Activists to flock to border, set up citizen patrols

Jim Gilchrist simply got fed up with the federal government when it came to addressing illegal immigration.

The California resident and former Marine who took a bullet during the Vietnam War says the Bush administration and Congress have failed to provide enough resources to the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau to stop millions of illegal migrants from flowing into the United States from Mexico.

A few months ago, Gilchrist put out a call for citizens to peacefully gather on the Arizona-Mexico border during April to monitor and report illegal immigration. Since then, the Minuteman Project-as it is called-has snowballed with national media coverage and international attention. More than 1,000 people, including 30 pilots with private aircraft, have pledged to set up camps along the border starting this Friday.

"I struck the mother lode," Gilchrist said. "It has already accomplished what we want to accomplish: nationwide awareness. And we haven't even started the project yet."

Many experts and government officials agree the nation's immigration system is broken. Estimates on the number of illegal immigrants in the country range from 8 million to 20 million, the vast majority of whom enter through the Southwest border. For fiscal 2004, the Border Patrol, which is part of the Customs and Border Protection bureau in the Homeland Security Department, apprehended more than 1.1 million illegal immigrants trying to cross the Southwest border. Comparatively, 20,000 people were stopped at the Canadian border and the country's coasts. T.J. Bonner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Border Patrol Council, estimates that the Border Patrol catches only between a quarter and a third of all illegal crossers. "We're just overwhelmed," Bonner said. "We don't have enough people to keep up with the volume of traffic."

CBP is on the verge of issuing a new national strategy for guarding the borders, said Border Patrol spokesman Jeff Benadum. It will call for more electronic monitoring with sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as flexibility to deploy agents more rapidly to weak spots.

Benadum said the Border Patrol's mission has changed since the 9/11 attacks from stopping contraband to preventing terrorists and their weapons from getting into the country.

"What the national strategy does is implement the change in our mission," he said. "It's a big picture view of our operational expectations for the next few years."

A Call to Action

Members of The Minuteman Project say their goal is to draw attention to illegal immigration and gaps in border security, while helping to secure the areas they monitor. Participants pledge not to make contact with illegal immigrants, only watch and report their activities to the Border Patrol.

Participants plan to set up 50 outposts-one for each state- from Douglas, Ariz., through parts of the Coronado National Forest and north to Tombstone. The main area of observation will be a 20-mile stretch of lowlands across the San Pedro Valley in Southeast Arizona.

Participants are expected to stay at their camps and monitor any movement of illegal aliens. If they see or hear people moving, they will attempt to identify their exact location using global positioning system equipment. They will also try to observe whether illegal aliens are carrying anything. They will then use shortwave radios or walkie-talkies to report activity to other outposts and central command centers located in the towns of Tombstone and Hereford. The command centers will notify the Border Patrol of the activity.

Additionally, long-range reconnaissance patrols-made up of small groups of mainly former military and Iraq war veterans--will stay in the desert for days at a time with walkie-talkies

Many of the Minuteman volunteers are expected to be armed, although organizers have prohibited them from carrying rifles. Only those people with a license to carry a handgun will be allowed to do so. Gilchrist said he expects participants to abide by all laws and regulations.

Participants say they support the Border Patrol and ICE, and do not oppose legal immigration. Rather, they argue that the agencies responsible for border security and immigration enforcement are understaffed and don't have enough resources.

"We hope that during the month of April, the number of apprehensions where we are dramatically declines," said Chris Simcox, one of the main organizers. "If that happens, we'll prove that an obvious presence of personnel on the border limits illegal immigration."

Gilchrist said the budget for ICE and the Border Patrol should be tripled, while more buffer zones, towers and personnel need to be placed along the border. He said he also wants Congress to put a 10-year moratorium on illegal immigration, and cap the number of legal immigrants allowed at 200,000 per year.

An International Affair

Last week, President Bush stepped into the controversy over border issues, saying he opposed the Minuteman Project.

"I'm against vigilantes in the United States of America," Bush said during a meeting in Texas with Mexican President Vincente Fox and Canadian Prime Minster Paul Martin. "I'm for enforcing law in a rational way. It's why we've got a Border Patrol, and they ought to be in charge of enforcing the border."

Simcox said Bush's statement was disrespectful to citizens who simply want to help solve border problems. "We challenge the president to join us and come down and see for himself what's really going on," he told CNN.

Fox has also expressed concern over citizen border patrols. He told reporters he was watching the Minuteman Project carefully and would take action in U.S. courts or international tribunals if any activists break the law.

"We totally reject the idea of these migrant-hunting groups," Fox said. "We will use the law--international law and even U.S. law--to make sure that these types of groups … will not have any opportunity to progress."

"We don't have any evidence or any indication either that terrorists from al Qaeda or any other part of the world are coming into Mexico and going into the United States," Fox said, countering recent statements made by senior Bush administration officials. "If there is any of that evidence, we will like to have it. But as I said, it does not exist."

Inside the Numbers

The Border Patrol has about 10,800 federal agents. Of that number, almost 10,000 are responsible for securing about 2,000 miles of land along the Southwest border.

