What 'minuteman' vigil accomplished

A volunteer network's effort to close part of border slowed illegal immigration - in one small area.

Retired pilot Joe McCutchen spent three weeks, $6,000, and put 4,600 miles on his car driving round trip from Fort Smith, Ark., to the Arizona border. In between, he spent 14 days in a folding chair, buffeted by wind storms, face- cutting sand, freezing cold, and scorching sun.

He says he'll be back to do it again in October.

"The terrain and weather were utterly brutal," says Mr. McCutchen, who spent eight hours a day manning lookout posts. "I have a new sense of compassion for the illegals who are being exploited by both countries ... and the Border Patrol that is not being given what it needs to do the job properly."

The volunteer Minuteman Project finished its month-long vigil on a 20-mile strip of the Arizona-Mexico border this weekend, claiming success in its two-fold mission of highlighting the issue of illegal immigration in the US and showing that the border could be effectively closed with proper manpower.

In the end, the civilian patrols proved not to be the disruption that many critics had predicted - even the Border Patrol, which had been skeptical, said there were few mishaps between illegal immigrants and the citizen volunteers. But neither did it offer conclusive evidence that a human dragnet, no matter how large, could shut down the entire US-Mexican border.

For one thing, some 900 volunteers were involved in watching just a 20-mile stretch of desert. To extend the same manpower to the entire 1,400-mile border would require more than 60,000 people - and probably a permanent presence, experts note. Moreover, reports indicate that some Mexicans and other would-be immigrants were avoiding this stretch of Arizona while the lookout was going on.

Nonetheless, organizers of the initiative believe it laid the foundation for a much broader vigil from California to Texas in October. Some 14,000 have already signed up for it. Future plans might include monitoring the northern border as well - in Vermont, Michigan, North Dakota, and Idaho.

"We established a beachhead in Arizona and now we are going to conquer the whole island," says James Gilchrist, cofounder of the project. "We did in 190 days of planning what all of the lobbyists couldn't do in 10 years and Congress couldn't do in 40 years - effectively protect the border from incoming illegals, terrorists, and drug traffickers."

Gilchrist and cofounder Chris Simcox say an additional tier of activism will now focus on boycotting US businesses who knowingly use illegal labor - what organizers claim is the main magnet attracting undocumented workers across the border. Both boycotts and border-watching will require the building of a permanent, national organization, they say.

"We found we need a much larger organizational structure that can deal with the numbers of citizens across the country whose imaginations have been sparked by this," says Mr. Simcox. "The time has come for a civil defense type movement in the absence of a government which can meet the basic needs of citizens."

One question from here is how a broader initiative would impact the Border Patrol and what the political repercussions might be. Organizers say they have gotten support from many Americans for their effort to dramatize the problem of illegal immigration, and the group could - wittingly or not - embolden a larger backlash to illegal immigration on other issues.

But backlashes can beget backlashes and, already, some officials in border towns are concerned about what a slowdown in migration could mean for local economies. Moreover, civil-rights groups remain concerned about the motivations of some of the activists.

"I don't think these guys are all evil racists or anything. I just think the fact they see every migrant coming across as an object and as something to fear that is going to ruin our society is scary," says Ray Ybarra, a spokesman for the ACLU who spent 28 days monitoring the project.

Still, to those on both sides of the issue, the Minuteman Project's initiative in Arizona came off largely without incident. Both the US Border Patrol, which was concerned that volunteer citizens would create problems for agents, and the ACLU, which worried that conflicts would ensue in encounters with illegals, now say the activists weren't overly intrusive.

"The month came and went and we are grateful that there were no major incidents to report, no one got hurt or killed," says Salvador Zamora, spokesman for the US Border Patrol. Early reports in US media and continued coverage by Mexican media created the wide impression that gun-toting vigilantes would be using physical force.

The Border Patrol does not encourage such actions by citizens, and says the minuteman volunteers and media presence "tripped off ground sensors and created distractions ... but nothing we were not able to overcome," says Mr. Zamora.

He says the vigil generated 1,100 phone calls to the Border Patrol and 2,000 apprehensions. Those statistics appear to differ from the minuteman's own statistics which claim that 335 apprehensions were directly facilitated by their volunteers who observed illegal crossings and called the Border Patrol. The difference can be accounted for by the number of possible calls by local residents.

Minutemen claim the 20-mile corridor directly patrolled by their volunteers dropped illegal crossings to from an average of 800 to 13 per day.

"The minutemen brought the problem of illegal immigration and the lack of support that the Border Patrol here gets from Washington," says Mike Albon, spokesman for Tucson Local 2544, a union of local Border Patrol agents. "We didn't have any problem with them and know of no incident to prove they were wackos and racists and supremacists."

Besides organizing continued vigils and boycotts, Gilchrist and Simcox met with Congressmen in recent weeks, telling them of their plans and issuing an ultimatum.

"We told them no compromises ... you will secure the border with National Guard or military or by deputizing or privatizing ... or we will continue these efforts," says Simcox. "The current Border Patrol with one guy covering five miles doesn't cut it. We need static observation posts 40 yards apart, with technology and sensors and we need obvious manpower on the border."

Now that the volunteer manpower has withdrawn, residents in the area already notice an immediate uptick in the numbers of illegals. Interviews with Mexicans in the border towns of Naco and Nogales show that thousands were just biding their time until the well-publicized event passed and are now set to continue their nightly attempts to cross.

Evencio Garcia, a 22-year-old carpenter from Veracruz, Mexico, says he has been biding his time until the Minuteman Project is over, to try and get back into the US.

"I can work here [in Mexico] for 11 hours a day, six days a week and maybe make 600 pesos ($60 US dollars), or I can make it to Iowa and make about $400 a week," says Evencio, standing on a main street in Naco, Mexico. The town stores have been socked hard by the Minuteman Project he says, with perhaps 1,000 fewer visitors per day staying away since Mexican media saturated the airwaves with news of armed US "vigilantes."

But not all border residents were sorry about the quiet streets.

"The minutemen did a great job of shutting off illegal immigration here, as long as they were here," says Dawn Walker Garner, who lives on a five-acre farm near the border. "Now they are gone and the crossing have started up en masse again."

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