Released 22 September 2005  By DAVE MONTGOMERY - Knight Ridder Newspapers
Minutemen planning national action at U.S. borders
BY DAVE MONTGOMERY
September 21, 2005
Knight Ridder Newspapers
FORT WORTH, Texas - (KRT) - In late September 2004, retired CPA Jim Gilchrist was stopped at a red light in California traffic when the idea struck him: a force of citizen volunteers named after the Revolutionary-era Minutemen. Only instead of fighting British redcoats, these modern-day volunteers would be arrayed along the border to fight illegal immigration.
Gilchrist teamed with Chris Simcox, a newspaper publisher in Tucson, Ariz., to form the controversial Minuteman project, which drew nearly 900 volunteers to Arizona in April.
Now their effort is going national. In October, thousands of Minutemen will form a vigil stretching across much of the northern and southern borders.
Some Minuteman Civil Defense Corps volunteers are arriving early along the Texas-Mexico border in response to the Homeland Security Department's decision to temporarily shift some Border Patrol agents to the Gulf Coast to help in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. Minuteman organizers said in a prepared statement that the shift "leaves our country vulnerable to increased trafficking by illegal aliens and terrorists attempting to enter the United States."
Also showing up early are civil rights groups planning to stage repeated protests against the Minutemen in Texas over the next several weeks. More than 200 demonstrators marched in Austin last Saturday, chanting, "Racists go home!"
A group of about 50 Minutemen and supporters shouted back: "We are home!"
The expanding watchdog force - denounced as vigilantes by critics and hailed as public-spirited citizens by admirers - is just one manifestation of growing fears about the government's failure to adequately control U.S. borders.
Those concerns are expressed not just by the Minutemen, but also by the chiefs of the FBI and CIA, who have testified before Congress about the possibility that terrorists are crossing the border as easily as undocumented workers.
Democratic governors in New Mexico and Arizona have declared states of emergency because of spiraling drug trafficking and illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border. And U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican, is pushing legislation to create a citizen border patrol whose members would be deputized to make arrests and authorized to carry guns.
"I'm just flat fed up with the wide open borders and the full-scale invasion, as are my constituents," Culberson said in a telephone interview. "We need more manpower on the border."
Immigration is expected to be high on the list of unfinished priorities Congress might take up this year after focusing on Katrina reconstruction and response and on the confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. and an as-yet-unnamed second nominee to the Supreme Court. Senate leaders hope to produce a compromise immigration bill by early next year.
Two competing bills are under consideration in the Senate. Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona are calling for the creation of a temporary worker program but would require the more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States to return home before being eligible to apply.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the United States as guest workers by paying fines of up to $2,000. Those workers could also apply for green cards to become permanent legal residents, putting them on track for U.S. citizenship.
A renewed White House commitment to immigration overhauls enhances the prospects for congressional action. President Bush is expected to introduce a new immigration initiative that may call for a guest-worker program that would be open to illegal immigrants who came to the United States before February 2004.
The White House is reportedly trying to find a middle ground between business interests who want continued access to the immigrant work force and Republican conservatives who view the creation of a guest-worker program as amnesty for illegal behavior. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie are leading a Republican effort to court business support behind the president's emerging initiative.
Culberson's proposal, introduced just before Congress started its summer recess, adds yet another dimension to the debate through the proposed Border Protection Force, which would be commanded by border-state governors. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has given a lukewarm response to the measure. Militia members would serve as deputies to law enforcement officers and would be empowered to arrest illegal aliens.
Culberson said he proposed the bill because of what he called the administration's repeated failure to provide adequate manpower for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Nearly 50 House members, he said, have signed on as co-sponsors.
"I've given up trying to get the administration to hire enough border patrol agents and enforce the immigration laws," he said. "The quickest way to get boots on the ground is to call up honest Americans to serve as reserve deputy law enforcement officers," Culberson said.
