Jim Gilchrist has long been an outspoken personality in the debate about immigration. The Minuteman Project founder has drawn praise, criticism, and controversy for his stance on immigrants "sin papeles" — undocumented workers — referring to their presence as an "illegal invasion dilemma."

Jim Gilchrist (Associated Press)

Gilchrist created The Minuteman Project in 2004 to, in his view, get the United States government to stop ignoring existing immigration laws. It has since spawned countless vigilante copycat groups who continue to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to watch for people crossing without papers and turn them in. It has also changed the tenor of the immigration debate, and it served its purpose, launching a national discussion that continues in 2017.

He spoke with Smithsonian Second Opinion about what being an American means to him and what he hopes for the future of U.S. immigration policy. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What does being an immigrant mean to you?

Essentially, there are probably three critical things necessary for a successful immigration policy for the United States, and that is: 1) We want an orderly queue of a prescribed number of vetted, legal immigrants to come to the United States; 2) We expect them to have specific vocational skills necessary to continue the United States as a nation of prosperity; 3) Those persons who legally immigrate here also should be of the character and integrity necessary to continue our history as a civilized nation governed under the rules of law.

What does being an American mean to you?

That is a very good question that all of us in the immigration issue have been asked at one time or another. We are a nation that can accept anyone, regardless of their race, color, creed. We're a nation of diversity. You can hair-split it down to a thousand different items to qualify, but the one thing that holds us together is language, and without a common bond of language you will not have a seamless, conductive communication, or a seamless conduct of commerce.

Without a seamless conduct of communication you have mistrust, you have misunderstanding, you have misinterpretation, and a feeling of difference, where the person who doesn't speak the same language is not like you. The person who doesn't want to learn the same language, which is the common bond that your country has used for centuries is very suspicious, is anti-social, is obviously anti-American, that's how I perceive it, who probably would like to bring their homeland's cultures, language, religion, the whole box of goods, over here to replace American, not lifestyle, American culture and customs.

Why did you start the Minuteman Project?

I was aware of the problem for years, for a couple of decades, before I actually launched an activist group to bring awareness to it. Essentially the Minuteman Project evolved as an alternative to the corruption and dereliction of duty of our nation's political governors, and their reckless disregard for the U.S. rule of law, and also to bring attention what I felt was the United States returning to the slave trade.

I refer to the illegal immigration encouraged by domestic and foreign entrepreneurs as the 21st century slave trade promulgated and proliferated by Mexican human cargo cartels and U.S. businesses. They encouraged the transfer of illegal aliens into the United States specifically for the purpose of exploiting them for profit by using them in their jobs, in their companies, to work for dirt cheap wages, and no benefits — and when they needed medical or educational services, that would be provided free to them by the taxpayers.

I did succeed in bringing attention to these matters. And as a result of the movement, if you want to call it a movement, grew legs of its own, and now there's not one politician anywhere in the country that doesn't include some comment about immigration in his or her political platform.

What is your end goal now?

The goal is to bring national awareness to an illegal alien invasion dilemma facing the United States of America, essentially threatening its domestic tranquility and its stature as a nation governed by the people under rules of law, as opposed to mob rule. That mob being tens of millions of illegal aliens who have blatantly defied U.S. immigration laws and set up housekeeping. That’s been my agenda for the last 12 years, 13 years, since the Minuteman Project was founded, and as a result, like most activists, you become a target of those who disagree with you.

I can proudly say that I was at one time one of the most hated men in America. Unfortunately, all the hate and the angst towards me was all unwarranted. I'm just a Joe Average war veteran who just wanted to engage in free speech and encourage debate about the reckless disregard of our immigration laws, and bring that debate to the public square.

What would you like to see materially, though? Do you have numbers?

That we return to pre 1965 immigration levels where we immigrate about a quarter-of-a-million people here, not one-and-a-quarter million per year — and that we do it strictly legally. That we immediately repatriate all illegal aliens currently occupying U.S. territory in just downright blatant defiance of U.S. immigration laws. In my estimate there are about 33 million people in the United States illegally.

33 million?

33. Not 11 million. 11 million is a number that the government has been using since 2004 or ’05. They bumped it in about 2007, up to a more realistic number of 11 to 15 million, but they keep downplaying it, and the media does too. Mainstream media continues to downplay it to 11 million and no more, and that's the way it's been for the last 10 or 11 years. Well, that's baloney. We still have about one-and-a half-million illegal aliens coming into the United States and not leaving every year.

You're getting most of them coming through the Mexican-American border. The other, a third of them, or 25 percent, coming through staying here with expired visas and just not leaving, not respecting the visa laws. I've been a little generous. That would say, well that means 26 million. No, I think it's really more like 30 to 33 million, because they're all “in the shadows.”

You have a background as a CPA. Does that inform your understanding of the issue? From that perspective, what can be done to enforce existing laws?

I think to allow employers to randomly just hire illegal aliens without eVerifying them for the purpose of evading, criminally evading payroll taxes, and also avoiding paying more for their workers — I think they should be prosecuted. All you have to do is prosecute one businessman in the community for this, and the rest will comply, because the message will be out there: ”You too can lose your business, have to pay half-a-million dollars in fines, face a prison term, lose your house, and go into bankruptcy, if you want to fight the federal government on this."

And people will think, "You know, it's just a lot easier to put the employees through eVerify, hire people who are here legally, and pay benefits, and just pass that cost on to my consumer. And that's a lot better than making a lot more profit that I can spend on big, fat houses and fast cars and party money, only to have all of that taken from me by the federal government in the form of court penalties, fines, employment fines, tax evasion fines, so on and so forth, and also, if the number is big enough, the dollar number, prison, federal prison with no parole."

And now you know why I keep staying in the argument, because I probably set up a scenario that may very well be impossible to fulfill. But an equal argument that's impossible to fulfill is to force the country to accept seven-and-a-half-billion people, the world's population, to come here at will, instead of waiting for an invitation by the citizenry of the United States of America.