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Private volunteers patrol a porous border

In April, a slice of Arizona will be monitored by 1,500 'minutemen.'

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 4, 2005


With lawn chairs, two-way radios, and binoculars, they've come to save the Union. All volunteers, age four to 86, they've descended here from all 50 states via RV, motorcycle, sidecar, and sport coupe.

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Across a remote corner of the American Southwest - a honeycombed terrain that helped Apache leader Geronimo elude the US government for years - they are providing eyes, ears, and vacation time to another cause they feel has long eluded the same government: effective immigration law enforcement.

Some 1,500 self-selected volunteers will begin fanning out to designated outposts along the Arizona border Monday in a highly visible - and controversial - bid to help reclaim part of the US-Mexican border. If successful, similar projects are planned in neighboring states in coming months.

"We are lighting the fuse to a grass-roots grass fire using the Constitution, the First Amendment, and Martin Luther King's philosophy to pursue our objective in a peaceful, rational way," says James Gilchrist, a former marine and cofounder of the so-called Minuteman Project. "This is just the beginning."

Taking strategic cover beneath glades of sage and piƱon pine, behind buffalo-sized boulders, the "minutemen" will be stationed every 300 yards along a 40-mile stretch of border known as the San Pedro River Valley. The area has become a favorite corridor for illegal immigrants to enter the US.

The goal: monitor the problem of illegal entry firsthand, notify the Border Patrol of attempted crossings (taking strict care, they say, not to confront anyone), and spotlight the growing problem in the Tucson area. Last year, agents apprehended 500,000 illegals along this stretch of border alone.

As evident by rallies this weekend in the small border towns of Douglas and Naco, the Minuteman idea has sparked wide debate about the motivation of participants, concern about their methods, and apprehension that confrontation with illegals could escalate into violence.

"We think there is a strong possibility of conflict and misunderstanding," says Eleanor Eisenberg, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which has trained dozens of volunteers to monitor the minutemen.

The US Border Patrol has also stated loudly that the minutemen will not help agents do their jobs. They worry about the civilian volunteers setting off ground sensors, complicating video surveillance, and creating security problems. "Having a large number of people walking purposefully around the areas of migrant trails is not beneficial to us," says Rob Griffin of the US Border Patrol's Tucson sector.

The minutemen say one goal is to draw attention to the underfunding of the Border Patrol. But officials counter they don't need the help: Last week, the agency's Tucson sector announced a 25 percent increase in staffing in Arizona, which includes 155 permanent personnel and 200 temporary. Twenty-three new aircraft are surveying the area as well.

Countering perceptions

The minutemen may have as much PR work to do about their own organization as they do about the Border Patrol. In advance of their highly publicized initiative this week, critics - including some state and federal officials - labeled some of the volunteers "vigilantes," "racists," and "white supremacists."

Clearly, the group is trying to dispel those perceptions. At rallies in Naco and Douglas over the weekend, volunteers waved American flags and stood politely outside Border Patrol offices. They provided biographies and explained their intentions. Most say they have sacrificed to be here. They have spent their own money on food and travel. Some are sleeping in tents or in dorm rooms at a local Bible college. Many are missing work.