LOS ANGELES -- The call went out last autumn the way they do these days, in Internet forums and forwarded e-mails: Are YOU interested in spending up to 30 days along the Arizona border as part of a blocking force against entry into the U.S. by illegal aliens early next spring?
The men who put out the call -- a small-town Arizona newspaper publisher and a retired Southern California accountant -- were frustrated by what they viewed as the federal government's inability to police its vast desert border with Mexico. So, they argued, why not enlist volunteers to help?
Michael King of American Border Patrol, a citizen watchdog group that posts images from the U.S.-Mexico border to draw attention to illegal immigration, rides along the border in Arizona.
(Paul Connors -- AP)
The Minuteman Project, set to begin tomorrow in Tombstone, Ariz., had no trouble finding any. About 1,300 people are expected to show up for some part of the month-long protest, say the organizers, who hope to place them at half-mile intervals to monitor a 23-mile stretch of border said to be the most porous in the nation.
"You sit here on a hilltop, and you watch people walk unabatedly into this country," organizer Chris Simcox said. "It's shocking."
But the project's unexpected popularity is raising serious safety concerns among federal and local officials and watchdog groups fearing it will attract extremists or spark violent confrontations. Postings about the event have been spotted on white-supremacist Web sites, and fliers from hate groups have been found in mailboxes in recent days.
"They are going to draw every misfit, every renegade, everyone with an ax to grind about ethnic preference," said Ray Borane, mayor of Douglas, Ariz., a border town that will be ground zero for much of the month. "They are not welcome here."
Across the border, Mexican President Vicente Fox has condemned the program, calling it an "immigrant hunter." President Bush echoed those concerns last week.
Simcox, 44, of Tombstone said he has been screening out volunteers with any criminal record and will hold participants to a "strict no-contact policy" -- if they see anyone trying to cross the border, they are to call the U.S. Border Patrol, he said.
He and fellow organizer Jim Gilchrist of Aliso Viejo, Calif., have also toned down some of the rhetoric, now advertising the event as less of a civilian patrol than a "political rally and protest" meant to draw national attention to their cause.
They say it is working: Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced it will assign 500 more patrol agents to the Arizona border, a 25 percent increase, some of them immediately. Border Patrol officials, though, say the announcement has no connection to the Minuteman Project and simply comes in line with recommendations from intelligence officials.
The protest will take place along a stretch of Cochise County -- a jurisdiction the size of Connecticut with a population of about 130,000 -- that has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate in recent years. Of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants the Border Patrol apprehended nationwide last year, one-fifth were found in Cochise County. Some residents complain that the relentless traffic has disrupted their quality of life, describing shoot-outs, property damage and a swath of debris left behind by immigrants.
"All night long, there's dogs barking, there's helicopters, there's Border Patrol running up and down the road," said John Waters, a restaurant operator in Palominas, Ariz., who supports the Minuteman Project.
Simcox, who moved to Tombstone a few years ago and bought the local paper "when I couldn't get the mainstream media to cover the issues," has organized other volunteer patrol efforts, though officials dispute his claims of apprehending hundreds of illegal immigrants. He scoffs at the idea that his event will be populated by racist vigilantes, describing instead a corps of volunteers in floppy hats and lawn chairs.
"A majority of volunteers are senior citizens, former police officers, veterans -- concerned citizens who understand this is a political protest," he said.