Construction worker John Peaslee drove 100 miles from Kern County to cheer, wave an American flag, and send a message to the US government to "close the border, period."
Microbiologist Heather Evans took the morning off work to "stand up for the US Constitution ... without which we will lose the American culture, country, and values," she says.
Lyman Stucky will dedicate the next two weeks and "a few tanks of gas" to caravan all the way to Washington to "urge people to stand up and encourage others to do what's right: Obey the law, that's what makes America great."
Their passions high, members of the Minuteman Project set off from Los Angeles Wednesday on a cross-country trip that they hope will be a counterpoint to the immigrants-rights rallies that have lately flooded the streets of American cities. The group, which has dispatched hundreds of volunteers to patrol the US-Mexico border to help prevent illegal crossings, filled only a handful of cars, small trucks, and minivans at the outset - but insists that a majority of Americans are fellow travelers when it comes to controlling immigration.
"The immigrants have put a million on the streets in recent days, woop de doo," says Steve Eichler, executive director of the Minuteman Project, who was at the departure site, and is on the caravan trip. "We will put 10, 20, 30 million voters on our side at the ballot box."
Recent polls would lend credibility to that assertion. A Zogby poll taken May 3 found that 71 percent of Americans feel that past border enforcement efforts have been grossly inadequate" while only 19 percent say the US has made a "real effort" to enforce such laws. By a 2 to 1 margin, likely voters prefer the "enforcement only" House bill that passed in December to current Senate proposals, which legalize illegal immigrants currently in the US and increase legal immigration quotas.
At the caravan launch, the group expressed outrage about the recent protests in the streets of American cities, and is encouraging others to join them in support for minutes, hours, or days.
"We are going to speak out all across the south about what I call the Trojan Horse invasion of the US," said Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist, to a gathering of perhaps 300 people in the Crenshaw section of Los Angeles. The Minutemen gathered in a black neighborhood to show the "devastating" impact illegal immigration is having on local employment, the activists say. The caravan will pass through 12 cities in 10 days, stopping to rally followers with speeches. It will end up in the US capital May 12. At the second rally in Phoenix Wednesday night, about 300 participated. Caravan participants will demonstrate Saturday in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush's vacation ranch is located.
"We are trying to continue the momentum we built last year with border vigils," says Mr. Gilchrist, a former Marine. "We proved how Congress has refused to listen to the will of Americans ... [by] continuing to allow this massive illegal incursion into our country."
The group of volunteers has helped push illegal immigration to the forefront in America, some experts say.
"I think that the Minuteman Project is at least indirectly responsible for what we are now seeing in the streets of America with millions of immigrants protesting," says Luis Cabrera, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. "The message really got out that the borders are broken and that the president and Congress aren't doing what it takes," he says. "That contributed in turn to [the passage of] the House bill that would make it a felony to be in the country illegally."
In April 2005, Gilchrist organized about 1,500 volunteers along the Arizona border. Last year, Gilchrist ran for Congress in California's 48th District and placed third, earning about 25 percent of the vote. Since his group's founding, similar projects in California, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Oregon have continued to put pressure on Congress to tighten US borders.
Mr. Bush has labeled the Minutemen a vigilante group, and several border watchdog groups say it has increased fear, tension and misunderstanding at the border. "Adding vigilantes to the high tension that now exists at the border with smugglers and you create a potentially dangerous mix," says Erica Dahl-Bredine, who works on the Mexican side of the border for Catholic Relief Services in Tucson, Ariz.
Immigration experts say the number of Minutemen and supporters remains unknown. Mr. Eichler claims 200,000 have signed an online pledge. Some members say only about 8,000 have participated in border vigils or rallies, and that only a few hundred may be active at any one time.
"They've done a lot more with the smoke and mirrors than actually turning out people," says Louis DeSipio, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine.
That doesn't bother Susan Herweck, a Chicago banker who met the Minutemen on the state capitol steps in Phoenix.
"I am thinking of starting up something like this back in Chicago," says Herweck, visiting her father in Phoenix. Her daughter is married to a Hispanic legal resident. "This has gotten much worse in the past decade," she says, citing graffiti, gangs, and crime. "If they want to come over legally, we will welcome them with open arms," Herweck says, repeating an often heard comment by Minutemen participants.
Though some see poll numbers that support the Minutemen as a direct, negative reaction to the immigrant rallies across the US, many observers see a debate that will help reform US immigration policy.
"I don't think there is anything we can do to stop either side of this debate," says Ernesto Nieto, director of the National Hispanic Institute. "Transient, quick solutions won't stop the waves of protests we are seeing. The nation is being redefined."