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Civilian Volunteer Border Patrols

In 1848, fighting between Mexico and the U.S. ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The U.S. annexed much of what is now Texas and the American Southwest, but the treaty allowed Mexican citizens to remain on the U.S.-annexed land and to retain ownership of previously owned land now part of the U.S.

While the Mexican people were allowed to live in the U.S. as Mexican nationals or as U.S. citizens, however, the treaty made clear that rules regarding the movement and activities of persons within either country would be the sole responsibility of that country. Furthermore, the treaty reserved to both Mexico and the U.S. “the entire right to fortify whatever point within its territory it may judge proper so to fortify for its security.”

For some time, the border remained relatively open. Few guard posts and even fewer border patrols existed, and citizens from both countries were assured relatively unfettered passage. But as the population of the U.S. multiplied and moved westward, however, the U.S. government felt compelled to “close” the borders. Immigration posts were installed intermittently along the length of the border between Mexico and the U.S., and the federal government officially created the U.S. Border Patrol through the Labor Appropriation Act of 1924. The primary purpose of the Border Patrol was to secure the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, though its influence was later expanded to cover the seacoasts as well.

The Border Patrol has undergone many changes since its inception, and has grown to include more than 11,000 agents. It currently operates with an annual budget of approximately $1.2 billion. Increased funding and extra personnel, however, have not stemmed the tide of immigrants either illegally crossing U.S. borders or remaining in the U.S. beyond their legally allotted term.

The Border Patrol estimates that the January 2000 total unauthorized resident population was about seven million, which constituted approximately 2.5% of the nation’s 281 million people. Furthermore, many groups argue that the present number is actually somewhere between eight and 12 million, and one study by Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc., a global investment firm, estimates that the number may be as high as 20 million.

Of the seven million unauthorized residents estimated by the Border Patrol, 4.8 million reportedly claim Mexico as their country of origin. Increasing numbers of nationals from other countries are reportedly using the U.S.-Mexico border to attempt illegal crossings as well.

One group that made headlines in the spring of 2005, called the Minuteman Project (MMP), argues that the government’s weak efforts at patrolling the borders of the U.S. are the cause of the increasing number of illegal immigrants. The project, an Internet-based recruitment organization for a civilian border patrol, set out in the month of April to patrol a 23-mile stretch of land in a rugged region of southeast Arizona. The group’s stated aim was to serve as “a citizens’ neighborhood watch along the border.” The 850 volunteers who served in the project over the course of the month came from all over the U.S. to observe and report on those suspected of illegally crossing the border along the 23-mile stretch.

The Minutemen were an entirely civilian outfit, operating outside the auspices of the U.S. Border Patrol and all other government agencies. While some government officials in the border area expressed positive feelings about the presence of the Minutemen, most reports indicated that the Border Patrol did not condone the activities of the volunteer group. In fact, two days before the Minutemen were to begin their watch, the Border Patrol added 800 patrolmen to the region in and around Cochise County, where the Minutemen were operating.

Supporters of volunteer patrols like the MMP argue that such patrols play a crucial role in holding the government accountable for its failure to properly patrol the U.S. borders. They hail the Minuteman Project as a success and argue that the project unmasked the Border Patrol’s inadequacies. Supporters further claim that business interests, seeking the cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants, have corrupted the government and are threatening U.S. borders by supporting illegal immigration and discouraging the government from taking adequate protective measures.

Opponents of volunteer civilian border patrols counter that the patrols endanger both migrants and the volunteers themselves. Untrained civilians may not be able to recognize and respond appropriately to a dangerous situation, opponents assert. President Bush (R) himself indirectly referred to civilian border patrolmen as “vigilantes,” and civil liberties advocates have expressed fears that the volunteers may have entrenched biases against Mexicans and other foreigners trying to cross the border, both legally and illegally. In addition, opponents argue that the presence of the volunteer patrolmen actually obscures evidence of border crossers and makes the Border Patrol’s job more difficult.
The U.S. Border Problem

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In 1965, the Border Patrol apprehended approximately 110,000 people who were attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. By 2003, the patrol was apprehending more than 900,000 undocumented immigrants annually. Since then, the estimated annual total has climbed above a million.

The U.S.-Mexico border spans 1,951 miles, stretching from California to Texas. It follows the Rio Grande and Gila River and runs through a variety of urban and suburban areas, as well as through mountainous and desert terrain. The Border Patrol has installed fences along a few portions of the border with Mexico, particularly in urban border areas, which tend to attract the largest numbers of illegal border crossers. But many border crossers attempt to cross through more sparsely populated desert areas, particularly in southeastern Arizona.

In such areas, the migrants are forced to traverse as many as 50 miles of difficult, rugged terrain, often in weather as hot as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, to even reach a road. Death by dehydration and/or starvation is an ever-present danger for illegal migrants, to the extent that sympathetic volunteer organizations and the Border Patrol itself have set up water stations in known border-crossing areas.

Further complicating the picture is the presence of “coyotes,” individuals who illegally transport both humans and drugs across the border. Stories abound of unprotected migrants dying of heat exhaustion and dehydration after being stowed in unventilated vehicles passing through hot desert areas. In addition, coyotes, who hold an inordinate amount of power over the would-be immigrants they are transporting, reportedly often extort money and sexual favors, or force the migrants to carry drugs across the border.

However, such dangers do not seem to deter the illegal crossers. Between October 2003 and April 2004, alone, the Border Patrol detained more than 660,000 people as they attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Minuteman Project Creates Organized Civilian Patrols

The MMP in particular has set out to bring the debate over border enforcement into the limelight. The project, led by James Gilchrist of California and Chris Simcox of Arizona, began when Gilchrist contacted Simcox after hearing him complaining on a conservative talk radio show about the problem of illegal border crossers. The result of that conversation was an entirely Internet-based volunteer operation, the MMP, which enlisted civilians on a volunteer basis to join Gilchrist and Simcox in monitoring a 23-mile strip of land on the U.S.-Mexico border in Cochise County.

Simcox was already operating a civilian group, Civil Homeland Defense, from the Cochise County town of Tombstone, whose primary purpose was spotting suspected illegal migrants along the border. Similarly, MMP volunteers operating in groups of four to eight men and women, in shifts covering 24 hours a day, seven days a week, were to man observation posts and patrol the designated area for the entire month of April. Their task was to observe suspected illegal activity and, using cellular telephones, to contact the Border Patrol, after which the Border Patrol would investigate and make arrests when appropriate.

The MMP Web site explicitly ordered volunteers not to engage in any form of “hostile” confrontation. The site does not explicitly define what “hostile” means, and the project’s leaders acknowledge that Arizona is a right-to-carry state, meaning that citizens may openly carry certain firearms. However, the site does emphasize that the volunteers are never to make any physical contact with the suspected migrants

“If the intruders move through your ranks, you let them pass. You may continue to follow them,” the Web site explains, but “[y]ou do not threaten them in any manner…. Under no circumstances are you to engage in argumentative or hostile confrontation with any illegal alien.” Furthermore, the MMP specifically discourages individuals who are “susceptible to ‘road rage,’ or ‘hot temper’ syndromes,” from volunteering for the project.

The MMP Web site claims that the volunteer roster included individuals with doctorates, professors from state universities, current and former members of law enforcement, journalists, teachers, truck drivers, firemen, home-makers–whom the MMP refers to as “MinuteMoms”–physicians, students and politicians, among others. Volunteers spent anywhere from one day to more than two weeks on patrol.