Of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants caught by the Border Patrol last year, 52 percent crossed into the country in Arizona, according to the agency.

The area with the most apprehensions is the Tucson sector, which is where the Minuteman Project will take place. Nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended in the Tucson sector last year, up from 350,000 in 2003. The total caught in the Tucson sector now surpasses the total caught in New Mexico and Texas combined.

"A lot of resources have been given to the Arizona area because that has been the hotbed for the last two years," said Border Patrol spokesman Benadum. For example, the agency has increased the number of agents in the Tucson sector from 1,700 to about 2,100 over the last 18 months.

A year ago, DHS launched the Arizona Border Control Initiative, which provided increased personnel, aviation assets and security systems for the region. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, however, has been halted pending congressional review.

Benadum said the initiative is one of the primary reasons why apprehensions have increased in the Tucson sector. He said more resources would be added for the effort this fiscal year, but declined to elaborate.

Bonner, however, noted that as the government clamps down in one area, illegal immigration tends to spill into others. He said the surge of illegal immigration in Arizona began when the government cracked down in San Diego, and now the flow appears to be heading toward New Mexico and Texas.

In response to those concerns, Congress made available more border and immigration resources. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act authorized hiring 2,000 more Border Patrol agents each year for five years; hiring 800 additional ICE investigators each year for five years; and increasing the number of detention beds by 8,000 per year for five years. ICE currently has about 4,500 investigators and 19,500 detention beds.

The Bush administration's 2006 budget, however, only requests 210 additional Border Patrol agents and 143 new ICE special agents. That earned the administration a rebuke from Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the chair and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Collins and Lieberman introduced an amendment this month calling for $140 million to be added to the budget to hire 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents.

Michael Cutler, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and former immigration agent, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee earlier this month that he was at a loss to understand why the administration did not request more money for border and immigration security. He said ICE and CBP agents often put themselves in jeopardy to prevent illegal aliens from entering the country.

"They are not succeeding in this vital mission, as evidenced by the millions of illegal aliens who currently live within our nation's borders," Cutler said. "This is not because of failings for which the employees of ICE or CBP bear the responsibility, but rather because our government has consistently failed to provide them with the resources they need to make certain that this basic job gets done."

The Desert Heats Up

While the leaders of the Minuteman Project have pledged to be nonviolent and nonconfrontational, some observers are concerned that other groups will not abide by such rules.

Ray Ybarra with the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona said that hate groups, such as white supremacists, have indicated they are also going to set up camps along the border during April. Ybarra and others, such as immigrant rights advocates and human rights activists, fear the other groups will carry out crimes against migrants.

"When you get possibly a thousand people in the same place, if there are five or six people who disagree with what the leadership says, the possibility of them going off and doing their own thing is something to definitely be concerned about," Ybarra said.

Gilchrist acknowledged that other groups have indicated they are coming to the border. According to a report in The Washington Times Monday, members of the violent Central America-based Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have issued orders to teach "a lesson" to the Minuteman volunteers.

The ACLU had planned to place legal observers along the border to monitor interactions between citizens and migrants. Ybarra said the ACLU now is reconsidering because of the amount of hate mail and phone calls that it has received. Although a decision has yet to be made, Ybarra has submitted his resignation from the organization, saying he's going to do legal monitoring no matter what.

Ybarra said he expects to have about 20 observers at a time. They will take videos of any mistreatment and post them on the Arizona Independent Media Center Web site. "We're not there to be law enforcement," he said. "We're there to deter any abuses, document abuses, and highlight the real problems on the border."

Ybarra and other activists hope to raise awareness of another problem at the border: the death of migrants trying to get into the country. Last year, he said, 221 people died trying to cross the Arizona border.

"It's not that our society is being ruined," Ybarra said. "It's that our society isn't outraged that human beings are dying in our backyard."

Caught in the Middle

The Border Patrol is caught in the middle of the controversy. On the one hand, say patrol officials, people have the right to assemble on the border. On the other hand, the desert is a cruel, unforgiving place where citizens could encounter smugglers with weapons.

"I think community involvement from a law enforcement perspective is quite useful," said Border Patrol spokesman Salvador Zamora. "But when one person or a group of people try to take law enforcement into their own hands, or try to enforce any law, that is where we have concerns.

"We are going to be treating this with a very cautious … approach," he added. "We want to ensure that they, as citizens of the United States, have the right to gather. But we have to also ensure that no other rights are violated--even an undocumented alien's right to not be detained illegally."

Jose Garza, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, said federal agents have experience working with citizen groups and handling many difficult situations. He said the agency is not planning to change any operations as a result of the Minuteman Project.

Garza acknowledged, however, that agents might have to spend more time with each case. When an agent responds to a scene where a U.S. citizen has had any interaction with an illegal alien, the agent has to notify local law enforcement and wait for a response to see if a civil rights violation has occurred. Then, the agent has to transport the illegal immigrant to a holding area and contact a consular office from the immigrant's native country.

But Garza downplayed arguments the Border Patrol is overwhelmed. "We're never going to say we're fully staffed," he said, "but we are working with the office of Border Patrol headquarters to address these issues."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec