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Volunteers to Patrol Border Near San Diego

May 05, 2005|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Invigorated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's praise for the Minuteman Project in Arizona, a Chino group says that it has enlisted hundreds of volunteers to patrol the Mexican border near San Diego this summer.

Organizers are hoping that Border Watch will keep the national spotlight on what they see as a failure of the Bush administration to secure the country's borders from illegal immigrants and terrorists.

"This is not about race," said Andy Ramirez, 37, chairman of Friends of the Border Patrol. "It's about protecting America's borders."

Ramirez, whose grandfather was a Mexican immigrant, said he had collected more than 300 applications from former military personnel, police officers, customs agents and others. Volunteers will not confront illegal immigrants, he said, but will report their location to the Border Patrol.

Opponents, including the ACLU of Southern California, worry about the potential for violence and escalating racial tensions. They denounced the citizen brigades as vigilantes and questioned the campaign's motives.

"I think the only reason behind this effort is to get media attention," said Christian Ramirez, director of the San Diego office of the American Friends Service Committee, a peace and social justice organization. "The Minuteman Project was very successful in selling the concept that they were protecting the nation and supporting Border Patrol agents.... It was a publicity stunt."

The first training session is scheduled for June, but patrols won't begin until August because of the need for extensive planning, organizer Andy Ramirez said.

The Minuteman Project, which ended its armed patrols in Arizona last week, is supporting the new effort and helping gather volunteers.

Minuteman leaders called their operation a success and took credit for a drop in the number of illegal immigrants crossing into the United States. They said the project resulted in the detention of nearly 350 immigrants along the 23 miles of the Arizona border where the group patrolled. But Border Patrol officials said the decrease in crossings was more likely the result of the Minutemen's presence combined with other factors, including the intense media attention they generated on both sides of the border, as hundreds of journalists flocked to the area.

The Bush administration also deployed additional agents to Arizona, while the Mexican government deployed troops on its side.

Last week, Schwarzenegger, speaking on a radio show, declared that the Minutemen had "done a terrific job" and that the "federal government is not doing their job." But President Bush has denounced the activities of the group.

Border Patrol officials fear that the California volunteers would put themselves at risk trekking through the region's treacherous terrain. They said the citizen patrols may encounter those smuggling drugs or people, which could cause the agency to divert its resources to aiding the volunteers. "If these people, well-intentioned individuals, camp out along the nation's border, they could come up against or be confronted by these dangerous individuals," said Border Patrol spokesman Salvador Zamora. "We cannot allow them to physically put themselves in a situation where they have no out except to defend themselves physically or call for law enforcement support."

The Border Patrol encourages citizens to watch for suspicious behavior and to call the agency with any tips, Zamora said, but not to actively go out and search for illegal immigrants.

California's Border Watch will differ from the Minuteman Project in part because of the topography of California. Small groups of citizens will monitor and observe along the coast and in the mountains and deserts in an effort to deter illegal immigrants and smugglers. Only those with concealed weapons permits will be armed. The group is also recruiting pilots to fly private aircraft over the border and medics to help volunteers during the summer heat.

"This is not going to be a picnic," Andy Ramirez said. "This is not about volunteers sitting on beach chairs with a pair of binoculars looking south."

Bruce Stirling, who owns a mortgage company in San Diego, has signed up for Border Watch and said he plans to patrol on horseback. Stirling said he believed that the effort would continue raising awareness about the nation's "porous borders" and the economic effects of illegal immigration.

"Were not a bunch of bad guys," he said. "We're just observers."

Immigrant rights groups, meanwhile, are making their own plans in anticipation of the volunteer brigades. They intend to stage prayer vigils and peaceful protests. They also plan to monitor the activities to ensure that no one illegally detains immigrants or impersonates federal agents.

"It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense" for the patrols to come to San Diego, said Claudia Smith, border project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "This is where the Border Patrol resources are concentrated."

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