Brock N. Meeks  /  MSNBC.com
Deborah Shodler, left, of Mission Viejo, Calif. and Holly Hilburn of Tucson, Ariz. hold opposing views while demonstrating outside the registration hall of the Minuteman Project in Tombstone, Ariz. on March 31.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 6/10/2005 4:16:01 PM ET 2005-06-10T20:16:01

Al Phillips absent-mindedly fingers the well-worn leather holster of the .357 magnum on his hip and ponders a question about his intention to use the gun during his participation in the Minuteman Project along a patch of Arizona's border with Mexico. “I hope to not have to use it,” he says, smiling and squinting into the morning sun, “but there might be rattlesnakes.” 

Phillips is one of about 400 citizen volunteers who have flocked here to take part in the month-long effort to patrol the country's most porous border for illegal immigrant crossings. The 54 year-old from Tennessee  -- a former corrections officer, who has put down a couple of prison riots in his time -- says he’s ready for anything to happen, but hopes nothing does.  “I seen a lot of bad guys and I’ve read some of the reports… you don’t know what anybody’s thinking.”

Long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Phillips said he’d been concerned about illegal immigration and the permeability of U.S. borders.  He says he even wrote President Clinton, “and all I got back was a mimeographed letter that didn’t even mention the border.” 

So when he heard about the Minuteman Project, Phillips decided to “put my eyes where my mouth is, and that’s all I’m doing.”

A rag tag army
Those, like Phillips, who have gathered here comprise a crazy quilt of backgrounds.  Retired truck drivers, pharmacists, aerospace engineers, oil industry workers, ex-F.A.A. radio operators and Vietnam veterans all mingle.  Some speak in the clipped, measured syntax of former Marine officers, and others in halting double-negatives.  Some are armed, but most are not.  There's a degree of bravado in the atmosphere. They’ve all arrived reading from different pages of the same script -- frustration, and sometimes anger, about how the government has made it so easy for illegal immigrants to slip into the country.

Brock N. Meeks  /  MSNBC.com
Al Phillips, retired corrections officer, waits to register for the Minuteman Project.  Phillips will wear his .357 magnum, shown here, during his participation.

The volunteers made the sojourn to this tiny frontier town that on April 1 became the jumping off point for a month of real-time activism against what the Minuteman organizers say is a looming social, economic and political crisis:  the nearly unstoppable flood of illegal immigrants coming across the southwestern border.

The Border Patrol says 1.15 million people were apprehended in the last fiscal year trying to illegally enter the country through  the 2,000 mile southwestern border.  Nearly 600,000 alone were caught trying to enter through Arizona. The Minuteman volunteers are now patrolling a 23-mile stretch of border in the San Pedro Valley of eastern Arizona.

Though project organizers promised more 1,000 participants, only a few hundred arrived for the initial registration and orientation.  And about 200 were pulling duty on the border during the first week, according to organizers. 

“My participation will be in public awareness,” said Greg Sheehan, 43, a hotel operator and former Marine with a criminal justice degree. Sheehan said he hopes the project is “making people aware that as hard as the Border Patrol is trying to do their job they are undermanned and that our government is doing little to nothing to stem the flow of uncontrolled immigration into our country.  And we need to have control.”

'A third world dumping ground'
Many of the participants cast a wary eye at the media horde that swarmed around them during week one.  Joe McCutchen, a 73-year old pharmacist from Fort Smith, Ark., snorted when overhearing a reporter’s interview, denouncing “the bulls**t questions,” of an ignorant media. 

McCutchen, who also is a pilot that will fly one of the 16 planes the Minuteman Project has at its disposal, said the media “hasn’t come out of the closet” on the immigration issue.  “We want open debate on this, a discussion, an objective discussion and you’re just not giving us the opportunity.” 

Calling himself a “constitutional conservative” that believes “both political parties are corrupt to the core,” McCutchen is angry at what he sees as a national crisis that no one in Washington is willing to take on.  “We’ve become a third world dumping ground,” he says.  “No society can sustain somewhere between three and four million immigrants a year, half of which are illegal,” he says.  “And we’re losing our language, which is the cement of any culture or society,” noting that in his city of 75,000, “we’ve got 23 foreign languages spoken in that school district.  No society can survive that, I don’t care who you are.”

He also lays blame across the border, at the Mexican government, which he calls “our enemy,” but his “big beef” is with President Bush and the Congress for not doing enough.

The language factor and the drain on public resources sounded time and time again among participants.

