Harvard group cancels invitation to anti-immigration speaker

Was scheduled to talk at forum

‘Many are looking for answers to the illegal immigration chaos,’ said Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project. ‘Many are looking for answers to the illegal immigration chaos,’ said Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project.
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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Less than a year after speaking at a Harvard University student conference, the head of an anti-illegal immigration movement had his invitation to speak at a similar forum tomorrow rescinded following a student uproar over his aggressive position on immigration.

Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, which sends armed civilians to patrol the Mexican border for illegal immigrants crossing into the United States, was scheduled to speak during a public interest and law conference hosted by the Harvard Undergraduate Legal Committee.

Gilchrist was slated to appear on a panel that discussed “Immigration and Its Future in America.’’

But student protests, emboldened since Gilchrist spoke at a Harvard Law School event in February, led to the cancellation of his invitation.

The Undergraduate Legal Committee released a statement that read, “Mr. Gilchrist’s participation in the conference on the behalf of the Minutemen Project was not compatible with providing an environment for civil, educational, and productive discourse on immigration, and we cannot host him at this time.’’

A representative from the group would not elaborate on the statement.

Gilchrist could not be reached for comment, but said in a statement on his website that the protests came from only a few and that “the minute they received threats from fellow students these pre-law students shied away from defending free speech.’’

“That future graduates of the most renowned university in the world are literally afraid to support the very cornerstone of the foundation of our nation, namely ‘free speech,’ ought to frighten anyone looking to America as the beacon of liberty, freedom, and justice for all,’’ he said.

Gilchrist seemed to be looking forward to tomorrow’s conference and had solicited funds for the trip.

“Believe me, in these turbulent times many are looking for answers to the illegal immigration chaos,’’ he said in an earlier statement. “Not just the man on the street, but all the way up through the nation’s Ivy League schools.’’

A former Marine and journalist, Gilchrist has run into protests before. He was attacked in 2006 while speaking at Columbia University.

The incident spurred national debate on free speech as well as immigration, while many condemned the violent protests.

He formed what he calls the “multi-ethnic’’ Minuteman Project in 2004, saying he was frustrated with the nation’s failure to enforce immigration laws, and has participated in academic panels, given countless interviews, and has been published in legal journals.

But his hard-line anti-immigration stance has met much opposition, centering on the arming of civilians enforcing federal laws - referred to by many as vigilantes - and the group’s animosity toward immigrants, particularly Mexicans.

Gilchrist’s participation in a Harvard Law School Journal on Legislation panel in February prompted the head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to withdraw from the event, saying in a letter that, “I draw the line . . . at debating or appearing with members of known hate groups, and those who advocate violence whether explicitly or implicitly.’’

Kyle de Beausset, an undergraduate student and migrant advocate, who was one of the original Harvard protesters, said yesterday that Gilchrist’s removal will allow discussions to move toward policy, rather than animosity.

“It’s a victory for people who are trying to get hate out of the immigration debate,’’ he said. “There’s a difference between having views, and hate speech.’’

Beausset said more students have been alerted to the group’s stance since the arrest in June of a woman with ties to the Minuteman Project.

Shawna Ford and two others allegedly shot and killed a father and son, and wounded the mother in a robbery that Beausset said was to “finance her nativist activism.’’

He said the episode showed the extremes to which some members of the movement will go.

“I’m concerned about the broader national implications of legitimizing these extremist views with the Harvard name,’’ he said in a letter to fellow students.

Milton Valencia can be reached at