San Diego Union Tribune

April 3, 2005

Anxiety, attitudes along border
Immigrants seem to be waiting out Minutemen

By Jerry Kammer

NACO, Mexico – Just west of this dreary border town, out beyond a stretch of iron-mat fencing, the Mexico-U.S. border is defined by four strands of barbed wire that impede illegal immigration no better than they block the wind.

But that thin line through the valley shared by two countries is as formidable as the Great Wall of China in dividing attitudes about the Minuteman Project, which has mobilized hundreds of American volunteers to protest what they call the willful failure of the federal government to impose order on the chaotic and massive flow of migrants desperate to escape the misery of their homelands.

The anxiety many Mexicans feel could be seen in the eyes of Fortunato Coronado, a 40-year-old from Mexico, who yesterday morning was holed up in a $4 "guest house" as he sifted through the rumors of gun-toting "immigrant hunters" ready to fire if he crosses the line.

"I just need to feed my children," said the father of five, who has heard there are plenty of construction jobs in Phoenix for those willing to work for $8 or $10 an hour. "But even the polleros say it is too risky right now," he said, referring to the smugglers who hire taxis to shuttle would-be border crossers out of town along the dirt road that parallels the oft-breached fence.

The indignation many Americans feel could be heard in the voice of Bruce Hill, one of about 250 Minutemen supporters who demonstrated at the Border Patrol station about three miles north of the guest house. Their handmade signs demanded, "Protect our borders now," "Fix it or close it," "Stop the Invasion."

"Our hospitals are closing, we're losing our language and it's costing billions of dollars to build schools to educate the children of illegal aliens," said Hill, who carried the California flag. He stood beside Karen Whalen, who complained that in her Boston neighborhood, "illegals are everywhere."

Each side feels victimized by the other in this high-stakes melodrama. Both feel overwhelmed by economic and political forces they struggle to understand.

Mexicans blame their government for failing to provide opportunities for them to stay home. Americans blame their leaders for the disorder and upheaval they say illegal immigrants thrust upon them.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, hounded by critics who demand protection for their beleaguered countrymen, has condemned the "immigrant hunters" and demanded respect for their human rights. He is not placated by the Minutemen's insistence that they will only report suspected illegal immigrants, not attempt to detain them or harass them.

Fox's threat to file lawsuits against the Minutemen has drawn an angry response from U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who said Fox appears to think that "illegal aliens have more of a right to break American law than American citizens have to peacefully assist in enforcing it."

Minuteman Al Garza, a retired private investigator from Riverside County who lives near the border, is equally outraged at Fox. He is also scornful of the emotionally charged criticism that is playing out in government decrees and news reports on the Minuteman Project.

"If they are so concerned about these people being mistreated, which isn't the case, then maybe President Fox ought to do something" to provide opportunities for his people in Mexico, Garza said.

He had joined a group of about 50 Minutemen at the Palominas Trading Post. They were preparing to break up into small groups and move out to observation points in the deep creases of the Huachuca Mountains and along the shoreline of the San Pedro River, lush with cottonwoods and willows and buzzing with hummingbirds on their own northward migration.

Like many of the Minutemen, Garza is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. He wore a "Purple Heart" baseball cap and had a Smith and Wesson .380 strapped to his hip. He called it a precaution against a chance encounter with drug smugglers, who also ply their trade here.

On a Forest Service road in a smuggling corridor in the foothills of the Huachucas, Minuteman Hank Dillon said he was pushed into action by the lawlessness and disorder of an uncontrolled border.

"It's the amount of damage that is done here," he said. "People's property is damaged and vandalized and stolen."

Pointing to a ridgeline where he said groups of immigrants "lay up" to rest or wait to be jammed into the vans that smuggle them northward, he said, "You go up there and you'll run out of garbage bags before you run out of garbage."

At the Naco port of entry, Mexican customs official Amador Mendoza said his government has mobilized a multiagency effort to discourage immigrants from crossing the 25-mile stretch of border where the Minuteman Project intends to patrol during April.

Mendoza said the local police and the border protection agency called Grupo Beta "are going to the hotels and telling the migrants to go to other places because (otherwise) they would risk a confrontation" with the Minutemen.

Back at the Casa de Huespedes yesterday afternoon, one television was tuned to news of Pope John Paul II's death and the other carried a tribute program for Selena, the late Mexican-American pop star.

Manuel Antonio Marquez, 19, said a phone conversation with his mother was prompting him to abandon his plans for "El Norte."

His mother was sick with worry after seeing television news reports about the Minutemen, he explained. "She was almost crying. She heard there are a lot of racists here."

Coronado and 29-year-old Agustin Navarro said they both planned to go back home, for a while at least, because they didn't have the money to seek out other crossing points.

Navarro, who hoped to quit a taxi driver job in Acapulco that paid him less than $20 for a 12-hour day, was ready to follow the advice of a smuggler.

"He said to wait until this is over," Navarro said, before heading to a bank of phones to arrange for a relative to wire him the 550 pesos (about $50) that it would cost him for the bus ride home.

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