Border Watchers Capture Their Prey -- the Media

Times Staff Writer

Jim Gilchrist bounced into the Trading Post diner here Monday, ordered coffee and toast and began smoking vigorously.

His cellphone occasionally rang, his two-way radio squawked and a coterie of followers hung on his every word.

Things were going better than he could imagine. The founder of the Minuteman Project, designed to put volunteers on the southeastern Arizona border to deter illegal immigrants, had attracted more than 200 journalists from around the world.

Mexico responded with more troops and extra police at the border to deter migrants. The U.S. Border Patrol boosted its ranks by 500 agents and Gilchrist had become a minor, if international, celebrity.

"None of this would have happened if it wasn't for the Minuteman action," he said. "This thing was a dog and pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out and it worked."

Indeed it did. For weeks, the 56-year-old retired accountant from Aliso Viejo had promised 1,000 volunteers would be arriving in Arizona come April. But when the activists showed up Friday, they numbered about 200, a roughly 1-to-1 ratio with members of the news media.

The Minutemen's presence set off some protests from immigrant-rights groups, and Mexican President Vicente Fox called on the U.S. government to protect illegal immigrants coming across the desert.

President Bush outraged many of the activists by calling them vigilantes. They responded by calling Bush the co-president of Mexico and a leader who had failed his responsibility to secure the country's borders.

On Monday, the official start of the monthlong project, Gilchrist said there were 450 Minutemen, though the number could not be verified. He also said the volunteers had aided in the arrest of 146 illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol would not confirm the figure or say what role the activists had played in any apprehensions.

Gilchrist waved off such details, preferring to look at the big picture.

"Look, I struck the mother lode of patriotism by using the Minuteman theme," he said, lighting another cigarette. "Then I used the theme of Martin Luther King -- nonviolent action, never let up and keep getting the message out. To me, the illegal aliens are economic refugees. They are not an invading army. It's a silent Trojan horse invasion that is eroding our culture."

He paid his check and made for the lead car in a convoy heading out on patrol. Gilchrist handed everyone walkie-talkies and issued them nicknames -- Dingo, Sierra, Tango.

The line of cars took off down the road. Gilchrist, who has traveled with a bodyguard in Arizona because of assorted death threats, was anxious that interloping vehicles might slip into the entourage.

"Dingo, is that a Mustang that doesn't belong to us?" he said over the radio.

Affirmative, came the response.

"Well, OK, we'll just have to go with the flow," he replied nervously.

A few miles toward the border with Mexico, the cars pulled onto a dirt road, and everyone got out and followed Gilchrist through the desert. There were piles of old clothes, knapsacks, underwear and empty bottles left by illegal immigrants.

"Hey, we got a fresh pair of prints here," said Gilchrist, wearing a bright flowered shirt, a canteen and a hat with a feather poking out. "I think they lay up here during the day and walk at night."

The patrol meandered around scrub oak, up and down hills, and over barbed wire. Sighting an immigrant began to take on the element of spotting a rare butterfly or obscure bird species. Plans to set up an outpost fizzled when Gilchrist got a call on the radio.

His face tightened.

"According to our Minutemen intelligence network, which has been flawless, there is credible evidence that two dozen Mexican nationals have assembled for the sole purpose of causing an incident that would make us look bad," Gilchrist said gravely. "They want us to open fire or assault them. The threat is very real but I can't give you my sources, which are in Mexico."

The volunteers looked around, some with puzzled expressions, others betraying a certain skepticism. Gilchrist quietly smoked.

A few miles away on a road along the border, trucks and cars flew state flags as severe dust storms sent hats and lawn chairs spinning across the desert. Men, women and the occasional child examined the vast expanse of Mexico with binoculars for any sign of movement.

Chris, a 45-year-old engineer from Fountain Valley, Calif., had tied a white handkerchief onto his glasses to deflect the stinging sand. He brought his wife, twin daughters and 15-year-old son here for spring break.

"The way we have been portrayed as a bunch of yahoos and rednecks, no wonder people want to kill us," he said, declining to give his full name. "I came with my family because I thought it would be great for them to see the border situation up close."

His son Alex, retreating inside his hooded sweatshirt to escape the driving sand, nodded weakly.

Despite the attention they have garnered, not everyone thinks the Minutemen have been successful.

"My read on it is that it has fizzled," said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank. "This project is not going to prove anything. All it will prove is that you can funnel immigration from one place to another."

Mexican officials said they had seen a major drop in migrants heading for the 23-mile stretch between Douglas and Naco patrolled by the Minutemen. But the migrants said they would just find alternative routes or wait until the activists left.

"Nothing else the government has done has had the effect we have had," said Chris Simcox, co-organizer of the project. "We are showing the government the model for homeland security. If they deployed 10,000 to 15,000 National Guard troops on the border, there would be nowhere else to funnel people."

Douglas Mayor Ray Borane came to see the volunteers' positions and wasn't pleased.

"It just confirms my belief that we are looking at a bunch of interlopers who are creating an environment that is not good for our people," he said. "They have gotten a lot of attention, but if the press leaves tomorrow these guys would be gone by Thursday."

Not far away, the Minutemen radios were filled with excited chatter about an illegal immigrant in the area. Gilchrist drove up to an outpost, flung open the car door and shouted, "Who saw the illegal aliens?"

A tall Minuteman approached.

"There are no illegals, those are our people," he said.

The "immigrant" was in fact 67-year-old Dave Gessner of Fort Wayne, Ind.

"I was just answering the call of nature," he said sheepishly. "Guess I won't wander off anymore."

Gilchrist chuckled.

When asked what he'd do if there were no changes at the border after the Minutemen left, he put on his best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice.

"I'll be back," he growled.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Border arrests

A breakdown of Border Patrol apprehensions in the Naco, Ariz., region from Wednesday through Sunday. Minuteman Project volunteers began gathering Friday and launched patrols in the area Monday:

Wednesday ...302

Thursday...296

Friday...205

Saturday...91

Sunday...103

Source: Associated Press

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