Supporters call them visionaries, patriots. Critics call them racist, xenophobic. Both President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox call them vigilantes. With tongue in cheek, they call themselves "undocumented border patrol agents." They are the Minutemen, a group of more than 1000 volunteers that began patrolling a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border on April 1.
Irritated with the federal government's attempts to curb illegal immigration and drug trafficking, these citizens have formed what co-founder Chris Simcox calls, "the nation's largest neighborhood watch group." According to their website, they are "a grassroots effort to bring Americans to the defense of their homeland." But in a climate of increased xenophobia and national unease, could the Minutemen be hurting more than they are helping?
The Minutemen have selected one of the most vulnerable stretches of the border to patrol, between Douglas and Naco, Arizona. Douglas is a principal port of entry for narcotics. Due to the sheer volume of illegal activity in this area, law enforcement officials are concerned that the project will lead to violent confrontations between the Minutemen and dangerous smugglers, or even accidental confrontations between armed volunteers and authorities. The Border Patrol criticizes the Minutemen for tripping sensors in the desert, which are intended to alert authorities of possible illegal border crossings.
Minutemen project organizers do not support or engage in the arrest or detention of anyone. As they claim, volunteers are armed only to protect themselves. They even carry water and supplies to supposedly provide aid to anyone in need, even those suspected of illegal activity.
The Minutemen have argued that the goal of the project is not to arrest or detain, but instead to observe and report. Volunteers survey the area using private aircraft and binoculars, alerting authorities of suspicious activity. According to the Border Patrol, they have received 317 calls from the area patrolled by the Minutemen, resulting in 846 arrests, but they will not say whether these calls came from volunteers or not. Project spokesmen say their patrols have resulted in 268 arrests so far.
Legally, the Minutemen have every right to do exactly what they are doing. The right to assemble and the right to bear arms are both protected under the First and Second Amendments, as well as by Arizona state law; which is why, according to Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, they have not been stopped.
By the same token, the Minutemen do not disagree that the job they are doing should be performed by law enforcement officers. They insist however that the federal government is not stepping up to the plate. As vocal critics of the government, they also claim that neither republicans nor democrats are willing to secure the border for fear of losing votes. According to the Minutemen, democrats fear alienating minorities, while Republicans fear alienating business owners who hire illegal immigrants. The Minutemen thus feel obligated to pick up the slack created by what they see as a political stale-mate.
"This whole event has transformed my view of my role as an American citizen," says Minutemen volunteer Tim Donnelly. Donnelly and other volunteers are putting pressure on congress and the White House to get serious about securing our border.
But critics doubt that the project will lead to any lasting change in immigration or border patrol policy. The root of the problem, according to the National Border Patrol Council, is the fact so many businesses continue to employee illegal immigrants with no fear of retribution.
Co-founder Jim Gilchrist agrees. Recently, he announced that when the Arizona patrols end on April 30, the project will move into its second phase - publicly exposing businesses who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Project organizers also intend to expand into other border states, and finding volunteers should be no problem - according to Gilchrist and Simcox, the organization has received over 10,000 phone calls from citizens who want to join their cause.
But, what of the accusations of racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy? Project organizers insist that they refuse to accept volunteers with racist tendencies, or those who have known ties to separatist organizations. They point to the ethnic diversity of the volunteers themselves. Thus far, no evidence has been brought to light that would support such accusations against the Minutemen.
The Minutemen recognize a porous border as an open door for terrorists, or those who would do harm to our country and its citizens. Last year, about 65,000 people "other-than-Mexicans" were arrested crossing into the U.S. illegally from Mexico - 20,000 more than in 2003. According to the Minutemen, this is a problem we must start taking seriously, or we risk another devastating attack on American soil. It has nothing to do with racism, the Minutemen say. It has to do with homeland security and respect for the rule of law.
And according to those citizens who live along the 23-mile stretch of border, the Minutemen Project has been a welcome change for most. While some residents are concerned about a potential increase in violence in their own backyards, many consider the volunteers tourists, a potential boon for the local economy. And according to one woman who lives in a heavily trafficked area, "Our dogs used to bark all night at the people who were sneaking in illegally. Since the Minutemen have been here, our dogs have stopped barking, and my family can sleep soundly at last."