TOMBSTONE, Ariz. – Against a backdrop of mock Old West shootouts and vigilante justice icons, more than 100 volunteers arrived Friday to join or support citizen patrols of Arizona’s border with Mexico, condemning the Bush administration for allowing an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.
Many participants, traveling from several states, said they would set up observation posts on the border starting Monday and throughout April to scout for illegal migrants and their smugglers, using cell phones to alert the Border Patrol. At least several volunteers were carrying sidearms Friday and indicated they would carry the weapons during their patrols, organized by the Minuteman Project, a recently formed group that opposes illegal immigration.
Organizers estimated Friday’s turnout at 400 people, though a headcount showed only 100 to 150 at most, significantly below the 1,300 who had registered on the Minuteman Project’s Web site. Organizers explained the discrepancy by saying scores of the participants shunned the national media coverage and opted to sit out the kickoff.
Still, Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant from Orange County, Calif., and several supporting Republican lawmakers found an energized core of volunteers who cheered in a frontier-era hall during speeches that denounced the “failed” border policies of President Bush.
Though Bush has characterized the volunteers as vigilantes, group leaders and lawmakers called them patriots. But the Minuteman organizers reminded participants not to break the law while scouring the border area for illegal crossers. The group will also hold rallies this weekend on the border.
“You are American heroes,” Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, told an assembly of about 100 volunteers, mostly white men age 40 and over. “You’re not vigilantes.”
Chris Simcox, owner of the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper and a chief Minuteman organizer, said the nation was watching.
“Hold the line, but hold your ideals up before your personal gratification,” Simcox said. “It would be hypocritical of us to go out and break the laws that we’re asking the government to enforce.
“The government unfortunately cannot allow us to succeed,” he added, suggesting that he believed federal officials may stymie the citizen patrol effort.
While leaders and participants said they welcomed this week’s federal announcement of additional Border Patrol agents and surveillance aircraft in Arizona, they said they believe the measures aren’t enough and seemed to be a White House ploy to upstage their grass-roots movement.
The Minuteman registration drew a protest by about 35 advocates of human and migrant rights. They staged a raucous dance in the tradition of Mexican indigenous people outside the 19th-century Schieffelin Hall where the Minutemen were meeting, a block from the OK Corral tourist attraction. Accompanied by drummers, a man in a loincloth with long, gray hair led a dance line of five young Hispanic women in Aztec costumes and feathered headdresses.
“The solution is not the paramilitary groups. The solution is respect for human rights and finding another economic order that will eliminate poverty,” said Arturo Mireles, 65, leader of the Danza Azteca Cuahutemoc group from Nogales, Ariz.
One volunteer wearing an American flag bandanna over his head, Russ Dove, 48, of Tucson, a handyman who’s also editor of a Web site urging immigration reform, said he was so “fed up” with massive illegal immigration and border violence that he couldn’t bear to participate in the patrols. Instead, he was videotaping volunteers’ testimonials Friday.
“Should a confrontation develop” between him and illegal migrants or smugglers, Dove said, “I’m afraid I’d respond in kind.”
Minuteman volunteer Al Phillips, who was carrying a .357 revolver on his belt, said he would be armed while on patrols. Phillips, 54, of Maryville, Tenn., said he had no intention of using the gun.
“It’s my right,” said Phillips, who worked in the Michigan Department of Corrections for 27 years. “All the people making a big deal about this. It’s nothing. The only time I’d take it out is if my life or another’s person is in danger.”