WASHINGTON - The Bush administration will deploy more than 500 additional Border Patrol agents to Arizona to deter illegal immigrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said Tuesday, even as a self-appointed civilian group was preparing to launch its own patrols.
An announcement scheduled for today will bring top Homeland Security officials from Washington to a cavernous hangar at an Air Force base near Tucson, home to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft that patrol the border.
The display of federal prowess and technology will come just two days before hundreds of volunteers with an ad-hoc patrol known as the Minuteman Project commence their border protection campaign. Roving patrols of civilians, including some individuals who may be armed, will attempt to spot illegal bordercrossers and call in federal officers to make arrests.
‘‘President Bush called the Minuteman Project a bunch of vigilantes — but if it’s the case that this (federal crackdown) did start because of the Minuteman Project, then the project is a success,’’ said Bill Bennett, a spokesman for the group in Tombstone. ‘‘I find it very interesting that this is all coinciding.’’
Federal officials insisted that the timing of their announcement had nothing to do with the Minuteman Project, although they acknowledged a strained relationship with the group. ‘‘We’re the front line,’’ said one Homeland Security official.
With the peak border-crossing season approaching, federal officials said that their announcement reflected a new phase of the Arizona Border Control Initiative begun last year.
The 370-mile Arizona border is considered the most vulnerable stretch of the 2,000-mile southern border. Of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol last year, 51 percent crossed into the country at the Arizona border.
When the deployment is complete, about 3,000 Border Patrol agents will be assigned to the 370-mile Arizona frontier, mostly harsh desert terrain. About 150 of the new agents will be sent immediately.
Unmanned aerial drones of the sort used by the military in Afghanistan also are expected to return to the skies above Arizona in coming months, an official said. The drones were tested last year but are not now flying.
In addition to the border agents, investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement will redouble efforts to disrupt smuggling networks by identifying key leaders and going after their financial assets.
Critics say the campaign is just the latest edition of an annual crackdown that few believe can stop the flow.
‘‘The whole thing is a shell game,’’ said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents agents. ‘‘They are trying to convince the American public that they are doing something, when they’re doing very little.
"The timing is suspicious," Bonner added.
Arizona officials said they welcomed the attention, but would withhold judgment until they saw some results.
"This is part of what needs to happen at the border," said Jeanine L’Ecuyer, spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Napolitano.
"The governor is anxious to see whether this is more than a response to immediate things. . . . The Minutemen is the most obvious thing that comes to mind."
"Increased border enforcement is one piece of the puzzle, so this is welcome news," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "However, we cannot solve this problem with border enforcement alone. We need a comprehensive temporary-worker program, and Congress needs to begin working on a proposal."
In February, Mexico sent the U.S. government a diplomatic note in which it asked American officials to ensure migrants’ rights are respected.