Taylorsville • Eli Cawley believes his hometown taught him American values.
“We were raised to be patriots and love our country,” says the director of Utah’s Minuteman Project, a hard-line group opposing illegal immigration and calling for the protection of “American culture” and rule of law.
That hometown is Colorado City, Ariz., where Cawley was raised in a polygamous household. Although polygamy is against the law, Cawley makes a distinction between it and the behavior of the undocumented immigrants he and his Minuteman brethren rail against.
“If you stop making a fetish over the physical relationship between men and women, it’s a religion,” Cawley said of the polygamists living in Colorado City, “and the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion. There is a massive difference between the First Amendment and the invasion of our country.”
Cawley, 45, says his little-known upbringingwas just one factor that influenced the views he espouses as leader of a group that has made its voice heard in Utah’s ultra-conservative political circles, despite having only about a dozen active members and rarely more than a few hundred dollars in its bank account.
The largest influences for Cawley were his studies in Vietnam and encounters at the South Salt Lake school his son attended.
Like many who have left the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Cawley is guarded about his life and family there.
During an interview at a Taylorsville coffee shop, Cawley said his family belonged to Centennial Park, the community of polygamists that split from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the 1980s. One of Cawley’s full brothers, Ben Cawley, said their father has four wives. Cawley, who has one wife, said his father has more than four.
Compared to the FLDS, whose leaders and members have been dogged by convictions in Utah, Arizona and Texas related to marrying underage girls, the Centennial Park community has spent the past 25 years living peacefully and free from criminal allegations. The split from the FLDS was a fight over governance. The FLDS wanted its prophet to have supreme power within the sect while the group that formed Centennial Park wanted authority to rest with a council.
The split from the FLDS, which occurred over a number of years and was finalized in 1986, pitted friends and families against one another. Cawley recalls going from attending church with the rest of the Colorado City community in a school auditorium to attending church in private homes. Cawley also recalls feeling as though those who stayed with the FLDS abandoned their principles.
Still in his early teens, Cawley said he reacted by drinking and staying out late with other boys.
“Suddenly living that religion doesn’t seem as important as your friends,” Cawley said.
His mother objected, and at age 15 Cawley joined his father in Salt Lake County. While Cawley said Colorado City had a only a minor influence on his politics, Ben Cawley thinks growing up among so many who held such strong beliefs molded his brother’s personality.
A simple question about immigration or politics can have Cawley raising his voice, tightening his face and gesturing with his body like a preacher giving a fire-and-brimstone sermon.
“That characteristic,” said Ben Cawley, “is kind of inherent in fundamentalism — that kind of do-or-die mentality.”
Cawley and his father worked together at a Salt Lake City company that manufactures seals for a variety of machines and household products. Cawley said the company hired immigrants from Laos and Vietnam.
That exposure made Cawley curious, and he began studying those two countries. Cawley says the sources he read were “left wing” and made him angry about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Cawley would go into “tirades” about the injustice of the Vietnam War with friends and coworkers.
“We used to get in knockdown drag-out fights about political views,” said Ben Cawley, who remembers his brother as liberal back then.
Cawley graduated from Granite High School in 1984 and enrolled at the University of Utah that fall while still working full time. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1991 and that year took a trip to Hanoi. Cawley and a group that included faculty, students and former soldiers who had fought in Vietnam spent 11 days in the country. The trip inspired Cawley to continue studying Vietnam.
In 1993, Cawley returned to Vietnam to work on a master’s thesis on post-1975 economics there. Cawley never finished that thesis, but he said he embraced everything about the Vietnamese culture, including attending birthday parties celebrating communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
Mel Halbach, a documentary filmmaker who was with Cawley on the 1991 trip and later returned with him and became his roommate in 1994, remembers Ho Chi Minh being one of Cawley’s “heroes” back then. That began to change, Halbach said, when he and Cawley started teaching English in Vietnam.
The students were a mix of teenagers and adults, not all of whom supported the Communist government. As their English improved, Halbach said, they challenged Cawley’s political views supporting communism and complained to him about political corruption in the country.
In the spring of 1993, one of Cawley’s students was a woman in her late 20s from Saigon named Dzoung thi Thu Nguyet. Cawley asked her to stay after class one day and took her to an ice cream shop.
“The culture over there is to respect the teacher,” a smiling Nguyet said when asked about accepting Cawley’s overture.
On Aug. 6, 1995, the couple married in a ceremony that was for the most part Vietnamese, though the bride and groom recited some Christian vows in front of the altar. Nguyet has since adopted the name Bonnie because it’s easier for English speakers to pronounce.
Cawley says his view of the Vietnamese government changed when his pregnant wife registered to give birth at an army hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in 1996 but Cawley was not allowed inside because he was an American. Bonnie Cawley delivered their son, Claude, at a civilian hospital. The couple’s second child, a daughter, was born last year.
In 1999, Cawley moved his family to Utah and bought a housenear 300 E. 3900 South in South Salt Lake. The family lived next door to a subsidized apartment complex.
Cawley said he moved there because he wanted to live with hard-working people — of any race. When the Cawleys moved in, the neighborhood already had a lot of Latinos. The Latino population increased in the six years he lived there, Cawley said.
