Private volunteers patrol a porous border

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: Do you know the facts behind Arizona's immigration law? Take our quiz.

"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 piñon 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.

"I'm easily giving up tens of thousands because I had to shut down two projects to be here for two weeks," says Scott Smith, who runs a real-estate consulting firm in Maryland. "I'd like to be here longer, but I can't afford it."

Organized nationally over the Internet, the group is fairly diverse. It ranges from blue-collar workers (construction, truck drivers, labor unionists) to professionals (teachers, chemists, engineers). There's a large contingent of veterans and career law-enforcement officials. Some 40 percent are, organizers say, women and minorities. Many are retired.

"The people here are really middle America, not one side or the other of the political and social spectrum," says Barbara McCutchen, a former school teacher and advertising saleswoman from Arkansas.

She and others say their concerns are practical rather than race-based - principally, worry about terrorists entering the US and the high cost of providing social services to illegals. They also see illegal immigration adding to crime and prison expenditures.

Some quote studies showing 500,000 illegals residing in Arizona alone - costing $1.3 billion in education, healthcare, and criminal justice. "That's nine percent of the state population," says Randy Graf, a former state representative who has been helping organizers. "The costs add up and up."

Volunteers say the impact shows up not only on government balance sheets, but in backyards. Kerry Morales, who came from Laredo, Texas, says she gets 200 illegals a day across her 80-acre ranch. Bands of illegals have broken into her house, attacked her numerous times, and damaged her property by leaving gates open, letting horses escape. Two dozen child abductions have been reported in Laredo in recent years, she says, with cross-border Mexicans demanding ransoms of $10,000 to $20,000.

"I want to bring attention that for people like me, there is physical danger," says Ms. Morales, who is married to a Hispanic. "The fact that our opponents are calling us racist and extremist is completely untrue."

Some complain about a diminished quality of life from illegals moving into communities from Oregon to California, Florida to the Carolinas. They decry the unfairness of giving illegals privileges that other immigrants have waited years to get.

"My son married a South Korean and they followed all the rules and it took two years," says Richard, a retired construction worker from Ventura, Calif., who declined to give a last name. "Why should we give privileges to people who just come across and blatantly disregard our system.?"

A double standard?

Tim Donnelly, who runs a small manufacturing supply company in Twin Peaks, Calif., says California has set aside $67 million for college tuition for illegals who have spent three years in high school, while active US military who move to the state must pay higher out-of-state tuition.

"I find that prejudicial and discriminating to military and legal immigrants," he says.

Wayne Holland, a novelist from Orange County, Calif., says the effects of illegal immigration on his state can be seen from the trash across the landscape that used to be pristine. Fifteen years ago, Mr. Holland participated in a San Diego rally in which 1,000 cars shined spotlights on the border to highlight the problem of illegals cutting through backyards. "That rally never really went any further because the numbers weren't there," he says. "Now we are seeing the problem grow to other states and people."

Whether the month-long vigil will have any effect is the source of great debate. Some say the initiative has gotten so much press that few illegals are likely to attempt entry in this region at this time.

But participants are at least heartened that illegal immigration is getting a closer look. "The national attention to this is beginning to shift," says Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, a speaker at one of the rallies.

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