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PALOMINAS, Ariz. — Jim Gilchrist bounced into the Trading Post diner here Monday, ordered coffee and toast and began smoking vigorously.
His cellphone occasionally rang, his two-way radio squawked and a coterie of followers hung on his every word.
Things were going better than he could imagine. The founder of the Minuteman Project, designed to put volunteers on the southeastern Arizona border to deter illegal immigrants, had attracted more than 200 journalists from around the world.
Mexico responded with more troops and extra police at the border to deter migrants. The U.S. Border Patrol boosted its ranks by 500 agents and Gilchrist had become a minor, if international, celebrity.
“None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the Minuteman action,” he said. “This thing was a dog and pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out and it worked.”
Indeed it did. For weeks, the 56-year-old retired accountant from Aliso Viejo had promised 1,000 volunteers would be arriving in Arizona come April. But when the activists showed up Friday, they numbered about 200, a roughly 1-to-1 ratio with members of the news media.
The Minutemen’s presence set off some protests from immigrant-rights groups, and Mexican President Vicente Fox called on the U.S. government to protect illegal immigrants coming across the desert.
President Bush outraged many of the activists by calling them vigilantes. They responded by calling Bush the co-president of Mexico and a leader who had failed his responsibility to secure the country’s borders.
On Monday, the official start of the monthlong project, Gilchrist said there were 450 Minutemen, though the number could not be verified. He also said the volunteers had aided in the arrest of 146 illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol would not confirm the figure or say what role the activists had played in any apprehensions.
Despite the attention they have garnered, not everyone thinks the Minutemen have been successful.
“My read on it is that it has fizzled,” said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank. “This project is not going to prove anything. All it will prove is that you can funnel immigration from one place to another.”
When asked what he’d do if there were no changes at the border after the Minutemen left, he put on his best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice.
“I’ll be back,” he growled.
A breakdown of Border Patrol apprehensions in the Naco, Ariz., region from Wednesday through Sunday. Minuteman Project volunteers began gathering Friday and launched patrols in the area Monday:
Wednesday … 302
Thursday … 296
Friday … 205
Saturday … 91
Sunday … 103
(Posted on April 7, 2005)