Monday, January 24, 2005

A retired California businessman has 240 volunteers ready for a 30-day aerial and ground surveillance campaign on the Arizona-Mexico border to highlight what he calls the government’s failure to control illegal immigration.

But law enforcement authorities warn they may be putting themselves in danger.

James Gilchrist, a combat-wounded U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran, said the “Minuteman Project” will field volunteers from 37 states, many of them ex-military and law enforcement personnel, to man observation posts and a communications center, along with seven pilots from Arizona who will provide aerial surveillance.

Billed as “Americans doing the job Congress won’t do,” the project — which will begin April 1 — is intended to showcase inadequate border- and immigration-enforcement policies by the U.S. government, Mr. Gilchrist said.

“We hope to bring enough attention also that we can send a message to our leaders in Washington, D.C., that this is our country, too,” he said. “This border issue is about all 50 states, not just Arizona or Texas. It’s about our Constitution and how it applies to all of us.

“We’re looking for this nation to again be guided by the rule of law, not a nation ruled by an endless mob of illegal aliens streaming across our borders like a tsunami, a culture shock that someday — perhaps soon — we will have neither the manpower nor the will to stop,” he said.

Despite a Web page that refers to the Minuteman Project as a “blocking force against entry into the U.S. by illegal aliens,” Mr. Gilchrist said there are no plans to detain or confront the aliens. He said the volunteers, who will live in tents or recreational vehicles along the border, will seek only to spot them with binoculars, telescopes and night-vision equipment as they enter the United States and report their position to the Border Patrol.

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Michael Nicely, who heads the Tucson, Ariz., sector, is concerned about their safety, noting that the U.S.-Mexico border is “a dangerous environment even under the best of circumstances.” He said well-equipped and highly trained law-enforcement personnel have found the border to be a “hazardous place.”

“We are always concerned about civilians who put themselves in danger,” Chief Nicely said. “People certainly have the right to demonstrate to make a political point, and we will not interfere with that, but they are absolutely not equipped to deal with the border environment.

“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what could happen,” he said, noting that alien smugglers in the area often are armed and have not hesitated to confront Border Patrol personnel. “It could be a very [volatile] situation, one that reasonable people ought to avoid.”

Chief Nicely said he has not talked with project organizers and has no operational plan to deal with those who set up surveillance operations on the border. He said his agents would respond to the volunteers based on operational priorities.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, whose jurisdiction includes the targeted border areas, has met with project leaders and understands their desire to highlight border and immigration enforcement efforts, but warned that the volunteers have to act within the law.

“I have no doubt these are well-intentioned and good-hearted people who have recognized a just cause in securing and protecting our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration,” Sheriff Dever said. “But their methods and their intentions should not and cannot manifest themselves in illegal ways.

“And there is the potential for conflict,” he said, noting that 40 percent of Cochise County is privately owned and many of the ranchers and other property owners “don’t want to be someone else’s playground.”

Sheriff Dever said he also warned the leaders of the potential for conflict with alien smugglers, who seek to operate under the “cloak of concealment” but could become a real threat if confronted.

“They are willing to violently challenge law enforcement personnel, so I assure you they’ll take on anybody. The potential for violence is very real, and I issued all the cautions I possibly could,” he said.

A key focus of the project will be a 20-mile stretch of border lowlands in the San Pedro River Valley, 90 miles southeast of Tucson. It has become a high-traffic corridor for illegals headed north because it has water, fairly level ground, places to camp and wood to burn.

About 10,000 illegal aliens cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day, more than 3 million a year, mostly in Arizona. Only about a third of them are caught.

Mr. Gilchrist said all Minuteman Project volunteers underwent a screening process before they were accepted to weed out those “with bad intentions.” He said it would be “a true disaster and an embarrassment for this mission to fail because we didn’t attract the right people.”

“We don’t want the guys in white sheets and hoods, the militants or the supremacists. Many of the applicants were told thanks, but no thanks,” he said. “In the end, I believe we will bring serious media and political attention to the shameful fact that 21st century minutemen/women have to help secure U.S. borders because the government refuses to provide the manpower and funding required to do so.”

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