By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/4/2005 11:32:33 AM ET 2005-05-04T15:32:33

The month-long volunteer effort by a grassroots citizen group monitoring illegal immigration along a desolate 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border ended much as it started: in a war of words.

The so-called Minuteman Project says its nearly 900 volunteers, some of them armed, were so successful that during April the border area they monitored witnessed “a 98 percent reduction in border crossings.”  But the number is difficult to independently verify.

The Minuteman Project also claims it was directly responsible for the apprehension by U.S. Border Patrol agents of 349 people trying to illegally enter the United States during the month, according to Grey Deacon, a spokesman for the project. 

During their watch on the border, if Minuteman volunteers spotted possible illegal entry attempts they called a Border Patrol hotline, Deacon said. The Border Patrol then responded to make the apprehension, he said.  “We had a volunteer standing there asking ‘what is the official count you got from this’ and they give us the count and that’s what we use [for our statistics], the actual hands-on verified count,” Deacon said.

For its part, the Border Patrol reported that through April 26, it had received 526 calls from citizens in the area where the Minutemen were patrolling. Andrea Zortman, a spokesperson for the Border Patrol, said those citizen calls resulted in 1,327 apprehensions. But she said the Border Patrol does not break out who made the calls, making it difficult to verify Minuteman claims. 

There’s no denying that some kind of deterrent is taking place along the Arizona-Mexico border. In April 2004, according to Zortman, the Border Patrol made a total of 27,594 apprehensions in the 87-mile long Naco-Douglas border area, a portion of which was patrolled by the Minutemen. This April, apprehensions in that same area dropped to 11,482, including the 1,327 that were a result of citizen phone calls.

The reduction in apprehensions is “definitely not [attributed] to any citizens on the border,” Zortman said.  Instead, she said that Border Patrol programs both this year and last intended to permanently beef up patrol efforts, resulted in fewer attempts to illegally cross the border.  In addition, Zortman said a strong presence “on the south side” from Mexican military and law enforcement is helping a great deal.

Border Patrol officials dismiss any notion that the Minuteman presence in April was anything other an occasional nuisance, including setting off more than 200 false alerts from motion sensors as they tread too close to the border, Zortman said.

Morphing Minutemen
The Minuteman Project, feeding on the success of its media attention is expanding.  The group’s original organizers have already been to Washington to lobby for support. 

The group plans to expand to several other states, including California, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington, Deacon said, with early June being a target date for California.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, already in hot water over remarks he made about closing the border, which he later recanted and blamed on “bad English,” told a Los Angeles radio talk show last week that the Minutemen had done a “terrific” job.  He went on to say: "They've cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you make an effort. It's just that our federal government is not doing their job."

Those remarks drew criticism from the Mexican Foreign Relations office that put out a statement saying: “These types of unfortunate pronouncements are not the way to achieve a better understanding between our country and California.”

The Minutemen head into California a decade after a federal crackdown on illegal immigration, known as “Operation Gatekeeper,” was put in place along the California-Mexico border.  That effort succeeded only in that it pushed illegal immigration eastward, into Arizona, which has now become the overwhelming corridor of illegal immigration into the U.S., according to government statistics. 

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