DENVER — Fed up with illegal immigration and eager to send a message to federal lawmakers, hundreds of volunteers from across the nation will spend the month of April patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border, helping to apprehend migrants coming into the U.S.
"This is a direct challenge to President Bush," said Chris Simcox, an organizer of what's being called the Minuteman Project. "You have continued to ignore this problem. Our state officials, senators and congressmen will do nothing. So this is a last-ditch effort to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves."
Arizona is the nation's busiest gateway for illegal immigrants, with about 580,000 arrests last year -- more than in California, Texas and New Mexico combined. Most of the activity occurs in the southeast part of the state near Tucson. Last year, Arizona received $10 million in federal aid and hundreds of additional border and customs agents. Many immigrants now choose to go through New Mexico, but traffic in Arizona remains high.
Simcox -- the founder of Civil Homeland Defense, which runs its own border patrols -- said 416 people from 41 states had volunteered to take up positions between the Arizona towns of Naco and Douglas and around Coronado National Forest. A rally is planned for April 1, when organizers expect 2,000 people to park their cars along the border, forming a gantlet to repel illegals.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Volunteer border patrols -- An article in Section A on Wednesday about volunteers planning to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants said the Tombstone Tumbleweed, a weekly newspaper, was in Tumbleweed, Ariz. The newspaper is in Tombstone, Ariz.
"We have a no-contact policy. We are acting only as eyes and ears," said Simcox, who also runs the Tombstone Tumbleweed, a weekly newspaper in Tumbleweed, Ariz. "We work within the law. We spot and find illegal immigrants and report them to the Border Patrol."
The Minuteman Project was launched in October by James Gilchrist, a retired accountant from Aliso Viejo, Calif.
"We want to bring national awareness to the illegal alien crisis," he said. "For years, people have been cringing in the corner like mice, afraid to speak out because of political correctness. I think a lot of Americans feel they have been muzzled, and I have tapped into that."
Gilchrist said he'd been overwhelmed by the response to his project in Arizona but wanted to be sure those taking part were not troublemakers.
"We are worried about being framed down there, so we want to vet everyone who is coming," he said. "If anyone causes trouble, they will be asked to leave."
Federal agents and local officials also have expressed concern.
"We worry about any person or private group that takes the immigration laws into their own hands," said Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. "This is a violent area. We deal with drug smugglers every day. We don't want to say we don't want the public's help; we just don't want it in this format."
Adame said it was fine for civilians to report illegal immigrants, but detaining them would raise legal problems.
"These people need to be aware that we will forward any violations of the law to local prosecutors," he said.
Douglas Mayor Ray Borane has called the citizens' border effort racist. "You are going to get every misfit, everyone with a warrant out for their arrest, everyone who needs new scenery or climate out here," he said. "If they come into this community, it could lead to an international incident."
Douglas, an 86% Latino town of about 14,000, sits across from the Mexican city of Agua Prieta. Mexicans routinely shop in Douglas, and the lives of the two communities often intersect. Americans have family on the Mexican side, and vice versa. Douglas officials deal with their Mexican counterparts on a variety of issues, including business, schools and law enforcement.
But Borane believes the illegal migration is out of control and that the presence of vigilante groups demonstrates how bad things have become.
"As long as the government doesn't address it, it will lend itself to these sorts of things," he said.
"The solution is political and diplomatic. I don't know what it is, but they can't just let it fester down here."