Two weeks after their deployment along a 37-kilometer section of the Arizona/Mexico border, the civilian group calling itself the Minutemen is claiming success. The Minutemen take their name from a group of civilian volunteers in the 18th Century US war of independence. Group leaders say smugglers and immigrants are avoiding the border because of the volunteers' presence, but their critics disagree.
Every few hundred meters along the barbed wire fence that separates the state of Arizona's Cochise County from Mexico just east of the town of Naco, there are U.S. citizen volunteers sitting in lawn chairs or in pickup trucks keeping watch, day and night. For the past few weeks, human traffic through this area has slowed and Minuteman leader Chris Simcox says this shows that the U.S. government could bring an end to illegal entries along the 3,000 kilometer border. "If Washington would fully fund Border Patrol and give them the manpower they need to follow the model we just set up, then it would stop," he said.
But Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame, says there may be other reasons why immigrant and drug smuggling activity has slowed in the past couple of weeks, including Mexican army activity on the other side of the line. "Any time the Mexican military begins operations in a certain area, it basically shuts down the border. We hardly get any intrusions and our apprehensions drop significantly. That is what is happening right now. It is hard to gauge if these civilians out here are having an impact on illegal immigration or if it is the military," he said.
The Minutemen dispute this notion and say that Mexican police and army have probably increased their activities in the area in response to their presence.
Mr. Adame also expresses concern for the safety of the civilian volunteers. Some of the 700 or so Minutemen are armed with handguns and could find themselves in a dangerous situation if drug smugglers come into their area. Agent Adame says smugglers carry far more powerful weapons than handguns. He says smugglers recently fired from the Mexican side of the border at Border Patrol agents here in Naco.
"We were basically pinned down because they were probably using AK-47's [automatic assault rifles], that is what they use down there, and they had us all pinned down. It wasn't until we were able to get assault rifles out there from agents right here at the station that we were able to get them to move away from the border area," he said.
But Minuteman Chris Simcox says that incident only serves to prove the point his group is trying to make. "You mean the Department of Homeland Security has admitted that they have not been able to secure our borders? The Department of Homeland Security admits that, three years after September 11 that Americans are not safe on American soil? Mission accomplished," he said.
Civil rights and Hispanic groups on both sides of the border accuse the Minutemen of taking the law into their own hands and acting as vigilantes. "What the Minuteman Project is doing, and other vigilante groups, but particularly the Minuteman Project, is creating this false hysteria about what is happening on the border. They are distracting policy makers from real solutions to the failing border and immigration policies, which would be a comprehensive, real immigration reform proposal," said Jennifer Allen represents the Border Action Network, based in Tucson.
Ms. Allen is also critical of government efforts to secure the border, noting that there has not been a single case of a terrorist trying to enter the United States by crossing the border from Mexico. She calls increased spending on border security ill-conceived. "From a border community perspective, they are just bombarding this region with more and more enforcement that is a waste of money and further erodes the basic human rights and civil rights of the people who live here and the immigrants who are coming into this country and sustaining the economy of this country," she said.
Recent polls show that most Americans support increased border protection. As for the Minutemen, reaction to their project has been mixed, even here along the border. Many ranchers and homeowners in the area applaud them for helping to prevent damage to their property and threats from criminals who normally frequent the border zone. Many other Arizonans, however, view the Minutemen as outsiders who should take their protest elsewhere.
Chris Simcox says that is what they plan to do. He says once the deployment here at the border wraps up at the end of this month, the Minutemen and other anti-illegal-immigration groups plan to picket companies that hire undocumented workers and put pressure on lawmakers in Washington to address the problem.