San Diego Minutemen adopt a road

Times Staff Writer

The Knights of Columbus have adopted a highway. So have the Japanese American Citizens League, biker groups, Indian casinos and the International House of Pancakes.

Now add the San Diego Minutemen.

Caltrans has granted an Adopt-A-Highway stretch of Interstate 5 to the ardent foes of illegal immigration -- and not just any stretch. The two miles of freeway the Minutemen will be charged with beautifying include the U.S. Border Patrol Checkpoint near San Clemente.

“How great is that,” Jeff Schwilk, the group’s founder, told his members in an e-mail.


Critics disagreed, saying the California Department of Transportation ignored its own rule that bars groups that advocate violence or discrimination from participating in the program.

“The Adopt-A-Highway program was designed to allow organizations to show pride in the state of California . . . and it is unfortunate that the Minutemen, whose approach . . . includes advocating violence, have been allowed by Caltrans into the program,” said Tina Malka, associate director of the San Diego branch of the Anti-Defamation League.

Schwilk denied Friday that his group advocates violence and said no member has ever been arrested for immigrant-related violence.

Caltrans spokesman Edward Cartagena said the Minutemen got the stretch of I-5 purely by chance. The group submitted its application in November, he added, and it was reviewed and found to comply with the rule. According to the agency’s website, it bars “entities that advocate violence, violation of the law, or discrimination based upon race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry” and other factors.

“The Department will not discriminate against groups that otherwise meet the program criteria based on the fact that some members of the public might disagree with the particular group’s agenda or reputation,” Caltrans said in a prepared statement.

The group’s two signs -- one on each side of the freeway -- went up in late December. Members have been given a safety course on how to clean the freeway. Their first cleanup day is set for next Saturday.

Schwilk said Caltrans rules bar demonstrations, and he and his crew would just be beautifying the roadway.

“We’ll be out there in dorky-looking vests, hard hats and goggles, picking up trash. That’s all we’re allowed to do,” he said. “We’re a community activist group, so why wouldn’t we take other steps to help our communities?”


Enrique Morones, president of the Border Angels, a San Diego-based immigrant rights group, questioned the Minutemen’s motives and called Schwilk’s move a publicity ploy.

“They’re desperate to get attention, even if it means sweeping the freeway,” he said.

The San Diego Minutemen operate mostly in north San Diego County, where members often demonstrate at day labor sites -- sometimes taking pictures of motorists picking up laborers -- and trade accusations of violent behavior with anti-immigrant groups. Schwilk says the group has 600 members. Others say membership has dwindled to no more than 30.

A former Marine, Schwilk says on his website that he worked alongside hardworking Mexicans in a carwash for more than three years in the 1980s and that his best friend in school was half Mexican.


Andy Ramirez, chairman of Friends of the Border Patrol, congratulated Schwilk on his great freeway location. It’s entirely fitting, he said, that a group like his that supports the Border Patrol’s mission be given the area near the checkpoint.

In fact, he said, “The irony is killing me. . . . Why didn’t I think of that?”