NACO, Ariz. - Civilian border patrols used to be viewed around the U.S. as crackpot publicity stunts by the extreme fringe of the immigration control movement.
They attracted relatively little notice and almost no support outside of the communities where they took place in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
That has dramatically changed this year with a whirlwind of political and media attention leading into Friday’s start of the Minuteman Project in Cochise County. The number of "unauthorized border agents" has bloomed, and their demands for stricter federal enforcement are being broadcast from coast to coast.
Dozens of project volunteers and supporters who turned out Saturday for a rally just outside this tiny border town pointed to one factor: The symbolism and reality of Arizona’s Proposition 200.
"It was a win," said James Ibbotson, a 72-year-old construction worker from Huntington Beach, Calif. "A lot of people have been working on this thing to no avail for years. Now, we’ve got a win in our favor."
Others said the initiative targeting illegal immigrants was a tipping point that brought this approach into a national media spotlight, which in turn carried news of citizen border activism to a much wider audience.
Voter approval in November of Proposition 200 wasn’t a surprise — at least to observers within Arizona. The U.S. Border Patrol reports that more than half of its 1 million arrests for illegal crossings take place along the Arizona border. Political polls show widespread public dissatisfaction with how federal and state governments have coped with the problem.
Many people expected the courts to strike down the initiative as they did California’s Proposition 187, which was intended in 1994 to block a wide array of government services for illegal immigrants.
Instead, Proposition 200's survival has inspired a wave of other legislative proposals to add more programs and agencies that would be affected. New immigration control groups — modeled after Protect Arizona Now, the grassroots organization that helped bring Proposition 200 to the ballot — also have popped up in several other states.
"Prop. 200 is creating an earthquake across the nation, and you can see the (political) landscape changing because of it," Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, told a crowd of volunteers Friday in Tombstone.
The official goal of the Minuteman Project is to recruit volunteers to stand watch during April along southern Cochise County, and to report suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
Project leaders admit their effort, at best, might only create a temporary pause along a relatively short stretch of the border.
Many volunteers said the project serves more as a political message to President Bush and influential lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. They take credit for the White House’s decision to send another 500 border agents to Arizona this year.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said in mid-March that any proposals for reforming the U.S. visa system will be stymied until Americans feel more confident in border security.
"They see the lack of enforcement effort and they say, ‘Why should we believe a new law is being enforced when the current laws aren’t being enforced?’ " Kyl said. "That’s a tough question to answer.
"We can point to a lot of progress, but there’s still so far to go, you can’t tell people with a straight face that the federal government is doing all it should. It simply is not."
Still, highly aggressive steps against immigration — many Minuteman volunteers want military units to be assigned to the border — face severe criticism in both the U.S. and Mexico.
On Friday, a group of more than 100 Mexican residents marched to the Naco port of entry to protest the Minuteman Project.
"The Minutemen are attacking (illegal immigrants) for doing the work that supports the economy of the United States," said Isabelle Garcia, a member of a Tucson human rights group that helped organize the march.
"No human being deserves to be treated this way."