At least a couple of times a week, Ernie Kubr gets off the night shift and fires up his computer at his home in Nebraska so that he can watch for illegal immigrants trying to slip across the Arizona desert 1,400 miles away.
Kubr uses his mouse to pan with a video camera across desert trails, and stands ready to report anyone he sees to federal authorities in Arizona. He has spotted people twice since he started doing this in November, and "that makes it all worthwhile," even though none of them got caught.
"Sometimes it can be discouraging, but knowing that I'm attempting to do the federal government's job helps inspire me," said Kubr, who works at a manufacturing business in the Omaha area and belongs to an amateur border-watching group called the TechnoPatriots.
Self-appointed border-watchers are increasingly using remotely operated cameras to catch people sneaking into the country. The cameras represent a high-tech twist on the usual practice of sitting in lawn chairs or pickups close to the border.
"A lot of folks can't take the time to come down to the border," said TechnoPatriots co-founder Jon Healy, who lives in Arizona. "This gives them an opportunity to not only vent that passion but to have an effect on the outcome, to report to the Border Patrol."
The roughly 90 members of the TechnoPatriots live as far away as New York and as close as just a few miles from the border, conducting their surveillance using five wireless cameras set up by the organization in Arizona.
The cameras include a daytime color videocam and a thermal imaging device for nighttime viewing, both mounted on a motor home. The others are mounted on telephone poles on private property.
The TechnoPatriots claim that from the program's launch in November through late March, they made 160 sightings that led to 118 people getting caught. The Border Patrol could not confirm those numbers, saying it does not log the names or affiliations of tipsters.
Even if the number is accurate, it is an extremely small share of the more than 1,000 people caught every day in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which includes most of the Arizona-Mexico border.
Nevertheless, Tucson sector spokesman Jesus "Chuy" Rodriguez said of the TechnoPatriots: "Any time that you can get people to call in and report illegal activity, that's helpful to us. If we can go out and verify, that's a good call."
Border cameras not new
Another group, the American Border Patrol, also has a camera up on the Internet. A California chapter of the Minuteman organization uses a thermal imaging camera. And last month, the state of Texas asked for bids for a system of Internet-wired border cameras. Citizens will be encouraged to contact authorities if they see suspected illegal immigrants.
In 2006, Texas ran a one-month pilot program, called the Texas Border Neighborhood Watch, that used 24 cameras. The Web site had more than 27 million hits, and law enforcement officers apprehended an undisclosed number of people based on at least seven calls, authorities said.
The U.S. government has been using cameras and electronic sensors for years.
Healy, part-owner of a company that installs wireless systems, telephones and high-speed Internet, said he launched his video project after learning that his business competitors in Arizona were underbidding him by using illegal immigrant workers.
The TechnoPatriots charge members a $10 one-time fee, and Healy said those who want to become "armchair warriors" are interviewed to weed out racists and other undesirables.
Called to border duty
Some border-watching groups have been decried as racists and vigilante crackpots. But Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog organization that tracks hate groups, said of the TechnoPatriots: "I can't object to someone electronically trying to help the Border Patrol. I don't see this as the answer to the immigration issue. But I don't see this as some sort of evil, racist plan."
The Minuteman organization's pioneering Arizona chapter does not use cameras.
"I don't know that it will effectively lead to apprehensions," Minuteman national President Chris Simcox said. "Pragmatically, we're more interested in being out there helping the ranchers, helping our neighbors," and helping the Border Patrol.