Dozens of volunteers with the anti-illegal immigration group known as the Minutemen spent their Memorial Day holiday in the hot sun along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, building a fence to stop illegal crossings. The action has drawn praise from some sectors north of the border, but it is viewed with hostility by many Mexicans.
While the immigration debate continues in Washington, the Minutemen are working to secure at least some small sections of the border on their own. They are constructing a fence - modeled in part on a barrier in Israel - along a 16-kilometer stretch of the border that is on private land.
The owner of the land, rancher Jack Ladd, says he invited the private volunteer group to build the barrier because of the constant flow of immigrants and drug smugglers across his property. He says the illegal entrants routinely cut cattle containment fences and that the U.S. Border Patrol has not stopped them.
A bill passed by the House of Representatives in December would provide more funding to the Border Patrol and finance the construction of a much larger fence along sections of the 3,000-kilometer border. But the Senate last week passed a bill that had less emphasis on border protection and would create a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. A conference committee consisting of members from each house of Congress is expected to begin work on a compromise bill in the weeks ahead.
Supporters of more security on the border, who cite fears of terrorism as well as the mounting cost of providing social services to illegal aliens, laud the Minutemen for their action, but Hispanic groups and immigrant rights organizations condemn them.
The Catholic bishop of the Mexican border city Ciudad Juarez, Renato Ascencio, told Mexico's Televisa television network that he believes the Minutemen will not succeed in stopping illegal crossings of the border.
He said the Minutemen are "xenophobic" people backed by millions of dollars whose effort to impede legalization of immigrants and block the border will ultimately fail.
In Mexico, news reports routinely refer to the Minutemen as "racists" and "xenophobes." Mexican officials have also called them anti-immigrant vigilantes, a charge the Minutemen reject. Vigilantes, by definition, are people who take the law into their own hands, while the Minutemen say they keep watch on the border and call on the Border Patrol to make arrests.
One of the volunteers on hand at the Minuteman fence construction this weekend was Quetzal Doty, a retired U.S. consular officer who served in Africa, Asia and Europe. In a VOA phone interview, Doty said his concern about illegal immigration is connected to the more than 20 years he spent helping people around the world enter the United States through the legal process.
"I feel that the Minutemen are like myself, we are not anti-immigrant, we are anti-illegal," said Quetzal Doty. "Most of the time the laws are fairly well represented and they should be followed. People who break the law should have to pay a penalty for it rather than being rewarded."
Doty says legalizing millions of undocumented workers would put people pursuing the legal immigration process at a disadvantage. He says it would be difficult for the United States to allow more immigrants from Africa and Asia if Congress opens the door to even greater numbers from Mexico and Latin America. More than half of the illegal aliens currently in the United States are from Mexico.
But critics of the Minutemen question the value of their occasional patrols on the border and the construction of a fence that will pose very little impediment to border crossers. The Minutemen have raised $380,000 for border fencing, but the numbers of volunteers who have shown up at such events as this past weekend's fence-building project pale by comparison to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters who took to the streets last month to demand legalization.
Doty admits that the Minutemen actions are largely symbolic, but he says they can have a real political impact.
"The president did say he thought fences were needed along the border," he said. "He did not say the entire border, but he does seem to be coming around to our way of thinking."
President Bush has called for better enforcement of the border, but he also favors a guest worker program to match immigrants with employers who cannot find enough workers here in the United States. He also wants a path to legalization for immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for several years.
Lawmakers in Washington, struggling to reconcile the House and Senate immigration bills in one comprehensive piece of legislation, will be hard pressed to please both the immigrant advocates and the groups, like the Minutemen, who favor better border enforcement and oppose what they see as an amnesty for illegal immigrants.