“The block I live on there’s three people that speak English and rest you can’t even talk to,” said Vic Simmons, 60, a retired F.A.A. radio communication engineer from Mentone, Calif., about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Simmons, his white hair streaked with the last reminders of his youthful blonde and pulled back into a pony-tail, waxed on about his inability to communicate.  “There are six neighbors I can’t hold a conversation with; I wave to them but they can’t speak English.  It’s not proper.”

Simmons planned to work on radio communications for the Minuteman Project, acting as a “radio repeater” from inside the mobile home he drove from California.  He has no illusions that the Minuteman Project will stop anybody from crossing the border, but the publicity, he hopes, will move the president to “get some more Border Patrol agents down here and maybe he’ll build the [border] fence up.”

The current fence, made from metal landing strips used in Vietnam to repair bombed out runways, is a joke, he says.  “They need a block wall like they built over in Israel.  That keeps people out.”

Detriment or deterrent?
There is no way to officially tell if the Minuteman presence is having a deterrent effect.  The Border Patrol reported that in four days during the Minuteman Project's first week agents apprehended 162 people based on 78 calls from citizens.  But there is no way to quantify how many, if any, of those calls were from Minuteman volunteers.

What is known is that volunteers are unwittingly setting off motion detector sensors along the border.  These sensors, hidden along major pathways, send alarms back to a Border Patrol command center.  Each time a sensor goes off, agents are dispatched to investigate. 

Agents responding to those false alarms are taken away from their routine patrols, Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Jose Maheda told the Associated Press.  “It’s taken away from our normal operations,” he said.

And despite the Minuteman credo to “observe only,” the potential for violence is high.  During this fiscal year, begun in October, there were 129 incidents of hostile contacts between Border Patrol agents and people trying to enter the country illegally along the 261-mile stretch of border known as the Tucson Sector, said Andrea Zortman, a Border Patrol spokesperson.  That equals the total for the entire previous fiscal year. 

Brock N. Meeks  /  MSNBC.com
Two unidentified armed men wait in line in Tombstone, Ariz., March 31st, to register as volunteers for the Minuteman Project.

“That means that they’re getting more desperate, that we’re doing our job down here, they’re trying to get through by any means possible,” Maheda told MSNBC.com during a ride-a-long on the border.

Add to that increase of violent encounters an unknown number of armed Minuteman volunteers and you have a volatile mix of emotion and apprehension. 

"The possibility for something going drastically wrong is very high," Maheda told the Associated Press.

Money for nothing, illegals get it free
Others think it’s about money.  The illegal immigrants “are costing us,” says Nancy Hubbard of Temecula, Calif.  “The kid in public schools, costs $6,000 to $8,000 a year,” she said.  “If they are illegal they don’t belong here and we should not be responsible to educate them when Mexico is flowing with natural resources that they don’t give their people,” said Hubbard, a former school teacher.

For others participation in the Minuteman Project is merely an extension of work they’ve been doing for years.  Robert Casimiro, 67, from Weymouth, Mass., is executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform.  This retired engineer now devotes his time to trying to roll back the legal immigration levels as well as see that immigration laws on the books are actually enforced. 

Casimiro, who is volunteering for night patrol duty, is camped out in a tent in a barren field belonging to the Miracle Bible College, which has rented out its field to volunteers. Casimiro says he plans to stay the whole month but “might have to leave early because of a vote” regarding immigration issues that’s coming up in the Massachusetts state house. 

For Casimiro, an incident that occured three years ago in his hometown --  2,800 miles from here -- fuels his passion and illustrates why, he says, many people have volunteered for the Minuteman Project. 

“An illegal alien fell asleep at the wheel coming home from work one night, crossed a double-yellow line and killed a resident of my town,” Casimiro said.  The man was charged with manslaughter but the judge set bail at $2,500.  “This individual paid cash and disappeared,” never to be seen again, Casimiro said.  “There have been several incidents like that,” he said.  “So even way back in Massachusetts we know that our problems are stemming from what’s happening or not happening on this border and the fact that we’re not enforcing our laws on immigration,” he said.  

Fred Puckett, 60, who lives in Cochise County that encompasses Tombstone, is a disabled Vietnam veteran that says he “lives this problem every day.”  He’s come here to do whatever he can, despite his physical limitations.  “I’ll be in reserve,” he says.  “I’ll haul trash, get water, do whatever needs to be done.”

He believes the situation is critical and that Washington needs to wake up and soon.

“Here’s what I worry about: the al-Qaida ,” Puckett said.  “These people are not going to wake up in this country until the top of a Wal-Mart is blown off, and I’m scared,” he said.  “If you was a terrorist, how could you hurt people the worst?  Go into a small country school and blow it up.”

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