field case where he made a key drug bust. He explains he must be very careful since the arrest. Jim asks a few questions about the bust but the agent will not discuss it. The agent is of Latino descent. Jim asks what country he was born in?

 “Guatemala,” the ranger answers. Jim then continues, “When did you become an American citizen?” The agent proudly answers, ”Seven years ago. I have taken an oath to protect our country’s border everyday, and risk my life doing so.”

Just then Jim’s phone buzzes and he treks up the hill for another radio interview. I am left with a dumbfounded look on my face. I am embarrassed being here with this man who rallies extremists to take the law into their own hands.

The ranger reveals to me he left Guatemala during the civil war in the 90’s. We have an open conversation about some of what he sees are the biggest problems at the border. I think to myself if he were to catch me in the dark of night, I bet he’d show me compassion. I can see how complex his job must be because of his background.

Jim is finished his fourth radio show of the day. We head back down the dirt path, with little conversation. I stop and take a photo of what looks like rags in the field, tangled in tumbleweed. Jim goes over to inspect them. He picks up a mask and black material stitched together which resembles a boot. Jim explains that when “they” sneak across they wear masks to hide the reflection of their skin from the searchlight. A look comes over Jim’s face, like he’s holding up a dead rat. I try not to react. He is clearly disturbed finding evidence so close to the mother-lode fence. I walk behind him, snapping pics of the parched scenery. I am no longer able to curb my disgust.

I remind myself Jim Gilchrist is entitled to his harsh opinions. I don’t know what I expected from him, but he has been honest with me. He makes no excuses for being a zealot. He’ s convinced himself that today’s multi cultural America resembles a nation he no longer can respect. But I wonder if he realizes that he’s able to lash out at the government he’s so critical of because, like all Americans, he can exercise his First Amendment Rights.

Enrique Marones, President/Founder of Border Angels, gave me his comments. His words reflect a powerful message, in context to today’s assault on immigrants and their human rights:

© Tish Lampert. All rights reserved.

“Human rights has no borders. Its time the US practices what it preaches. Mr. Gorbachov tore down his wall. Ten years later the US builds our wall - Operation Gatekeeper. It has led to the death of more than 12,000 human beings. Ni una muerte mas, reforma ya!"

Towns across the U.S. will be holding meetings with their elected officials, during the winter recess. In Los Angeles Rep Karen Bass will be holding a town hall, specifically to advise residents regarding the wave of immigration arrests and how best to protect and help our fellow citizens. In Los Angeles, In the three days since these raids began, over 200 people have been detained and are expected to be deported.

Originally from New York City, Tish Lampert began her work as a photojournalist in London where she freelanced for numerous publications and newspapers, including The London Times, The Evening Standard, and Time Out Magazine. She distinguished herself as one of the only women who photographed inside the mines at Abergavenny, Wales. Lampert created a series titled “Exiting the Metropolitan” tracing the closure of rural farms as the British M1 highway was extended.

Tish Lampert’s sixteen years of chronicling U.S. citizens exercising their First Amendment Rights has evolved into two books, America Speaks and I Protest. Ms. Lampert is a 2013 recipient of a Nathan Cummings Foundation Grant for America Speaks. A copy of the book was presented to Michelle Obama. Both America Speaks and I Protest are endorsed by Martin Sheen, Harry Belafonte, Dennis Macdougal, and Greg Palast. In June 2013, Ms. Lampert exhibited at the United Nations. In the fall of 2013, Lampert’s photos from her book America Speaks were on view at the Dan Eldon Gallery in Malibu. Spring 2016, Lampert’s I Protest is featured in an exhibition in Los Angeles with A&I and Harmon Press.

More information about Tish and her work can be found at tishlampert.com.