America’s Minutemen build their own $1million fence against Mexican migrants

Posted by admin on Jan 2nd, 2007

America’s Minutemen build their own fence against Mexican migrants. Dan Glaister in Naco, Arizona. Tuesday January 2, 2007. The Guardian

Two men stand working in the afternoon sun just yards from the US-Mexico border. Clad in hard hats and work shirts, tool belts slung around their waists, they have been toiling at this spot in the Arizona desert since early October. One holds an iron stanchion while the other bolts a horizontal bar to it. But before the joint can be tightened, the whole structure starts to sway. A shout goes up: “Watch out!” The five metre pole lurches toward the dry red earth, bringing its neighbour down with it. The latest weapon in the fight against undocumented migrants looks a little shaky.

The iron and steel fence is the latest project from the Minutemen, the volunteer group of anti-immigration activists that has placed itself at the sharp end of the immigration debate since launching a highly publicised series of border watches in 2005. Now, frustrated at what the group sees as the inaction of government, it has taken matters a step further, building its own border fence at a cost of around $1m (£510,000) at one of the busiest points on the line, 90 miles from Tucson.

“It’s not only a symbol, although its creation is symbolic of something,” says Al Garza, national executive director of the Minuteman Civil Defence Corps. “It’s saying: Congress, Mr President, we’ve pleaded, now we’re demanding. You’ve told us it can’t be done, well we’re just a handful of people and we’re doing it.”

Wearing a white Stetson and bearing a crisply trimmed white moustache, Mr Garza is the picture of a border activist. A retiree who moved to Arizona from California less than four years ago, he served in the US Marine Corps and worked as a private investigator in California for 35 years.

“We know that the observation won’t quash or deter immigration,” he says, “so we thought what was the alternative: a fence.”

But there is a flaw in the Minutemen’s plan. While the US-Mexico border stretches for 1,993 miles, from California to Florida, the Minuteman fence when finished will be just one mile long.

Despite this apparent drawback, Mr Garza is adamant that the fence will have an effect. “It’s also deterring traffic from that particular area, which is heavily, heavily travelled. One mile out here is very crucial, so that’s one mile the Border Patrol won’t have to scout.”

Others, however, doubt whether a fence will have any effect. “They’ll just go around this fence in the way they go around others,” says Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute thinktank in Washington DC. “All a fence will do is direct people to more remote areas and create the likelihood of more deaths.”

The Minuteman fence is being built on a private ranch between the towns of Douglas and Naco. While the border around the towns is fortified by six-metre high welded steel panels, the point where the Minutemen are building their fence is marked by a barbed wire fence and some iron bars. It is an unconvincing barrier.

“Until the Minutemen came along and really raised national awareness about this there was nothing like this,” says Connie Faust, a Minuteman volunteer who has just taken charge of building the fence. “This was all holes in the fence. Cattle were coming through, illegal aliens were coming through. It’s been a real problem for the ranchers out here.”

Like Mr Garza, Ms Faust is a recent arrival on the border, moving from Montana three years ago. Like Mr Garza too, her conversion to the Minuteman cause came to her thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel.

While Mr Garza had been impressed when he saw Minuteman co-founder Chris Simcox interviewed on the channel, Ms Faust joined up after seeing the group’s other founder, Jim Gilchrist, on the channel’s Hannity and Colmes show. She went straight to the Minuteman website and signed on.

“When I lived in Montana I would hear [Fox host] Bill O’Reilly but it didn’t really mean that much to me,” she says. “When I came here to Arizona it started to make sense.”

Ms Faust puts her hand against a completed section of the fence. “This is a slice of it,” she says, running her hands along the metal grille firmly held by iron posts set in concrete. “Then we’ll have razor wire on the top of it.”

Small US flags hang from the completed parts of the fence; a full-size Stars and Stripes hangs from one post. “That’s my father’s casket flag,” Ms Faust says. “He would have been very proud. He served in the second world war. And we have a thousand of these small flags that we’ll be putting out. These flags are made in America.”

A Border Patrol agent waves as he drives past, following the dirt road that runs between the border and the Minuteman fence. He stops on a small rise, just past the railway bridge known as Arnie’s Trestle. The railway line runs just inside Mexico.

“As they come along Arnie’s Trestle there they jump off the train,” says Ms Faust. “He goes slow, very slow. That’s a real hot spot.”

From there the migrants typically head north, to Tucson or Phoenix, having paid a “coyote” – the professional smuggler who brings them across the border – anything between $1,500 and $3,000.

The fence is at the heart of what is known as the Tucson sector, the busiest crossing-point on the border. Of 1.1m arrests made by the Border Patrol in 2005, almost half of them were here. This year the figure, in common with the entire border, has dropped, with 392,000 undocumented migrants held.

The decline in arrests – 27% down on last year – could be due to any number of reasons: the increase in Border Patrol officers, the presence of National Guard troops mandated by President George Bush last year, the tougher penalties imposed on those who are caught, the clampdown on undocumented workers in the US. Or it could be that the coyotes and their clients are getting better at dodging law enforcement. Nobody really knows and the figures are, at best, estimates.

“You wonder how many get by,” says TJ Bonner, president of the agents’ union, the 6,500 member National Border Patrol Council. “Our agents estimate that for every person we catch, two or three get by.” Mr Bonner sees the Minuteman fence as a publicity ploy. “I think the impact on day-to-day operations will be really minimal,” he says. “The larger impact of groups like the Minutemen is in bringing attention to the problem. The fence project is more of a public demonstration to shame the administration.”

The Minutemen began building their fence last October, the same month that President Bush signed into law an act that provided for the building of a 700-mile fence along part of the US-Mexico border. The act was the culmination of a year of partisan debate in Congress, fuelled by the activities of groups such as the Minutemen and the immigrants’ rights marches of last spring.

Unable to work out a compromise offering increased border security and an amnesty or some path to citizenship for those already in the US, Congress was only able to come up with the fence and a commitment to a “virtual” fence, a hi-tech series of initiatives designed to enforce border security.

But no funds were voted for the 700-mile fence, and its $7bn estimated cost mean that it is unlikely to be built. Meanwhile, estimates of the cost of the virtual fence have risen from $2bn to $30bn.

One thing most people agree on, however, is that the border is highly porous. The Department of Homeland Security this month said it had “effective control” over just 284 miles of the nation’s 1,993-mile southern border.

“It’s a very complex problem,” Connie Faust says, “and the first thing to solve the problem is to close the border, then we can deal with all these other issues.”

Behind her the four labourers hired by the Minutemen continue building the mile-long fence in the winter heat of the desert.

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