Ivan Dummick and his brother-in-law, Scott Inbody, leaned back in their lawn chairs and trained their binoculars on the Mexican border only a hundred feet away.
"My brother-in-law calls me and he says, 'Hey, you want to go to Arizona and have an adventure?' So I said, sure, let's go," Dummick said. The two men -- along with nearly 400 other civilians -- call themselves "Minutemen." The group is composed of mostly retired men who have formed an all-volunteer civilian border patrol.
For the next 30 days, they will rotate shifts around the clock to keep an eye on the Arizona-Mexico border. They're looking for illegal immigrants and smugglers who cross through a porous stretch of sun-baked desert in southeast Arizona. "I think it's a very high priority after 9/11," Inbody said.
The group was organized by Chris Simcox, a 44-year-old former kindergarten teacher from Los Angeles who moved to Tombstone, Ariz., a few years ago, bought the local newspaper and took on the illegal immigration issue. "This area is one of the hottest spots in the country," he told ABC News during a recent tour of the 20-mile stretch of the border where the Minutemen have deployed. "There are hundreds of 'illegals' over that border just waiting to cross," he added.
Many of the volunteers are armed with handguns, which are legal in Arizona as long as the weapon is not concealed. Simcox said he has given the men strict orders not to use their guns. "I told everyone we're to spot and report," he explained. "We're to be vigilant, alert, observant and to report suspicious activity to appropriate authorities."
Concern From Officials, Anger From Some Residents
Border Patrol agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection are the "appropriate authority" along this stretch of border with 2,200 agents assigned here and another 500 to be deployed by September. But Simcox said they have failed to keep illegal immigrants from crossing. In fact, the 370-mile Arizona border is considered the most violated section of the 2000-mile-long southern boundary of the United States. Of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants caught last year, more than half were intercepted in Arizona.
Border Patrol spokesman Jose Garza said the Minutemen are doing nothing illegal, but he worries that the volunteers could injure someone or be hurt themselves. "The Mexican smuggling organizations are willing to assault our agents, and they're going to be willing to assault these civilians who put themselves in harm's way," he said.
Others have labeled the Minutemen vigilantes. Ray Borane, the mayor of nearby Douglas, a border town of 15,000 mostly Hispanic residents, is incensed. "They have a lynch-mob mentality, especially when it comes to dealing with illegal immigrants," he said. The Minutemen "have no training, no sensitivity. They come in here and have a good time chasing these people down and then leave. That doesn't set very well with us here."
Lots of Attention, Unclear Results
So what has the group accomplished so far? On Saturday, several of the volunteers radioed their leaders to report a group of about 18 migrants headed toward the barbed-wire fence that marks the border. On Sunday, they said they observed another immigrant and alerted the Border Patrol. But Garza told ABC News that Border Patrol agents had already spotted the same people and turned them back.
But it wasn't just the Border Patrol and Minutemen on the border this past weekend. Several college students working for the American Civil Liberties Union kept watch over the operation. One of the students, Matt Liebman, said his assignment was to "look for and document abuses against the migrants." But, he said, so far so good. "Nothing rises to the level of any abuse today," he said.
At about the same time, there was a flurry excitement just down the road. "See! There's somebody standing right up there!" said Simcox, who pointed at a lone figure standing on a hilltop on the Mexican side of the border. A closer look revealed the individual was carrying a camera. Simcox quickly picked up his two-way radio. "Those are reporters," he told his base station.
Mexican reporters were watching American reporters watching the Minutemen, Border Patrol and ACLU volunteers.
It could be a long month.