In the middle of April and again at the end of the month, the MMP declared itself to be a total success. Gilchrist argued that the project resulted in a “significant” drop in border-crossing activity, stemming what he claims is an invasion by “tens of millions” of illegal aliens. He noted that the project had garnered national, and even international, media attention.
Proponents Say Volunteer Border Patrols Are Necessary

Supporters of volunteer patrols like the MMP assert that such patrols play a crucial role in the democratic system. They argue that when the government fails its citizens, it is incumbent upon the citizens to protest that failure peacefully and responsibly. “The Minuteman Project proves false the government claim that nothing can be done to protect our borders,” claims Brandon Millett, director of public relations for government watchdog group Judicial Watch. “In just two weeks, a group of committed American citizens has completely shut down the Naco Sector [in Arizona], which was once a super highway for illegal immigrants. Imagine what we could accomplish as a nation if our elected officials applied the same resolve.”

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Supporters contend that the failure of the government to properly secure the borders represents the highest threat to the security of the U.S. The MMP, they assert, shows that it is possible, with adequate manpower, to secure the country’s borders. Supporters further claim that “it is time for the politicians in Washington, D.C., to do their sworn duty,” as Judicial Watch’s Director of Investigations Chris Farrell said, arguing that political favors to big corporations are weakening the borders and national security.

Moreover, proponents claim the MMP was a success. According to the MMP Web site, illegal border crossing fell by 98% in April. That success proves that the current Border Patrol and the government are not doing all they can at the border, proponents say. They claim that U.S. government agencies are corrupted by financially powerful business interests that support the cheap labor that comes with an influx of immigrant workers. Lobbying efforts by such corporations, they argue, are designed to thwart efforts at strengthening border control. Those interests jeopardize the very fabric of the American free-enterprise system, supporters assert. As Dan Stein, president of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, stated in an editorial:

Let the Minuteman Project serve as a warning for those who are in positions of power: You ignore the rising clamor for dramatic immigration reductions at your peril. Beleaguered middle-class taxpayers will not stand at the whipping post for those seeking wholesale redistribution of income and wealth at the expense of our national standard of living.

Supporters praise the Minuteman volunteers for bringing attention to the conditions at the borders. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R, Colo.) stated that during the month of April 2005, both the Mexican government and the volunteer border patrollers showed that the border could be improved. You have demonstrated that a physical presence on the border will deter illegal crossings,” Tancredo wrote to Gilchrist and Simcox, “and the world can now see this.” Tancredo invited the men to meet with him and other members of the Immigration Reform Caucus in Washington, D.C., in order to bring the efforts of the volunteers to the attention of Congress.
Opponents Call Volunteer Patrols Dangerous

Opponents of the MMP and its proposed expansion argue that civilian border patrols create dangers to both migrants and the volunteers themselves. They say that rather than aiding the Border Patrol, the presence of the Minutemen actually detracts from the agency’s efforts.

Opponents claim that among the migrants and would-be immigrants are dangerous criminals, including murderers and drug runners. Mario Villareal, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, notes that four Border Patrol agents had been murdered while on the job at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2003. He argues that untrained civilians may not be able to recognize and respond appropriately to dangerous situations. An untrained and unqualified person acting in the capacity of law enforcement,” Villareal told the San Francisco Chronicle, “risks becoming involved in a dangerous situation that jeopardizes not only themselves but also those around them.

Bush, indirectly referring to the Minuteman volunteers and other civilian border patrolmen as “vigilantes” during a March 2005 press conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox Quesada and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, argued that there are unnecessary risks involved in allowing volunteer patrolmen on the border. Bush stressed that he supports the Border Patrol’s efforts and that he is in favor of “enforcing law in rational ways.”

In addition, opponents argue that the presence of the volunteer patrolman can actually obscure evidence of border crossers, and make the Border Patrol’s job more difficult. Patrolwoman Andrea Zortman explained to the CBS network’s Tucson television station that searching for footprints and setting sensors are two important methods patrolmen use to track migrants. “One of the things we do on a regular basis, while we’re patrolling the line, is look for fresh footprints,” she explained. “With the civilian groups out there roaming around, well of course they’re leaving footprints as well. They’re going to follow those footprints, come to find out it’s a civilian patrol, and that’s another waste of our time.”