But Cawley’s Latino neighbors, ones he believed were undocumented, left a bad impression. At one point Bonnie Cawley, armed with a BB-gun that she pretended fired real bullets, chased away a group of Latino children who would climb over a wall into her backyard. Cawley’s car stereo was stolen, and his wife learned a motorist she struck with her car while driving in the neighborhood was an undocumented immigrant.
“I have to pay, but what happens if she hits me?” Bonnie Cawley said.
Meanwhile, Claude began attending Lincoln Elementary School in the Granite School District, where Cawley said he feels his son was ignored by teachers busy helping students for whom English was a second language.
What Cawley calls his most “transformative experience” happened in 2004 or 2005 during an assembly for second-graders he attended at Lincoln. The assembly had a theme about pride in your country, and Cawley says about 60 percent of the students were waving the Mexican flag.
But it was his son’s flag that really angered Cawley. Claude’s teacher gave him a Vietnamese flag, or as Cawley called it, a “North Vietnamese flag.”
“I was fit to be tied,” Cawley said. “I was so damn mad I was spitting fire.”
Besides developing an unfavorable view of the Vietnamese government, Cawley said he raised his son to “be American.” Cawley motioned to Claude to lower the flag, then confronted the teacher.
“What was so enraging to me was she didn’t even have a concept it was offensive,” Cawley said.
The teacher, Cawley said, was trying to make the assembly as diverse as she could.
“I knew right then there was something wrong in the heart of America,” Cawley said.
According to statistics maintained by the state, 43 percent of Lincoln Elementary school students were Hispanic in the 2004-2005 school year. That year the school met federal performance standards for language arts and mathematics.
Not long after the assembly, Cawley went looking for people who shared his views on immigration and nationalism. He said he read many anti-illegal immigration websites but was disturbed that most focused on skin color rather than immigration status. Cawley says he has no problem with immigrants of color as long as they immigrate to the United States legally, follow the law, speak English and acknowledge the United States has a Judeo-Christian heritage.
Dowell Myers, a professor and director of the Population Dynamics Research Group at the University of Southern California, said research has shown Latino immigrants assimilate. One measure he uses to track assimilation is homeownership. Myers pointed to 2008 data showing half of all Latino immigrants in Utah were homeowners.
“Sometimes people assume all immigrants are illegal and newly arrived,” Myers said in an email. “New illegal immigrants are definitely not assimilated. But most Latino immigrants are legal residents and most are long settled.”
Ideally, Cawley said, undocumented immigrants would be forcibly deported, but he realizes that is not feasible. Instead, Cawley said, government should remove the incentives for them to remain in the country by eliminating their jobs and benefits.
Cawley isn’t certain how he found the Minuteman Project but seems to recall he saw it advertised on a flier. At the first meeting he attended in 2005, Cawley says he “got chills.” Attendees recited the Pledge of Allegiance. They focused on preserving the cultures and values of the United States, Cawley said, and not on race.
By 2007, Cawley was chairman of the board and speaking on behalf of the project. He has testified at the state Capitol, supported raids on businesses that employ undocumented immigrants and pushed for federal, state and local enforcement of immigration laws.
His group supported the two former state workers who compiled and disseminated a list of 1,300 alleged undocumented immigrants, names that were gathered from Department of Workforce Services records. Cawley has stood with West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder to promote that city’s English-language training for immigrants and with former Congressman Merrill Cook in his push for a ballot initiative requiring employers to use a government program verifying a worker’s immigration status.
Mostly, Cawley has criticized. In media reports Cawley has referred to Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank as “Sanctuary Burbank” for the chief’s unwillingness to question or arrest people based solely on immigration status, blistered Attorney General Mark Shurtleff for prosecuting the two suspects in the list case and called Latino advocate Tony Yapias a “race monger.”
Bonnie Cawley, who was naturalized about the time her husband found the Minuteman Project, has attended Project meetings with Cawley.
Cawley said his parents and siblings have different opinions.
“I’ve labored long and hard and they don’t have a lot of sympathy for the destruction of our country,” Cawley said.
Ben Cawley, for one, said he favors immigrants assimilating and learning English, but not deportations or removals. He said people who knowingly break the law must have a rational reason for doing it.
Ben Cawley said he used to spend many Sundays watching football with his brother, but Cawley’s commitment to the Minuteman Project has consumed much of that leisure time.
“He’s a crusader,” Ben Cawley said. “People that are like that are really admirable people. They get a cause and they try to advance the virtue and the cause.”
While members of Cawley’s family continue to practice polygamy, St. George resident Georginia Coon of Raz-PAC — a Latino political action committee in Utah — rebuts Cawley’s claim polygamists have First Amendment protections that undocumented immigrants do not.
“Let’s not use the name of religion to commit crime,” Coon said. “Polygamy is not a religion.
Cawley feels as though politicians, businesses and the media are working against him and the Minuteman Project. Those groups, Cawley said, are more interested in catering to diversity and cheap labor.
“I don’t feel like the effort to preserve our nation is succeeding,” Cawley said.