Patriots to some and hate group to others, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps is launching a monthlong vigil along America's northern border this weekend, expanding its operations to demand heightened security at U.S. borders.
The Minutemen (search) gained national attention in April when they monitored a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona border. Armed with binoculars, cell phones and, in some cases, sidearms, the volunteers tipped off border patrol agents about illegal immigrants crossing into the United States. According to the group’s count, the watch resulted in more than 300 arrests of undocumented immigrants.
Now the organization hopes to raise awareness about what it says is the federal government’s failure to secure America's borders. With plans for an October vigil in the Southwest, the Minutemen have decided to bring their campaign to the northern border as well.
Although the number of arrests at the southwestern border dwarfs those to the north — well over 1 million versus about 12,000 annually — Minuteman members say that the Canadian border, which at 5,525 miles is almost three times the length of the Mexican border, is vulnerable to terrorists and criminals.
“Canada has extremely lax laws allowing people to come in and live there from Middle Eastern countries,” said Connie Hair, a spokeswoman for the group. “If you’re from the Middle East, it only makes sense that you might be in a Middle Eastern terror cell.”
Hair also cited the discovery in July of drug-smuggling tunnels between British Columbia and Washington as a reason to turn attention north, where the number of border patrol agents is, at 1,000, roughly 10 percent of the number that guards the southwestern border.
But Joseph Giuliano, deputy chief of the Customs and Border Patrol (search) for western Washington, said force numbers are unrelated to the quality of border protection.
“The same type of intrusion-detection technology that exists down there exists up here as well,” he said. “Plus, we have a very highly developed, highly refined relationship with the Canadian authorities that serves as a force multiplier for us.”
Giuliano also described Canada's immigration laws as "irrelevant" to border patrol efforts and expressed confidence in the detection system in place.
"The United States is actually very lucky to have the refined intelligence network that it does have," he said. "Despite all the misgivings that have been expressed about it, they still are the best in the world." In 2004, he said, agents in the region under his jurisdiction arrested more than 1,300 undocumented immigrants from 57 different countries.
But Giuliano also said his agents take tips from civilians. “There are citizens who wish to report misdeeds or suspicious activities,” he said. “That could, in fact, be useful information for us.”
Hair, who said roughly 900 volunteers participated in the Minutemen's April vigil, would not forecast how many will take part in the northern border watch. But Tom “Skipper” Williams, 64, a Vietnam veteran and retired crisis management and police psychologist who manages the group in the Northwest, estimates that there will be about 20 volunteers monitoring his region at any given time in October.
He said operations would be similar to efforts in the Southwest. “What we’re going to be doing different is nothing,” Williams said. “We’re going to be sitting in our cars or in lawn chairs and observing the border.”
Williams, who lives in Deming, Wash., joined the Minutemen in April and described the upcoming vigil in the North as a way to back the organization’s efforts.
“A lot of what we’re doing is not only to get media attention,” he said, “but also to stand in support of the other Minutemen who are down on the Mexican border in October, because we know they’re going to have to put up with protests and insults.”
The group has been both praised and pilloried for its efforts, with support from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and criticism from immigrant rights groups and government officials. During a March press conference, President Bush referred to the Minutemen as “vigilantes.”
Hair countered the vigilante charge. “We’re not there to do anything other than be [the] eyes and ears of the border patrol,” she said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman José Garza stressed that civilian support of border efforts is appreciated, but that arrests at the border should remain in the hands of his agency.
“We strongly encourage for people to let us know about suspicious activity,” he said. “But we want the job of the actual enforcement of making a detention to be left in the hands of the professionals, which [are] our border patrol agents.”
Politicians from states along the Canadian border voice differing views on the Minutemen’s activities. Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the senator shared the group’s concern that the borders needed to be secured. But, he said, “You don’t do that by sending in a freewheeling group of volunteers.” He said the solution consists not only of additional trained agents at the border, but also “a workable guest-worker program.”
Former Yonkers, N.Y., Mayor John Spencer, who hopes to be the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in that state next year, not only supports the Minutemen’s cause, but volunteered at their Long Island recruitment session in September. Spencer will attend a Minuteman vigil in the Southwest next April and may head to the Canadian border in October.
“It’s really a form of political protest," said Kevin Collins, Spencer’s campaign manager. "We’re just trying to hold our government to its responsibility to protect our borders.
“People who want to get into America bad enough ... read how porous our border with Canada is and that’s starting to pick up."
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the one Minuteman policy he agrees with is the group's intention to monitor the northern border. He pointed to the case of Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam (search) — the would-be “Millennium Bomber" who was caught in December 1999 crossing from Canada with a car full of explosives intended for the Los Angeles International Airport.
“It’s been extremely upsetting to the Hispanic community that the only attention as far as immigration goes has been placed on the southern border with Mexico,” Wilkes said. “I think it’s unfair and I think it’s racially motivated to only focus on Mexico.”
Hair said that new Minutemen volunteers go through a screening process and training to weed out members of hate groups. “If you’re a racist, we don’t want you,” she said. “This is not about the color of anyone’s skin, this is about national security.”
But Wilkes, who said he has seen a marked growth in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, disagrees.
“If you get a hate movement going, who knows who’s going to come?” he said. “So what if they’re not in your particular camp, they’re in the one next door. You’ve started it and the racial flames are burning.”
Hair said there are now about 8,000 Minutemen across the country and describes the October watch as a practice run for future vigils.
“We’re hoping that, especially with the northern border, that we get some good organizational experience out of it, and that if anybody does cross, they do find them,” she said.