Minutemen watch U.S.-Canada border

BLAINE — Civilian volunteer Mark Forest of Oregon took a week off from work, left his wife and five kids at home in Salem and drove north to stand guard near here as a Minuteman at the U.S.-Canada border.

Yesterday, the 49-year-old accountant was on the lookout for any suspicious activity — namely, illegal immigrants trying to cross into the United States — at one of eight posts set up between Blaine and Sumas by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

The group of citizen volunteers says its mission is not to try to apprehend suspects themselves, but rather to report them to the local sheriff and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Yesterday, though, among the thicket of trees that surrounded Forest and separated him from Canada, there was little activity, save for a startled black cat that darted from the bushes, spotted Forest and quickly retreated.

Forest believes the Minuteman project has drawn attention to the problem of illegal immigration in this country.

"It's not about being a vigilante," he said. "I served my country in the Air Force. It should be the job of the government to take care of the problem of illegal immigration, but we can see that they are not doing their jobs."

Forest is one of about 15 Minutemen patrolling the border in Washington, part of an operation the group began Saturday and expects to continue all month. The group is trying to vastly expand its reach, placing temporary citizen-border patrols in states that border Mexico or Canada.

Here in the Northwest, between 60 and 100 volunteers are expected to come through for the monthlong operation, according to Tom Williams, a retired police psychologist who lives in Deming, Whatcom County, and is heading up the operation here. Most are from the Northwest and many are retired from careers in the military or law enforcement, he said.

Saying it was concerned about the vast number of immigrants crossing the U.S. border from Mexico, the Minuteman group formed a year ago, conducting its first patrols along the border in Arizona in April. Even before a major tunnel for smuggling marijuana from British Columbia into Washington was discovered in July, the group had decided it also would set up patrols along the 4,000-mile northern border,.

In parts of its most remote sections, more than 200 roads snake between the two countries. While authorities on both sides beefed up staffing and security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many think the stretch remains highly vulnerable to illegal crossings, drug smuggling and especially terrorism.

The U.S. Border Patrol does not endorse what the Minutemen are doing, nor does it stop them as long as they follow the law.

The Minutemen have agreed to provide the Border Patrol with rosters of people they will have on-site and lists of which people are armed, and the volunteers have agreed to wear colored armbands so they can be easily identified, said Joe Giuliano, deputy chief of the Blaine Border Patrol Sector.

"They're here to present their political agenda," he said. "It is their right. They can keep doing that until they interfere with us or break the law."

Giuliano said it's too soon to say "whether we'll derive a benefit from this."

For now "it comes down to: We have to peacefully co-exist with one another for a month."

The group vigorously disputes concerns of critics that its members are vigilantes or racist at heart.

According to its Web site, www.minutemanhq.com, the aim is not a call to arms but rather an attempt to avert the "political, economic and social mayhem" that could result from the "chaotic neglect" of America's borders and immigration laws by the local, state and federal governments charged with enforcing them.

" ... The men and women volunteering for this mission are those who are willing to sacrifice their time, and the comforts of a cozy home, to muster for something much more important than acquiring more 'toys' to play with while their nation is devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens," the Web site reads.

"Future generations will inherit a tangle of rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures with no common bond to hold them together, and a certain guarantee of the death of this nation as a harmonious 'melting pot.' "

Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district includes Whatcom County and the Blaine sector's border crossings, said the Minutemen are not prepared to deal with the unique challenges of the northern border.

"Where our Southern Border battles a great deal of illegal immigration, the Northern Border's threats are more often drug, gun, and money smuggling by criminal organizations," Larsen said in a statement. "These unique threats call for trained law-enforcement professionals who are skilled in dealing with organized crime and our border's unique geography."

Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said his group would be working with citizen groups in Whatcom County to monitor the Minutemen.

"We want to make sure nobody is physically accosted or harassed," Honig said, citing earlier reports of people being stopped and harassed at the Mexico border while the Minutemen were patrolling in Arizona earlier this year. Honig did not know if those incidents involved Minutemen or people from other groups who may have been drawn to the action.

Magdaleno Rose-Avila, director of the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, is concerned that some Minutemen are armed.

"Every other citizens-watch committee I've heard of doesn't have guns," Rose-Avila said.

"How would people feel if there were large groups of African Americans, Somalis, Latinos going to any border and happening to have weapons on them? There would be a cry from many sectors of the enforcement community and the general community.

"Any time that you have vigilantes running around with guns, the history in America is not good. Do we have to wait till somebody gets killed or seriously injured?" he asked.

Each day here, the organization sends the local Border Patrol and the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office a roster with the names and location of volunteers, including those who are armed. As of yesterday, only two — a retired police officer and a Marine officer — were armed.

Williams said his members have seen no suspicious activity so far.

"It's not easy to keep motivated staring at the cornfields," he joked yesterday.

Williams acknowledges that in California, some organizers called for people to show up at a Minutemen event armed with Mace and baseball bats. They were asked to leave the organization, Williams said. He said any volunteer who talks to or approaches a suspicious person would be thrown out of the organization. "That's all we are — it's just a neighborhood watch on the border."

To join the Minutemen, volunteers pay $50, which covers the cost of a background check.

From his position along H Street Road, Forest, the Minuteman from Oregon, faced a padlocked gate across a dirt road. But much of the fencing had been ripped down. A person could simply walk across the border from either country. Nearby, a state Department of Transportation sign read: "No trespassing."

From his post along Harvey Road near H Street Road in Blaine, Minuteman Robert Inge could see a Canadian flag waving from a pole in front of a house.

A retired social worker who lives in Lynden, Inge said that once he learned what the group was about, he was glad to volunteer. "As I learn that these are not a bunch of gun-toting reactionary conservatives, I'm going to reasonable people — friends of mine, golfing buddies — to get them to sign up.

"I see myself as supplementing the Border Patrol," he said. "I have all the respect in the world for these people."

Mike Forest, an accountant from Salem, Ore., looks over the gate yesterday near Blaine on the Washington-British Columbia border. Forest is a citizen volunteer with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, whose members are on the lookout for illegal immigrants trying to cross into the U.S. (ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Star, a dog owned by Claude "Bear" LaBas, volunteer with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, waits yesterday at the Minuteman headquarters in Ferndale, Whatcom County. (ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Minuteman facts

When founded: The Minuteman Project launched its first border patrol in Arizona in April and expanded Saturday to cover the rest of the Mexican border and states along the Canadian border, including Washington. Before April, one of its founders conducted militia-run border patrols along the Mexican border, under the name Civil Homeland Defense.

Mission: The project has two main arms: The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which runs the border actions, and The Minuteman Project, which focuses on internal goals, such as locating employers that hire a large number of illegal immigrants.

Founders: Chris Simcox, owner of The Tombstone Tumbleweed in Tombstone, Ariz.; and Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant from Orange County, Calif., who is running for U.S. Congress as an American Independent Party candidate.

Numbers: Tom Williams, head of Minutemen in the Northwest, claims 4,000 people have been accepted into the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps nationally.

Membership: $50 application fee covers the cost of a background check. Members are trained not to physically apprehend or speak to possible illegal immigrants but rather direct proper authorities to them via two-way radios. Members also are instructed to remain courteous and not to respond to taunts or threats.

Sources: www.minutemanhq.com, Minuteman member Tom Williams, www.jimgilchrist.com, www.salon.com