They are coming with night-vision goggles, cellphones and possibly guns. They plan to unfold their lawn chairs within spitting distance of the Canada-U.S. border on Oct. 1. Then they will just wait and watch for the stream of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and terrorists they are certain they will see stepping across the line.
An army of American volunteers concerned about what they perceive as the wide-open border have decided to take national security into their own hands.
After a highly successful operation in Arizona last April, the so-called Minuteman Project has turned its attention to the northern border. While continuing to expand in states along the Mexican border, the group is organizing volunteers in 11 northern border states and is currently looking for recruits in eight Canadian provinces, spokesperson Connie Hair said yesterday in an interview from the organization's headquarters in Arizona.
In preparation for the October operation, the Minuteman Project has planned a four-day recruitment drive and training session for Michigan and Ontario, beginning Aug. 24.
The volunteers are worried about criminals, terrorists and illegal workers crossing the border, despite stepped-up efforts by government-funded border patrols. The group wants to bolster border security to ensure people who enter illegally are caught, Ms. Hair said.
When they spot someone crossing the border, they are expected to immediately notify the border patrol.
The Minuteman group has been characterized in the United States as armed vigilantes and widely criticized. But Ms. Hair said they are more like a Neighbourhood Watch group with legitimate security concerns.
"No one ever does the math," Ms. Hair said. "In one county where the national leadership of this movement comes from, Cochise County, Arizona, 265,000 people, according to the border patrol, were apprehended illegally entering the country in 2004. The bureaucrats in border patrol say three to four people get in undetected for every one they find. . . . That's over 720,000 people last year."
The Minuteman Project, associated with the Minuteman Civil Defence Corps, was formed earlier this year in response to publicity about people entering Arizona illegally. Californian Jim Gilchrist sent an e-mail to a few friends.
"He said, 'Let's get a border patrol together, called Minuteman, because this is just getting out of hand,' " Ms. Hair said. "And it just built from there." Mr. Gilchrist declined to be interviewed yesterday.
The group carried out its first operation in April. Hundreds of people showed up to patrol a 40-kilometre stretch along the Mexico-Arizona border. They were assisted by three unmanned aerial vehicles and 38 pilots with their own private planes.
"October is the start of the second operation and this won't end," Ms. Hair said. "We're planning to go 24/7."
As part of its effort to launch a coast-to-coast border watch, Minuteman recruited about 100 volunteers last month in Washington state. Chris Simcox, president of the civil defence corps, spent two weeks in the state organizing two chapters around the time that border authorities revealed they had discovered a tunnel connecting Washington and British Columbia for smuggling drugs, and possibly people.
Mr. Simcox has previously told a U.S. newspaper that he was concerned about Canada's openness to refugees.
"Canada just takes everybody," he told The Bellingham Herald. "These folks realize our border security is zero. . . . We've identified over 200 roads that cross the border in the North that have no checkpoints. It's just so easy."
Joe Giuliano, a deputy chief patrol agent with the U.S. border patrol south of Vancouver, said the Minuteman volunteers, if they work within the law, would be doing exactly what authorities would like all citizens to do, which is to keep their eyes open and report any possible illegal activities they see.
"We go into communities and encourage people to do just that," Mr. Giuliano said. "The fact that these Minuteman people have a political agenda, or are very visible and make themselves known, does not make them any different to me. They are still eyes and ears in the community," he said.
He also said he was not concerned that they may be armed. "As long as they are abiding by the laws of the jurisdiction they are in, they can go wherever they want to go. If they misuse their weapons or carry them without authorization, then there would be cause for local [authorities]to take action," he said.
The Minuteman organizers met recently with Bill Elfo, the sheriff of Whatcom County, Washington, which runs along the Canada-U. S. border from the Pacific Ocean to the east side of the Cascade Mountains. They explained to him what they intend to do.
He does not consider them vigilantes, he said. They are allowed to carry weapons so long as they acquire the proper permits.
"There's a right to bear and carry firearms, as long as they are carrying them for their own protection and not using them to go out and apprehend people. That's their right. It is a little different philosophy down here with guns," he said.
The Minuteman members say they will report any illegal border crossings to authorities, Sheriff Elfo said. "As long as that is what they are doing, and not taking the law into their own hands, we welcome them."