Culberson said that although he admires the efforts of the Minuteman volunteers, he believes that a citizen force should be controlled by state government and organized as an appendage of law enforcement.
Bush and other administration officials have denounced the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps as vigilantes. Others accuse its members of racism. But even many of its opponents acknowledge that the group's widening support underscores the public's demand for overhauling immigration laws.
"It reflects an understandable frustration, at the local level, that we've got a broken immigration system," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. But she added, "I don't think it is going to contribute one iota to stopping people from coming to this country."
Minuteman leaders say they are playing a much-needed role, serving as eyes and ears for the overworked border patrol. Members must pass a background check conducted with a $50 application fee and are under strict orders not to touch an illegal immigrant or make an arrest. Minuteman officials say volunteers can carry weapons for self-defense in states where the practice is permitted by law, such as Texas.
The organization attracted international headlines when 849 volunteers fanned out along a 23-mile section of Arizona's border with Mexico in April. Buoyed by what its leaders called their successful opening venture, the organization will go to a far more ambitious stage, deploying volunteers in the four states along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico and in at least eight states bordering Canada.
The biggest turnout, said Gilchrist, will be in Texas, the nation's second-most-populous state, which shares a 1,254-mile border with Mexico. Minuteman chapters are in operation in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Houston and El Paso, and leaders are organizing elsewhere. They have also conducted training programs for prospective volunteers.
"It's a serious national security issue," said Fort Worth attorney Michelle Halloran, who participated in a Minuteman training session near Hillsboro last month. "I'm an ardent and fervent Bush supporter, but I'm dismayed about his unwillingness to do anything about it."
Connie Hair, a Washington, D.C., spokeswoman for the Minuteman organization, said that more than 8,000 people nationwide have expressed an interest in participating. Volunteers span the social and income spectrum, ranging from cab drivers to doctors and lawyers, with a strong concentration of retired law enforcement officials and military veterans.
Hair adamantly dismisses critics' portrayal of Minuteman volunteers as gun-toting racists. "When they don't have an argument, they hurl the race card at us," she said. "We don't want a racist. If you're racist, you need not apply."
The American Civil Liberties Union and other opposing groups are skeptical. Claudia Guevera, ACLU coordinator in El Paso, said that her organization plans to dispatch volunteers to monitor Minuteman participants "to make sure they don't violate anybody's rights."
Ana Yanez Correa, a minority rights advocate and one of the organizers of the anti-Minuteman march on the Capitol in Austin last Saturday, said she fears that the organization is motivated largely by racial prejudice. And because the Minutemen are not trained law enforcement officers, Correa worries that they'll have little or no regard for people's rights.
"Unless the public's rights are protected, there can be no public safety," Correa said. "These are going to be people with guns stopping and detaining people they think are illegal aliens. Not everyone who looks like an illegal alien is an illegal alien."
The Commissioners Court in Cameron County, along the Texas-Mexico border at Brownsville, adopted a resolution last week denouncing the Minutemen's planned presence on the border.
"The safe and legal passage of immigrants and foreign visitors to Cameron County is important to the civic life of our county," the resolution reads. "The future growth of Cameron County depends on the continued good will of our brothers in Mexico."
Gilchrist, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Aliso Viejo, Calif., and is now a congressional candidate, said he has clearly succeeded in sparking a national debate.
He said he conceived the idea to create "national awareness" to the flow of illegal immigrants, guns, drugs and contraband across the nation's porous borders. He said he sent out 24 e-mails and asked recipients to forward them to others. Within a week, Gilchrist says, he got responses from 400,000 people.
The structure of the organization has changed since the Arizona campaign. Simcox is in charge of the patrol operation, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and Gilchrist runs a sister organization, the Minuteman Project, to campaign against companies that hire illegal aliens.
"The plan worked out much better than I anticipated," Gilchrist said, looking back on the group's starting point. "I tapped the mother lode of patriotism with that e-mail."
(Knight Ridder correspondent John Moritz contributed to this report.)
2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.