BISBEE, Ariz., April 4 -- Penny Magnotto and Gayle Nyberg stood at their post on a forbidding stretch of desert road, staring down the seven strands of barbed wire separating them from Mexico.
The Southern California women had risen at dawn in their makeshift quarters at a nearly defunct Bible college to join scores of other volunteers from around the country on the first official day of a highly symbolic crusade. Their mission: to monitor the flow of illegal immigrants crossing into the United States and to do their legal best to stop it. So they stood ready -- binoculars, walkie-talkie, sunblock, water -- and gazed at the motionless landscape of sand and brush.
U.S. Border Patrol agents patrol on ATVs along the U.S.-Mexico border near Douglas, Ariz., where Minuteman volunteers have staffed posts.
(Fred Greaves--For The Washington Post)
"If we see any immigrants, we'll first radio someone, and then call Border Patrol," said Nyberg, 56, in a camouflage jacket.
"We can ask them if they'll wait," explained Magnotto, 61, in a red, white and blue windbreaker, "but we can't touch them."
But had they seen anyone on this stretch of border, the illegal entry point for hundreds of thousands of immigrants a year?
Well, no, they said. Not yet.
With the start of the Minuteman Project -- a combination "civilian patrol" and immigration protest -- officials with the U.S. Border Patrol were reporting a sharp drop in the number of illegal crossers apprehended along a stretch of border said to be the most porous in the nation.
Organizers of the effort -- decried by President Bush as "vigilante" activity and by Mexican President Vicente Fox as an "immigrant hunter" -- claimed an early victory. "We've completely locked down the border," said Larry Morgan, a volunteer from Long Beach, Calif. Sightings of 24 potential crossers were reported to authorities, Minuteman organizers said.
But border officials and others said the decrease probably had less to do with Minuteman vigilance than a military patrolling effort on the Mexican side of the border -- not to mention the boisterous protesters, counter-protesters and satellite-equipped TV trucks gathered on the usually desolate dirt road between Douglas and Naco, Ariz.
"Migrants aren't crossing here, that's the effect," said Scott Kerr, 29, a worker with Christian Peacemaker Teams, a relief group that leaves water and food for immigrants trying to cross the treacherous, dry terrain. "Some days we'll encounter hundreds. Today we didn't see any."
The full impact of the Minuteman Project remained elusive Monday. Organizers said more than 400 people had arrived over the weekend for orientation sessions and rallies, the first wave of the 1,300 volunteers they expect to participate in some part of the month-long desert vigil.
Thus far, there were no immediate signs of the white supremacist gangs or other troublemaking groups that local officials feared would be drawn by the event, and no reports of clashes or violations.
But the event also seemed much smaller than advertised. Organizers had promised to place teams of monitors at quarter-mile or half-mile intervals along a 23-mile length of border. But by midmorning Monday, all of the visible activity was clustered around a two-mile stretch, where a dozen or so teams were stationed. Organizers said others were as far as three miles back from the border or stationed in canyons, away from the dirt road.
Even as they gazed out at the border with binoculars, many of the Minutemen acknowledged that making a point was their true purpose.