Group calls attention to illegal immigrants

Minuteman Project's activities at border prompt controversy

April 17, 2005|By Michael Coronado | Michael Coronado,THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

DOUGLAS, Ariz. - After one week of scanning the desert for illegal immigrants, Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist declared success.

The number of migrants crossing the desert has fallen. Word is out in Mexican border towns that the Minutemen are watching. And the federal government is paying attention.

Still, not everyone is happy with the 1,000 or so volunteers who pledged online to show up in Arizona to search for illegal crossers.

Border agents say the volunteers are complicating their job - and costing taxpayer dollars every time an agent responds to a tripped border sensor, courtesy of the Minuteman Project.

All this and three weeks left to go.

This month, volunteers from across the country converged in Arizona for the project, fed up with what they see as the government's inability, or refusal, to protect the nation's borders.

On April 2, Border Patrol agents made 344 arrests near Douglas. A day later, on the eve of planned Minuteman patrols, agents made 178 arrests. The decrease was a result of stepped-up Mexican patrols, said Andrea Zortman, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Agents say the dip in apprehensions isn't because of Minutemen. Historically, when Mexican troops increase patrols, the number of crossings decreases, which is the current case, Zortman said.

From April 1 to 6, the Border Patrol says, it stopped 1,630 illegal immigrants crossing in the Douglas area. Minuteman leaders couldn't say how many of those arrests were the result of their efforts.

Opponents also joined the debate, though in fewer numbers, holding silent vigils in protest of potential migrant abuse and posting legal monitors to stand alongside the Minutemen to ensure no one's rights were violated.

At the end of April, most of the Minutemen will leave, as will many of the migrant-rights advocates. Until then, both sides will stamp their impressions on southern Arizona, which has transformed into the center of the immigration debate.

Some scenes from the border:

One is a retired accountant. The other is a small-town newspaper editor.

Both share a passion for sealing the borders and reforming the country's broken immigration policies, they say.

Jim Gilchrist, an Aliso Viejo, Calif., resident, founded the Minuteman Project after listening to a radio show one day. On the way to Starbucks for coffee, he thought up the Minuteman name.

Chris Simcox, a Tombstone, Ariz., resident, has taken out search groups for years as part of Civil Homeland Defense, a similar but much smaller Minuteman-like effort he leads.

Both leaders drank in the attention. They joked, offered sarcastic rebuttals to journalists' questions and warned that the "media can be your enemy."

When one reporter asked what kind of planes the Minutemen would be flying, Simcox replied, "F-16s," to the applause and laughter of fellow volunteers. And so it went for the first week.

Tombstone

Wyatt Earp must have rolled in his grave this month.

Rugged Tombstone, the town called "too tough to die," found itself the center of the illegal-immigration universe.

At the site of the infamous OK Corral, there were real cowboys and fake cowboys, real guns and fake guns, newspaper reporters, TV cameramen, miles of cable, European tourists, damsels, horse-drawn carriages, photographers, Arizona Rangers, a congressman, and a fleet of satellite trucks that resembled small tanks.

Media at times outnumbered the Minutemen.

Goal No. 1 was complete for the project's leaders. The Minuteman Project had become a "victim of its own success," Gilchrist said.

The world was watching.

Vigils, vigilance

Poetry slams. Volleyball games. Silent protests.

Opponents of the Minuteman Project also came armed to the desert, with signs, slogans and events, hoping to draw attention to the plight of migrants.

Armando Navarro, a University of California at Riverside professor, led a contingent of Southern California students and human-rights advocates into Arizona to protest what they called the politics of violence and hate.

At the border, a few legal observers with the ACLU watched the watchers. As of week's end, there had been no trouble, authorities reported.

Earl's mission

Soft-spoken Earl Schweitzer was like a lot of the Minuteman volunteers who showed up in Arizona to search the desert.

The Orange, Calif., resident didn't carry a gun or shout vitriol against Mexicans. He was retired and felt a calling to drive his trailer into the desert and watch the borders, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

People have it all wrong about the Minuteman volunteers, he said, glaring through a spotting scope: "They aren't the radicals they're made out to be."

He'll man his post, near a hissing natural-gas line, for 30 days. It's not too bad, actually. He's made new friends, and the desert can be a peaceful place.

"We heard Rush Limbaugh today," he said with a smile.

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