Illegal immigrants cross the wire fences of the US Mexican border every night. Now 2,000 volunteers are to begin their own patrols to keep them out. Paul Harris reports from Tombstone
Sunday March 27, 2005
Chris Simcox looked with satisfaction at the TV screen in his tiny office in the backstreets of Tombstone. A flickering video showed a score of ghost-like figures in the eerie glow of a night-vision camera, climbing one-by-one over a simple barbed-wire fence and into the United States.
'They just keep on coming,' Simcox said, shaking his head at the video memento of one of his private border patrols. 'They' are illegal immigrants from Mexico, unaware they had been filmed until they were picked up and shunted back across the border.
For three years Simcox and a handful of friends have been fighting what they see as a flood of immigrants. They are about to get a lot of company. On Friday perhaps 2,000 volunteers, many armed and some from conservative militia movements, will converge on Tombstone.
They will come equipped with guns, private planes, horses and night-vision goggles. They will then seek to patrol a long stretch of the border in direct confrontation with the US authorities who have asked them not to come.
The plan - dubbed the 'Minuteman Project' after heroes of the American Revolution - has caused huge upset across the country. It brings with it the threat of violence on the border, either from the militiamen or a criminal Hispanic gang which has sworn to oppose them. It has caused a political scandal in Mexico and strained international relations between the US and its southern neighbour.
But Simcox is holding firm. For him, and the hundreds of Minuteman volunteers, the huge numbers of illegal immigrants in the US is too important a cause. 'Our leaders have abandoned their own people,' he said.
The Minuteman scheme is the brainchild of James Gilchrist, a retired Californian accountant. Working with Simcox, he has collected a huge database of volunteers who are coming for all of April to southern Arizona. April is the height of the 'migration season' in the border deserts, when the days are still cool enough to avoid the killer heat that claims many immigrants each year.
Gilchrist said that all the volunteers will be committed to peacefully spotting, following and reporting any illegal immigrants they find. They cannot detain anyone. 'This was not a call to arms. This is not a war zone.' he added. 'We don't want any whackos.'
Despite those peaceful intentions, the Minutemen do look a little like a private army, an impression reinforced by the volunteer in Simcox's office wearing a pistol in a shoulder holster.
The Minutemen will include at least 40 pilots and up to 16 aircraft. They aim to patrol day and night with teams of four to eight people, wearing an unofficial uniform and carrying walkie-talkies. They will set up observation posts along the border. 'We want to show that sheer presence of numbers will deter illegal immigration,' Simcox said.
Opponents fear an outbreak of violence. Michael Nicley, head of US Border Patrol in the sector where the Minutemen will operate, has called it a 'recipe for tragedy'. The Reverend Robin Hoover, of local relief group Humane Borders, said: 'It looks destined to deteriorate into some form of confrontation.'
The Minutemen have become a great cause among white supremacists, including the notorious Aryan Nation. Though organisers screen all volunteers for links to extremists, there are fears some will descend on the area. The Hispanic criminal gang MS-13 has said it will try to attack the Minutemen.
Added to all this are the smuggling gangs along the border, who can be brutal. Last year one Arizona border resident angered smugglers who then peppered his home with bullets before burning it to the ground.
Less threatening are civil rights groups who will follow the Minutemen. They see the project as a thinly disguised white attack on the growing influence of Hispanics in the US. 'Now is the time for Latinos and Mexicanos in particular to make a call for unify ing action against this incredible threat that represents itself in the form of the Minuteman Project,' said Armando Navarro, leader of the National Alliance for Human Rights, which plans to go to Tombstone to protest against the Minutemen.
Simcox said that is unfair. He says about 10 per cent of volunteers will be from ethnic minorities and that in the past three years his patrols have saved the lives of scores of illegal immigrants found seriously ill or dehydrated. 'We are not racists. We just want immigration to be legal and controlled,' he said.
Even the quickest glimpse of the border shows what a mammoth task that would be. For many miles, it is a simple 5ft barbed-wire fence a child could climb in seconds. The brutal desert on either side is the same dusty scrub, already starting to heat up as the brief desert spring ends. Tracks on the Mexican side lead right up to the fence itself.
The hard facts tell a simple story: patrolling has failed. A year ago that authorities pumped millions of dollars into boosting border security in Arizona, with 260 more agents, 28 vehicles, two spotter drones and two helicopters. Sensors were buried in the soil to detect humans near by. Yet illegal immigration rose.
Southern Arizona is now the main path of a 'human pipeline' from poor Mexico to rich US. Last year half a million illegal immigrants were caught here, up 41 per cent on the year before. It is thought the Border Patrol may only catch one in three. Arizona is now home to an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants in a state with a population of just 5 million. The US as a whole has 11 million.
Last week George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox discussed immigration; it has also impacted on terrorism concerns. Republican senator Chuck Hagel, a possible future presidential candidate, visited the Arizona border town of Nogales and saw a series of sophisticated tunnels under the border used by illegal immigrants, smugglers and, possibly, infiltrating terrorists.
However, the US economy welcomes illegal immigrants even as politicians rant against them. Low-wage illegal immigrants are the backbone of many companies. In some cases, crackdowns on illegal workers have been opposed by companies wishing to protect their bottom line. Border Patrol agents constantly arrest illegals and push them back over the border. On the Mexican side, police provide advice on how to cross without danger.
But it is also a situation of deep tragedy. Hoover's group maintains a series of watering stations in the desert to save those dying of thirst. It does not always work. Last year 172 bodies were found, up from 151 in 2003. Many others are doubtless never discovered.