A group of illegal migrants along the Arizona border became the first to encounter the controversial Minutemen this year.
The family of five had been lost in the desert for several days without food and water. The first structure they stumbled upon turned out to be a ranch used as the headquarters for the Minutemen. The family was turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Once again, a group of about 200, mostly older men and women, have taken their lawn chairs and staked out sections of the U.S.-Mexico border to observe and report illegal crossings to homeland defense authorities.
This is the second year for the all-volunteer force, and early indications suggest the number of Minutemen may eventually eclipse the number who spent a month on the border last year.
The group says it will have 1,000 volunteers in Arizona to mount around-the-clock shifts for the next 30 days. Last year some 300 to 400 volunteers showed up.
"We want border security first," said Chris Simcox, the national leader of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, as the group now calls itself.
Simcox says four watering stations set up by the group Human Borders to keep migrants from dying in the desert will be among the sites under surveillance.
Last year 400 people died trying to cross the desert, many of them from dehydration.
"We watch those stations all the time," Simcox said. "It's a great place to report illegal activities."
The Minutemen said they've learned new methods -- such as identifying specific smuggler routes -- from their efforts last year.
When the group first deployed there last year, there were several false alarms. In one case, a group of the volunteers pointed to what they believed to be "suspicious activity" on the Mexican border.
After closer inspection, it turned out to be a news crew from a Mexican television station.
The Border Patrol also criticized some of the Minutemen for tripping motion-detection sensors that are buried along the border.
This time many of the patrols will focus on private ranch lands about 20 to 35 miles north of the border -- the busiest area for smuggling migrants in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.
So far, government agents have caught 48,000 people in the area since October, a 53 percent increase over the same period last year.
The group says its orders are the same this year. Volunteers are not to detain the migrants but to simply report their presence. Arizona law allows the Minutemen to carry side arms but most do not and simply spend their time peering through binoculars at the desolate landscape.
"This is like sticking a finger in the dike," said Ken Raymond, a retired engineer from Tucson.
But other Minutemen, including retired school administrator J. Glenn Sorensen, said the publicity was worth it. "I'm concerned about what's not being done by the government -- hasn't been done for ages," he said.
In all, eight states along the Mexican and Canadian borders will be staked out by the volunteers.
In addition to the Arizona apprehensions, a group of migrants crossing the New Mexico border was also reported to the authorities. "We hadn't been on the line more than 30 minutes when we spotted our first group of seven," said Bob Wright, director the state's Minuteman group.
The operation comes at a time when congressional efforts to reform immigration laws have put the issue at the center of a growing national debate.
Although last year's project was peaceful, the Minutemen were criticized as "vigilantes."
President Bush, who favors a guest worker program that would allow illegal immigrants already holding jobs in the United States to stay, denounced "vigilantism" last year, without referring to any group in particular. This year he has said nothing so far.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also returned to the border to keep an eye on the Minutemen. "We're not necessarily opposed to the actions of the Minutemen to express themselves and to engage in what they call political protest," Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Arizona, told The Associated Press.
"It's where they have the potential of taking actions and enforcing immigration laws or attempting to enforce immigration laws that's troubling," she said.
Meanwhile, the Border Patrol has again remained neutral. "We neither support them nor oppose them," spokesman Gus Soto told The Associated Press. "But we do have concerns with any civilian patrols or groups out there," he added.