LOS ANGELES – The top U.S. border enforcement official said Wednesday that his agency is exploring ways to involve citizen volunteers in creating "something akin to a Border Patrol auxiliary" — a significant shift after a high-profile civilian campaign this spring along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner (search) told The Associated Press that his agency began looking into citizen involvement after noting how eager volunteers were to stop illegal immigration.
"We value having eyes and ears of citizens, and I think that would be one of the things we are looking at is how you better organize, let's say, a citizen effort," Bonner said.
He said that could involve training of volunteers organized "in a way that would be something akin to a Border Patrol auxiliary."
Bonner characterized the idea of an auxiliary as "an area we're looking at," and a spokeswoman said it hadn't been discussed yet with top Homeland Security officials.
"This is what we need to study," said Bonner, who was in Los Angeles to discuss port security. He said questions such as what kind of authority volunteers might be given — for example, would they be deputized to make arrests — would have to be answered.
Until now, Border Patrol (search) officials have generally criticized civilian efforts to police the nation's borders, saying that was the job of trained law enforcement officers. President Bush has also expressed opposition to border "vigilantes."
But in April, hundreds of volunteers converged on a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border, and the Minuteman Project (search) generated international attention.
The following month, Bonner told Congress that if the government were to "better and more effectively harness the citizen volunteers," it would need to provide "some insights, possibly even training."
A labor leader who represents Border Patrol agents questioned the idea of volunteer involvement after hearing about Bonner's suggestion Wednesday.
"If he's sanctioning something akin to the Minuteman Project, it would be irresponsible to place ordinary citizens in harm's way," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council and no relation to Robert Bonner.
Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist said he liked the idea but doubted it would happen.
Migrants' advocate Enrique Morones of Border Angels, a San Diego group that gives water to immigrants who cross the California-Mexico border, called it "a recipe for disaster."
"You'll have all of these unqualified yahoos being given license to promote hate," he said.
Bonner said the agency would examine how other auxiliaries operate to come up with a possible model. The Coast Guard Auxiliary, for example, has 30,000 members trained to help with such non-law enforcement programs as public education, vessel safety checks and safety patrols.
Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kristi Clemens said Homeland Security officials would be briefed on the idea once the agency came up with a proposal.
"All proposals are being considered, including clerical work by volunteers that would free up more agents to secure our borders," she said.