OAKLAND,CA -- An armed private group that patrolled the U.S.-Mexican border last month has gone home with an unequivocal endorsement from California Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger and benign media coverage. Come October, they say, they will return to the border in the tens of thousands.
The Minuteman Project, a network of groups and individuals, many of them armed, deployed some 900 volunteers to watch for undocumented migrants along a 20-mile (32-kilometre) stretch of the border separating the U.S. and Mexican states of Arizona and Sonora. Organizers had said that 1,600-plus ''mad-as-hell volunteers'' had signed up for the month-long vigil.
''We have proven that ordinary citizens sitting in lawn chairs on the border can shut down illegal border traffic,'' the group said in a statement. ''We will not stop; we will not be deterred. We will continue to secure our borders until relieved by our military and National Guard.''
The Minuteman Project has been an irritant in U.S.-Mexico relations, albeit only one of many factors at play.
Pressure on the Mexican government to stop illegal immigration to the United States, differences over the death penalty, the application of criminal justice to Mexican citizens incarcerated in U.S. jails, and the renewal of a U.S. State Department advisory warning U.S. travelers about narcotics-related criminal violence in Mexico's border cities, have added to tension between the two countries.
Mexico's foreign secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez Baustista, said that the Minutemen appeared to be acting out of frustration. ''They are trying to take the [drug] war into their own hands,'' he told a group of University of Texas-Pan American students in Edinburg, Texas last month.
The group's high-profile vigil also took place as the U.S. Congress moved toward passage of a supplemental spending bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that also contains a provision requiring states to verify the legal immigration status of each applicant for a driver's license.
At the local level, law enforcement and border patrol agents had voiced fears that the Minutemen would disrupt their operations even as civil rights groups mobilised volunteers of their own to watch for Minuteman abuses against people they spotted or intercepted.
In the end, no major incidents were reported although border patrol agents complained that the Minutemen repeatedly had inadvertently set off motion sensors and alarms aimed at tracking potential illegal immigrants. Each time this happened, personnel had to be pulled off their regular duties to re-set the sensors.
Indeed, their efforts earned them glowing praise from Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood celebrity turned California's embattled Republican governor.
The Minutemen had come in and done a ''terrific'' job, Schwarzenegger told a Los Angeles radio station. The governor added that they were welcome to set up shop on his state's border with Mexico.
He previously had told newspaper editors and publishers that the border with Mexico should be ''sealed'' -- a word he later changed to ''secured.''
Schwarzenegger, hit by news of dipping poll numbers, appears to have decided to follow the lead of Pete Wilson, the former governor of California who supported Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant initiative that passed handily in 1994, and stake his political future to immigration issues.
''It is probably the result of bad advice from some of his advisors who are panicked about his plummeting popularity,'' said Marc Cooper, a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the University of Southern California. ''It's a risky strategy and almost certainly doomed for failure in California,'' he added.
The Minutemen, criticised as ''vigilantes'' by President George W. Bush, also received generally favourable media coverage. Thousands of news stories were written about them, boosting the national and international profile of what remains, essential, a relatively small number of ''true believers'', said Cooper.
The idea that a 21st century Gunfight at the OK Corral might materialise in a southern Arizona town was too much to resist, according to Cooper. ''No one in the media, it seems, wanted to be the one who told his or her boss that they had trekked out to the border for no reason. So [reporters] obediently played their role as enablers to the publicity-starved organisers,'' he said.
Additionally, news stories generally ignored the connection of several Minuteman principals to white-supremacist organisations.
''Initially there were some reports of extremist connections to the Minutemen,'' Cooper said. ''Overall, however, they got a free ride from the media and much of the surface-level craziness that could be garnered in the most cursory interviews was underplayed.''
A May 2 round-up in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, omitted key background details for sources quoted in the story: for example, that Minuteman Project co-founder Chris Simcox, a Tombstone, Arizona, newspaper publisher, also founded the state's extremist, private Civil Homeland Defense Corps.
Likewise, the article focused on but failed to explore the background of Minuteman volunteer Joe McCutchen, a 73-year-old retired pilot who spent three weeks in the Arizona desert.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights research and advocacy group, McCutchen in June 2003 wrote a letter to the Southwest Times Record newspaper of Fort Smith, Arkansas, that ''the central government, banking, media (radio/TV) and entertainment are controlled by Jews.'' Jews, he added, also ''own the world monetary system.''
Last January, McCutchen went on to found a group called Protect Arkansas Now. He could not be reached for immediate comment.
In any event, Schwarzenegger might get his own vigilantes. The Friends of the Border Patrol, a California-based volunteer organisation made up of 300 retired police officers, military personnel, pilots, and other citizens, has offered to set up its own ''Minuteman-style vigil'' in August. The group is led by Andy Ramirez. Previously, Ramirez headed Save Our State, which took part in a successful bid to block California lawmakers from authorizing driving licenses for illegal immigrants.
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