Immigrant rights groups and civil liberties organizations have expressed fear that the civilian border patrol groups are drawing volunteers with racist views and unjustified biases against non-Caucasian-looking individuals. Ray Ybarra of the American Civil Liberties Union organized a group to monitor the MMP for potential abuse. “The message they are trying to send is that white people can take the law into their own hands and do whatever they wanted to people of color,” Ybarra said of the volunteer border patrolmen, “and in 21st-century America, that’s just not going to fly. ”

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Other opponents of the Minutemen argue that statistics show that beefing up border control is not the way to improve security. According to the National Immigration Forum, from 1986 to 1998 the Border Patrol doubled its force along the Mexico border to 8,500 agents, and its overall budget increased sixfold. The money was used in part to fortify border towns such as El Paso, which tend to serve as heavy entry points. And yet, the group argues, during that same period, the undocumented immigrant population doubled in size.

Furthermore, according to the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF), as many as half of the undocumented immigrants who are in the U.S. arrived in the country legally and then remained after their immigration documents expired. The problem, the AILF argues, is not one of porous borders but of inadequate enforcement of immigration laws within the U.S. Given the fact the United States is an open society,” the group states, “security efforts implemented at the border have a limited effect on the number of undocumented immigrants.” What is needed, the group argues, is better cooperation between the governments of Mexico and the U.S. to insure that the roots of the problem–economic inequality, and treaties that overwhelmingly favor the U.S.–are being addressed.
The Future of Volunteer Border Patrols

Gilchrist has acknowledged that the main thrust of the MMP was to bring the border problems to the attention of a wider public. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “This thing was a dog and pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out and it worked.

In fact, Gilchrist said he felt that the project was so successful that on April 17, 2005, he published a letter on the MMP’s Web site announcing that he was transferring duties at the border to an Arizona-based group, Civil Homeland Defense, and going to Washington, D.C., to speak to members of the government about the larger issue of border control.

Organizers of the MMP have argued that it would cost as much as $4 billion over two years to properly secure the Mexico border from illegal crossings. Furthermore, they estimate that it would cost $8 billion over a three-year period to similarly secure the U.S.-Canada border. They argue for the need for additional national troops, from the military or the National Guard, to guard the borders, and vow to continue with their volunteer patrol movement until the government shows that it is making concerted efforts to better secure the borders.

Camps of volunteers in other areas near the U.S. border are similarly motivated. The Yuma Patriots, a civilian border patrol group of about 45 volunteers, began patrolling the area around Yuma, Calif., in mid-April 2005. The stated aim of the Yuma Patriots, according to spokesman Flash Sharrar, is to assist the federal Border Patrol by reporting suspected illegal border crossers, much as the Minuteman Project set out to do.

Whether civilian groups are successful in reducing the number of illegal aliens crossing the border depends largely on who is providing the report, the groups themselves and their supporters, or the Border Patrol and other opponents. One thing is certain: The Minutemen, and attendant groups such as the Yuma Patriots, have succeeded in bringing major media attention to the issue of illegal immigration control at the U.S. border. And whether or not the civilian groups increase in numbers and strength across the U.S., the debate over how best to control illegal immigration is far from over.


Ackleson, Jason. “Fencing in Failure: Effective Border Control Is Not Achieved by Building More Fences.” Immigration Policy Center, April 2005, www.ailf.org.

Athens, Jonathan. “Patriots Go on Patrol at Border.” YumaSun.com, April 12, 2005, sun.yumasun.com.

Carroll, Susan. “Border Watch to Widen.” AZCentral.com, April 19, 2005, www.azcentral.com.

Delson, Jennifer. One Man’s Convictions Launched a Border Crusade.” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2005, www.latimes.com.