Border Watchers Gear Up for Expanded Patrol

Times Staff Writer

As the second act to its civilian border patrol in Arizona, the organization known as the Minutemen has pledged to launch a massive patrol of the entire U.S.-Mexico border this fall.

To protest what they call inadequate security along the border, Minuteman leaders are holding community meetings throughout the South and Southwest to marshal thousands of volunteers. Leaders hope to amass in October to try to block illegal immigration routes in four states.

But the organization is finding that such an ambitious plan will not come together as easily as the April patrol in Arizona that covered 23 miles of the border. That is particularly true in Texas, which has 1,254 miles of the 2,000-mile border.

Unlike Arizona, where patrols operated primarily on public land, most of the land along the border in Texas is privately owned, except for the Big Bend region in the western tip of the state.

Activists would need permission to patrol on private property. But despite the Minutemen's meetings in recent weeks with ranchers and other landowners, many of the owners said they remained torn about the project -- supportive of its message, for the most part, but wary of its practical implications.

Many landowners said they were concerned about the potential for a violent exchange between Minutemen and so-called coyotes or, worse, drug traffickers who used some of the same corridors as human smugglers.

"We're worried about the liability of a confrontation occurring on our ranch," said Dr. Michael Vickers, owner of three cattle ranches, and a rural veterinarian in 10 south Texas counties. "Having them out on some of these ranches may be a dangerous situation."

Vickers said he had attended several of the meetings and remained conflicted. The 1,000-acre ranch he uses as his residence, south of a town called Falfurrias, is about four miles from a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Illegal immigrants frequently bypass the checkpoint by sneaking across his land; they leave behind holes cut in fences, and trash.

"You walk outside and you feel like there are eyes watching you, and most of the time there are," Vickers said. "This is every night, sometimes a hundred or more in a night. And I'm not the only one. This is every ranch in south Texas."

Still, Vickers said he thought the Minutemen might be better off sticking to public areas, such as roadside parks where immigrants were often picked up after crossing.

Minutemen organizers, however, continue to push for access to private property.

"Those that love their country will surely come around to letting us use their land," said Wanda Schultz, a spokeswoman for Americans for Zero Population Growth, a Houston group that expects to play a role in the Texas border campaign.

Organizers in Texas also disagree over whether volunteers should be allowed to confront and even detain illegal immigrants. That dispute is significant because some fear it could threaten the air of legitimacy the Minutemen have captured after the Arizona patrol.

Self-appointed border patrols have long operated in small, ragtag posses and been maligned as vigilantes. Under the umbrella of a unifying organization -- and because of the media attention group leaders have generated -- they suddenly have a voice in immigration policy.

Though the Minutemen remain controversial -- they have been condemned by President Bush and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others -- their leaders have testified on Capitol Hill and made numerous television appearances. They attribute their public relations victory in part to a rule rule prohibiting patrollers from any interaction with immigrants.

Volunteers in Arizona were ordered to report their discoveries to the official Border Patrol, which would make arrests.

But with plans underway for a broader watch, some Texas activists are questioning those restrictions.

J.C. Hernandez, a third-generation Texan, is the founder and president of Americans for Zero Immigration. Hernandez was working with Minutemen organizers in Texas and said he expected to play a leading role in the upcoming patrol. He also wants the right, he said, to make a citizen's arrest of suspected illegal immigrants.

"When you fight a war you don't fight it with rhetoric," Hernandez said. "When you fight a war, man, you go in and kill the enemy.... A signal has to be sent to Mexico and all those countries that we are tired of it and we're not going to put up with it. I would handcuff them and walk them physically back to their country."

The two founders of the movement, Jim Gilchrist of Aliso Viejo, Calif., and Chris Simcox of Arizona, said any change to the group's "standard operating procedure" could be devastating to the image that leaders have cultivated.

Gilchrist said he declined to carry a weapon during the Arizona patrol, and he said organizers there determined that volunteers could be charged with kidnapping if they tried to apprehend immigrants.

"This is a bloodless revolution. It has to be," Gilchrist said. "There are a lot of wannabe soldiers. They think that this is a call to literally defend their country with arms.... But this is not a war. We can't look like a bunch of Rambos."

Simcox, who was in Texas recently to plan strategy, said veering from his script would feed criticism from government officials and human rights groups.

"They are just waiting for someone to make a mistake and break the law," Simcox said. "This is the only model that will work. If there are groups out there advocating citizen's arrests, they are treading on dangerous territory. They could ruin this entire movement."

Some activists contend that a careful reading of Texas law, however, would permit a more aggressive response. State law says a police officer or "any other person" may arrest someone when a felony is committed in that person's presence or "within his view."

"It is under discussion," Schultz said. "I agree that it might be legal under the law."

Discussions with landowners and the debate over confronting immigrants are not the only problems that have arisen since plans for a broader campaign were announced.

The group's two founders have gone their separate ways since Arizona. Volunteers who worked alongside them said the two clashed over management tactics and strategy, though both have played down reports of tension.

Gilchrist has left the patrol operation and is instead marshaling forces to investigate companies that hire illegal immigrants. Simcox has taken the helm of the border patrol campaign.

As a result, there is considerable confusion over who controls the "Minuteman" name. Gilchrist and Simcox share a dual Internet portal used to spread the group's message and recruit volunteers. Gilchrist controls the "Minuteman Project" name, he said, and Simcox controls the parallel Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which includes the border patrol campaign.

There are numerous splinter groups; at least seven organizations affiliated with the Minuteman Project have separate plans for smaller border patrols in Texas. The division has fueled renewed criticism from some officials in southern Texas, who have asked the Minutemen to stay away.

"It tells you something," said Laredo Mayor Betty Flores, whose border town would be an anchor of the Texas campaign.

"When that happens to a private business, when you don't know who the CEO is, things go wrong. Can you imagine if the same thing happens to an organization like this? It's very dangerous."

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