A right-wing run on the border

Arizona's "Minuteman" group of border vigilantes is small potatoes, but has cooked up some big hype.

Published April 5, 2005 9:44PM (EDT)

In another instance of a fringe right-wing group nabbing international attention with the help of the sensation-seeking mainstream media, the volunteer militia that calls itself the Minuteman Project has ridden a wave of fascination since its sparse membership stormed the Arizona border last Friday. According to Tuesday's L.A. Times, only about 200 members of the allegedly 1,000-strong Minuteman force have reported for duty -- putting the group's numbers at about a 1-1 ratio with the swarm of reporters who showed up to cover the story.

The project doesn't have much in the way of public support, even from the right wing -- President Bush has called the project's participants vigilantes, and conservative message board Free Republic removed a thread on the subject, with the comment "Sorry, FR will not be used to support Minuteman." And the citizen border patrol story isn't exactly breaking news -- Minuteman field operations director Chris Simcox told Salon about his attempt to start a homegrown militia in 2003. But because Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist started a media blitz weeks before the operation's April 1 kickoff, there was plenty of time to turn a fringe group's outing into a media spectacle. And according to Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, the media played right into his hands: "This thing was a dog and pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out and it worked."

For Gilchrist and Simcox, the goal is to increase U.S. border patrol support in states that border Mexico. And, for this week at least, they've succeeded: The U.S. Border Patrol bumped its Arizona numbers up 500 in anticipation of the Minuteman deployment. But it may be too soon for the project to declare victory -- the boost in border security most likely reflected the need to protect U.S. and Mexican citizens from an advancing militia, not a longer-term capitulation to the demands of its organizers.

Immigration is a major -- and contentious -- security issue these days, but according to Manhattan Institute immigration expert Tamar Jacoby, the Minuteman Project won't reap much reward from its wag-the-dog tactics: "My read on it is that it has fizzled. This project is not going to prove anything."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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