San Diego Union Tribune

March 18, 2005

Tensions rising over border watch
Civilian patrol leader says he believes in 'rule of law'

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – James Gilchrist, a retired accountant who is organizing volunteers from across the country to patrol the border in Arizona, views his project as a patriotic Neighborhood Watch in the desert.

"I believe in the rule of law," said Gilchrist, who lives in Aliso Viejo.

He blasts what he says is the wholesale flouting of laws by illegal immigrants and those who employ them. He said he wants to restore "a cohesive society and an orderly way of life" by insisting that the federal government enforce its laws.

Order is just what the mayor of Douglas, an Arizona border town, fears could be up for grabs in two weeks. That is when Gilchrist's Minuteman Project plans to have 1,000 volunteers in southeastern Arizona, just as the flow of undocumented immigrants reaches its annual peak.

"I'm frustrated with the government, too," said Mayor Ray Borane. "But Gilchrist needs to understand that this isn't a game when he says he's coming down here and showing his patriotism. He's on the verge of creating an international incident."

Borane said Mexican news reports sounding the alarm about "immigrant hunters" have stirred resentment across the border in Agua Prieta.

"I'm worried that people could come down to the fence and rock those people, or even shoot them," said Borane, whose town of 15,000 mostly Mexican-Americans lives off the commerce coming from its much larger twin city. He also cites rumors, spawned on the Internet and dismissed by Gilchrist as a hoax, that a leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang has issued instructions from jail to "teach a lesson" to the Americans.

The Minuteman Project says its goal is to lawfully assist the federal government by observing and reporting illegal activity at the border.

Its members will be positioned along 20 miles of border in the San Pedro River valley and along known smuggling trails that extend north through the valley.

As tensions rise on both sides of the border before the monthlong project starts April 1, there is broad agreement that public frustration with the federal government's failure to stem the flow of illegal immigration is stirring up a complex stew of activism that could boil over because of malice, mistake or miscalculation.

"It's a very dangerous situation that's evolving in Arizona," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who entered politics after a 26-year career in the Border Patrol. "Our Border Patrol agents have enough on their hands without somebody adding a dimension of vigilantes out there who have no training."

Arizona has become a new bellwether for illegal-immigration anxiety long associated with California.

Last year, Arizonans passed the controversial Proposition 200, an effort to cut off non-emergency services to illegal immigrants that has spawned similar initiatives in half a dozen states.

While critics condemned it as racist or anti-Mexican, exit polls found that nearly half the Latino electorate joined in the majority vote. It was seen as a call for Washington to bring order to the border and to neighborhoods roiled by shootouts between rival smuggling bands.

"An increasing number of Arizonans are becoming extremely angry," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. The state's 378-mile border with Mexico was the entry point for half of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants apprehended last year by the Border Patrol.

Three times that many are estimated to elude arrest, Kyl said.

Gilchrist, who served in Vietnam with the Marine Corps, said he has recruited nearly 1,000 volunteers from 50 states. The Minuteman project says it is screening volunteers by having them fill out questionnaires on the Internet, and it will give out identification cards to those who have been accepted.

California has 261 volunteers, including James L. Chase of Oceanside, a retired postal worker who says he developed his reconnaissance skills in Vietnam.

"I say secure the border, and if you need people to work in a restaurant, have them sign up and come through the gate," said Chase, 57.

Chase cited recent government reports that terrorists might be using illegal immigration trails to sneak into the country.

"I don't care how many come through the gate as long as the government checks them out," he said.

Mexican officials have expressed alarm at the Minuteman Project. Their U.S. counterparts, who cite the constitutional right to assemble, have promised swift intervention if Minutemen attempt to intimidate or harm anyone.

Gilchrist and fellow organizer Chris Simcox, an Arizonan who has long organized a modest effort to report illegal immigrant traffic, said they are taking precautions.

The project's Web site instructs volunteers not to attempt to intimidate or arrest suspected illegal immigrants.

"If for any reason a group of people entering our country enters your area, you will politely wave, stand aside and watch them proceed on their journey," they say.

Retired Border Patrol Agent Dave Stoddard, who lives just north of the border, has mixed feelings about the Minutemen, whom Internet wags are calling "undocumented Border Patrol agents."

"It's good that they're bringing national attention to an appalling situation. . . . but they could be bringing every white racist out of the woodwork," Stoddard said.

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