Do the Differing Fates of Two Minutemen Freeway Signs Show a Double Standard at Caltrans?

James McHugh

Mixed Signals
Does Caltrans have a double standard when it comes to Minutemen adopting highways?

The last thing anyone wants to think about after passing the Barranca Parkway exit while driving north on State Route 133 is the Mexican invasion. Barranca is the last off-ramp before the Laguna Freeway becomes a toll road, which means that unless you subscribe to FasTrak, you'll have to simultaneously drive while fumbling inside your pockets and around your car for loose change. But as you do that, you'll eventually glimpse two colorful monuments: the Great Park balloon and a white-and-blue Adopt-a-Highway sign proclaiming, "Jim Gilchrist's Minuteman Project."

Rational Orange County observers will scratch their heads. This location is hardly the ideal freeway spot to market the country's most prominent mock-migra organization; everyone knows the best-suited stretch is on Interstate 5, near the immigration checkpoint just south of San Clemente, where hundreds of thousands of cars—many filled with illegal Mexicans—pass daily. Indeed, the San Diego Minutemen—a group not associated with Gilchrist's Minutemen for reasons too petty to get into—want to erect their own Adopt-a-Highway sign here. In fact, the San Diego Minutemen once sponsored an Adopt-a-Highway sign near the San Clemente checkpoint, but Caltrans revoked it—while letting Gilchrist's version stand.

Why Gilchrist was able to secure his Adopt-a-Highway sign while the San Diego Minutemen are now suing for the right to display theirs speaks volumes about the state of the Minuteman Project movement, which started in 2005 amid much grassroots momentum but has splintered into multiple squabbling, litigious factions.

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The troubles with the San Diego Minutemen began last November, when they applied for and were accepted into Caltrans' Adopt-a-Highway program, started in 1989 to maintain California's highways. By sheer coincidence, Caltrans assigned them a spot near the San Clemente immigration checkpoint, which delighted San Diego Minuteman founder Jeff Schwilk. They were able to organize a trash cleanup and take pictures.

Word of their cleanliness reached pro-amnesty activists—who threatened to disrupt I-5 traffic with protests—and the California Latino Legislative Caucus. On Jan. 24, the group sent a letter to Caltrans Director Will Kempton, arguing that the issuance of the San Diego Minutemen Adopt-a-Highway sign was in violation of Caltrans policy banning "entities that advocate violence, violation of the law, or discrimination based upon race, religion, color, national origin [and ancestry]."

"The San Diego Minutemen is an organization that for many years has fostered violence and discrimination against Latinos," stated the letter, signed by Assemblyman Joe Coto and State Senator Gil Cedillo, chairman and vice chairman of the caucus, respectively.

Four days later, Caltrans wrote to Schwilk that their sign "poses a significant risk of disruption to the operation of the State highway" and offered them another location: along Highway 52 near Santee, in the middle of nowhere. The San Diego Minutemen refused the offer and sued Caltrans on Feb. 4, alleging violation of free speech and discrimination. Caltrans eventually suspended the Adopt-a-Highway program late last month after the San Diego Minutemen applied to sponsor another stretch of I-5.

Caltrans officials declined to comment for this story, citing their current legal battle with the San Diego Minutemen. Through their efforts, the San Diego Minutemen have galvanized the anti-immigrant movement and even earned an unlikely ally: The ACLU issued a press release in the spring stating, "While the ACLU abhors the Minutemen's ideology and tactics, the First Amendment protects them, as it protects everyone."

Gilchrist's efforts, on the other hand, sparked no such battles. He applied for a sign in February; Caltrans granted it in April. His group's sign went up in June. End of story—so far.

"I thought I would go through the same problems that Schwilk has gone through," says Gilchrist. He credits the law firm of Gordon and Rees in Newport Beach for handling the application process and his "good rapport" with Caltrans. Schwilk, Gilchrist says, approached the issue with a "mean-spirited attitude."

Gilchrist has firsthand experience with Schwilk's "attitude." On June 19, Schwilk sent Gilchrist an e-mail describing him as a "flaming idiot," a "mentally ill goon" and a "bitter psychopath insurgent." The San Diego Minutemen, in general, are notorious among immigrant activists for their aggressive tactics, and have blasted the California Latino Caucus as "Mexican insurgents."

Schwilk did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

This isn't the first time Orange County's anti-immigrant brigade has erected a controversial freeway sign. From 1998 through 2000, the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform bought billboard space in Blythe and Pixley that listed their name and phone number. Latino activists at the time threatened to burn down the ads, while Caltrans told CCIR to remove them, claiming they looked too much like highway markers. CCIR instead renovated the billboards, but they were eventually removed—not by pyromaniacal Mexicans or bureaucrats, but the billboard's owners, who didn't appreciate all the controversy.

Asked why the Latino Legislative Caucus has targeted the San Diego Minutemen's Adopt-a-Highway campaign and not Gilchrist's, spokeswoman Xochitl Arellano said no one in the group even knew the about the Minutemen sign by the 133. "The Latino Caucus is interested in knowing more about this signage in Orange County," Arellano wrote in an e-mail. "The Latino Caucus is equally disturbed about Jim Gilchrist's name or the Minutemen organization being associated with the California Department of Transportation in Orange County, as it was in San Diego."


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