April 19, 2005
When the Minuteman Project launched April 1 in southeast Arizona, headlines around the world touted a band of civilian volunteers who promised to patrol a 23-mile stretch of the Mexican border for one month as a direct challenge to federal immigration policy.
Now, project organizers say they don’t need 30 days to make their point. The Minuteman Project will end Wednesday as leaders prepare to take their case to Washington, D.C. Remaining volunteers will be encouraged to keep patrolling with a Tombstone-based group called Civil Homeland Defense.
Minuteman Project leaders said Monday their cause has captured the nation’s attention, and that they must take advantage of this opportunity.
But critics say the Minuteman Project is ending 10 days early because organizers can’t keep the effort going.
Lead Minuteman organizer Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant from California, plans to speak next week to the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.
‘‘The operation is continuing, but it’s not under the Minuteman Project,’’ Gilchrist said. ‘‘There’s nothing for us to do here.’’
The Minuteman Project’s Web site says 720 people have gone through the group’s training and completed at least one 8-hour patrol somewhere in the San Pedro Valley.
The Web site also says 280 illegal border crossers have been detained because of volunteer reports to the U.S Border Patrol by radio and cell phone.
Monitors said the number of volunteers has dwindled from several hundred in the first few days to less than 20 this past weekend.
"I would imagine they have run out of steam and they have run out of supporters," said Rep. Ben Miranda, D-Phoenix.
Still, the Minuteman Project has defied the most dire predictions of violent clashes and racism.
Volunteers have generally avoided any confrontations with illegal immigrants, armed smugglers or federal border authorities.
One volunteer, Bryan Barton, was sent home April 8 after he offered a migrant food, water and money, and then convinced him to put on a T-shirt that read "Bryan Barton caught an illegal alien and all I got was this lousy Tshirt." The migrant later complained he was detained by the volunteer against his will, but local law enforcement officials filed no charges after viewing a videotape of the encounter.
The controversial effort also continued to attract publicity Monday. Sean Hannity, a nationally syndicated conservative talk show host, was scheduled to broadcast his nightly Fox News program from near a patrol location on the border. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said earlier Monday he planned to join Hannity. Hayworth also praised project volunteers for keeping their protest nonviolent.
"It was a well thought out effort to draw attention . . . for the federal government to resume its rightful and constitutional role in securing the border," Hayworth said.
The U.S. Border Patrol confirmed claims by project organizers that illegal border crossings between Naco and Douglas have dropped significantly since April 1. But Andrea Zortman, spokeswoman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, said the decrease was connected to a higher number of Border Patrol agents, and a heavy presence by Mexican authorities to protect the civil rights of illegal immigrants.
Project volunteers actually created more work by falsely tripping border sensors more than 150 times, Zortman said.
"They were a complete hindrance," Zortman said. "With the civilians out there on patrol, out there wandering around, not only were they destroying the footprints of the smugglers, they were destroying evidence that the smugglers leave behind."
Meanwhile, the number of detentions and border crossings has been climbing in the western Arizona desert since Oct. 1, said Zortman and other critics of the Minuteman Project.
"People are still immigrating here," said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-hoenix. "They are just not doing it along Border Road outside of Douglas. They are going to other places."