By Margaret Talev
April 04, 2005
In four-member teams, they rode out caravan-style for several miles along red-dirt roads flanked by rocks and prickly brush. They fanned out hundreds of yards apart along a skimpy barbed wire fence at the Mexico border, eager to catch men and women trying to sneak into the United States.
This was the trial run for the Minuteman Project, a month-long civilian border patrol for which more than 1,000 Americans from across the country have signed up against the objections of the federal government and immigrant rights advocates. The group's formal patrolling effort, with volunteers working eight-hour shifts around the clock, began Monday. If the weekend shift was any indication of what's to come, though, these volunteers may go home disappointed.
The 20-mile stretch of border they're canvassing here in southeastern Arizona is perhaps the most traveled crossing into the nation for illegal immigrants. It is part of a 261-mile sector where, on an average day, federal agents say 2,300 people are caught trying to cross. But on this day, the area seemed so heavily monitored on the American side by the so-called Minutemen themselves, U.S. Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement, and on the other side by Mexican authorities - and Mexican media coverage and leafleting has been so thorough _ that organizers were expecting few "illegals," as many here call them, to be making a run for it.
One group of Minutemen - a Texan and an Idahoan who are brothers-in-law, and a married couple from California, all four of them middle-aged whites _ invited a reporter to join them for their afternoon shift. They felt the news coverage so far was bent on portraying them as racists or radicals without bothering to get to know them or considering the legitimacy of their concerns, and they looked forward to an opportunity to demonstrate otherwise.
While their recipes for discontent varied slightly, they cited common themes: A feeling that the United States is on the decline and illegal immigration is only exacerbating the trend, by depressing wages, dragging down neighborhoods and schools, increasing crime and costing taxpayers money.
A suspicion that President Bush and prior administrations are half-heartedly enforcing immigration policies, either to accommodate businesses that want to hire low-wage workers or because they lack the political will to withstand accusations of racism from the left.
A frustration with the Mexican government for not improving its own economy enough. And a fear that Islamic terrorists could be entering the United States from Mexico.
"I used to be a liberal. I voted for McGovern," said Ivan Dunnick, 57, a rancher from Bonner's Ferry, Idaho. "I like Mexican people. I like Mexican food. I like Mexican culture. I'm not worried if they come in, in a flow where they're assimilated. Everybody comes from somewhere."
But Dunnick argues the sheer volume has forced the United States to depress the levels of legal immigration it allows from around the world.
"They're stealing other countries' rights to be here," he said. "Used to be you had to have a skill, something to bring to the country to enhance it, rather than someone willing to pick lettuce. I don't think we need 30 million lettuce pickers. I'd like to see some doctors, some engineers."
"I'm not against any of these people, I taught them," said Nancy Hubbard, a former Peace Corps volunteer and retired special education teacher fromTemecula, Calif. "But I just think it's out of hand.
"It's destroying America," said her husband, Lynsey, who makes orthopedic braces and artificial limbs.
Nancy Hubbard talks about how the government won't pay for many of her handicapped brother's medical costs.
"I'd like to see my brother get a wheelchair lift rather than an illegal alien get a free education," she said. "I just think you've got to take care of your own."
An estimated 11 million undocumented residents now live in the United States, according to the latest report by the Pew Hispanic Center. More than half are from Mexico, and, in recent years, about four of every five immigrants coming from Mexico are undocumented.
Arriving at their lookout point, the foursome sets out lawn chairs, raises American and state flags, slathers on sunscreen. They took out their binoculars. They wait.
Across the border, orange trucks, which a volunteer over the radio identified as medical relief crews patrolling for migrants in need of water or care, could be seen driving back and forth. At one point, a handful of people huddled near some train tracks, but when a slow train passed, they were still there, and wearing white T-shirts, meaning they probably were volunteers from church or civil rights groups, dispatched as legal observers to make sure things didn't turn violent.
Two hours in, an excited crackle came across the radio from down the hill.
"We've got a whole group of illegals running up to the fence," a voice said.
After several seconds of confusion and excitement, another voice came over the radio. "They're not illegals, they're Mexican reporters," the voice said.