PALOMINAS, Ariz. - After a week camped near the Mexican border as part of a loose-knit volunteer patrol, brothers David and Robert Hogan, mild-mannered engineers who drove 23 hours from their hometown in rural Illinois for this, had yet to spot an immigrant crossing illegally into the United States.
Undaunted, if somewhat sunburned, the Hogan brothers took this as a good sign. Their relatively quiet tour last week along what is considered one of the most porous parts of the U.S. border with Mexico was proof, they said, that the monthlong citizen watch known as the Minuteman Project worked.
Not everyone agrees. Exasperated Border Patrol officials say any drop in illegal crossings in this stretch of rugged mountains and open desert during April was due mainly to their own increased efforts. Local leaders and civil rights activists who monitored the controversial volunteer corps dismissed it as a bumbling publicity stunt.
"It was no more than a block party," said Ray Borane, mayor of the small and predominantly Hispanic border town of Douglas, Ariz. "They were doing no more than spending some time in the country out there."
But as the patrol wound to a close, with the self-styled border guards packing up their folding chairs, binoculars, two-way radios and, in many instances, their handguns, even skeptics acknowledged that the effort had sent a stark signal about growing frustration over the nation's immigration laws.
Spurred by security concerns after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and fears that a flood of illegal immigrants is hurting low-wage American workers and straining public schools and hospitals, the issue in recent years has stretched well beyond border states and now looms as a growing political issue in Washington.
Last month, the Senate rejected a proposal by GOP Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho to grant amnesty to an estimated 500,000 illegal farm workers. Another battle is brewing over plans to construct a fence along the Mexican border and overturn laws in nine states that allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, a proposal inserted by House Republican leaders into a must-pass spending bill that will fund the Iraq war and tsunami relief efforts.
The efforts reflect growing concerns that have led states to take their own actions. In California, complaints that social services provided to illegal aliens had contributed heavily to the state's budget woes helped fuel the successful 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. In Arizona, voters approved Proposition 200 in November, requiring proof of legal immigration status for individuals seeking to vote or apply for state benefits, such as food stamps.
Others, including former Los Angeles kindergarten teacher Chris Simcox, want tougher actions - such as National Guard troops deployed along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
More than two years ago, Simcox launched what he called the Civil Homeland Defense project from the offices of the weekly newspaper he now operates in Tombstone, Ariz. That volunteer patrol effort grew into the Minuteman Project, and, over the past month, it has spotlighted some of the deep unhappiness and anger on the issue of immigration.
"He has tapped into, with this kind of street theater, a very deeply held disquiet among a lot of Americans, simply because their concerns really haven't been addressed," said John M. Keeley, director of communications for the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
At a rally across the street from the White House last week, a crowd of about 100 advocates for stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws greeted Simcox with loud cheers and chants of "Thank you! Thank you!" as he launched a weeklong lobbying effort.
"If the president won't do it, we will," Simcox, 44, said as he pledged that the volunteer patrols would expand this year to other border states, including New Mexico on the southern border and Michigan to the north. "There's only one way they can send us home, and that's when the Humvees full of National Guard troops and U.S. military pull up and relieve us of duty."
But in Arizona, Simcox's troops were preparing to head home last week. The Minuteman Project, launched April 1, was intended from the start to be a monthlong project. One of the primary organizers, James Gilchrist of southern California, declared "unconditional victory" at the Arizona border on April 18 and said he was turning his attention to employers across the country who hire illegal workers.
By the middle of last week, a few dozen patrols were stretched along the border, although the project claimed to have recruited nearly 900 volunteers and to have assisted the U.S. Border Patrol with more than 300 apprehensions and to have helped sharply reduce the number of illegal crossings along Arizona's southeastern border.