The Minuteman border-watch movement that exploded in Southern Arizona in the last decade has virtually disappeared, a new report says.
But that's in part because the members' concerns about illegal immigration have been adopted by other groups and state legislatures, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in its annual report on groups it considers part of the political extreme.
In 2011, the number of groups termed by the center as "nativist extremists" - such as the Minuteman - declined by 42 percent, but at the same time the number of anti-government "Patriot" groups grew to record levels, the center said. The 1,274 extreme anti-government groups tabbed as belonging to the Patriot movement was the highest number since the center counted 858 in 1996.
The center attributed the growth in the number of these groups to the country's economic difficulties, a proliferation in conspiracy theories about the government and the president, and the prospect of four more years of the Obama presidency, among other factors.
In conducting its annual census of what it considers extremist groups, the center tries to differentiate between groups critical of the federal government and those motivated by groundless conspiracy theories, such as that the government is planning to round up citizens in concentration camps, said Heidi Beirich, director of the center's intelligence project.
The center tracks such groups, she said, because "we're concerned about domestic terrorism."
Adherents to these beliefs sometimes become so convinced "that the government is going to imminently do some kind of harm that they decide to take some kind of action," she said.
But not everyone considers the Alabama-based law center, which began as a civil-rights group in 1971, a reliable source on extremism. Longtime Arizona Republic reporter Jerry Kammer, now a staffer at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C., has written several critiques of the center's work, especially on anti-illegal-immigration groups.
Kammer called it a "hysteria and hype machine that cons the well intentioned but poorly informed."
"In its hysteria to sound the alarm about 'record levels' of hate, the SPLC assembles phony and trivial statistics that distract attention from the truly dangerous groups," Kammer said via email.
Members of Arizona's Constitution Party were surprised to hear they are classified as an extreme anti-government Patriot group. The party is "anti-big-government" but not "completely anti-government," said James Hoodenpyle, chairman of the party's Maricopa County branch.
The Libertarian Party, for example, probably believes in a more limited government than the Constitution Party does, Hoodenpyle said.
This is how the law center describes Patriot groups: "Patriot groups define themselves as opposed to the 'New World Order,' engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines."
"Listing here," the center said, "does not imply that the groups themselves advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities, or are racist."
The center began tracking another category, what it calls "nativist extremist" groups, after the Minuteman movement exploded in the mid-2000s. These groups distinguish themselves from regular anti-illegal-immigration opinion by directly confronting suspected illegal immigrants at the border, at day-labor centers or elsewhere, Beirich said.
The number of active groups in this category hit a peak of 319 in 2010 before declining to 184 last year, the center says.
Infighting, bad press and co-opting of the movement has driven its decline, Beirich said. Groups such as the Arizona-based Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, once the best known of this category, splintered and dissolved. The arrest of one-time Minuteman Shawna Forde, for murdering an Arivaca man and his daughter in 2009, also drove people away.
Most important, Beirich said, anti-illegal-immigrant actions were taken up by state legislatures and absorbed as a major concern by groups such as the tea parties and the Republican Party. Many people who once concerned themselves with border-watch activities moved on to the broader concerns of the tea-party movement, she said.
Another concern was safety as Mexico's drug traffickers raised their level of violence, said Al Garza, a one-time leader of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
"For anyone on this side to make a stand against them would be foolish," he said.
Garza's experience also traced the arc of the border-watch movement. He left the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps in 2009 to form a separate group called the Patriots Coalition but now informally consults with tea-party groups and others who share his concerns about the border and rule of law, Garza said.
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or firstname.lastname@example.org