TOMBSTONE, Ariz. | April 1, 2005 -- Today is April Fool's Day to most Americans. But to the more than 1,000 vigilantes from all 50 states who've signed up for the month-long Minuteman Project, it's "D-Day," according to the project's website.
And on D-Day, "The Standoff Begins!"
The standoff — or showdown — will occur in the harsh desert of the San Pedro Valley in southeastern Arizona, near the Wild West town of Tombstone. There, the Minuteman volunteers plan to conduct armed patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border to act as a "blocking force" against the "invasion" of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
"The Minuteman Project is a grassroots effort to bring Americans to the defense of their homeland," reads a recruiting poster. "America is being devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens, drug dealers, and potential terrorists."
Despite their militant rhetoric, Minuteman organizers insist their intentions are peaceful. "Our objective will be to spot these intruders and inform the U.S. Border Patrol of their location so that border patrol agents can intercept and detain them," reads the project's website. "We will NOT be confronting the illegal aliens or making citizens' arrests."
Even so, civil rights activists on both sides of the border have joined President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox in condemning the action. "The Minutemen are an overt manifestation of the misunderstanding and fear that persist throughout our country towards people from Latin America," says Arizona-based American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Ray Ybarra, who has trained teams of observers to shadow the Minutemen on their patrols and to document any abuses.
The mayor of Douglas, Ariz., a border town within the project's "area of operations," worries violent white power extremists eager to "hunt Mexicans" have signed up as volunteers.
"I'm afraid that a lot of the people attracted to this sort of thing are going to be white supremacists, racists, and very dangerous people," says mayor Ray Borane. "We don't need them down here, and we don't want them."
Minuteman organizers say they have carefully screened applicants to weed out members of white supremacist organizations. In late February, they boasted they were even "working with the FBI on background checks," but then backed off that claim when the FBI stated it was false.
"Whatever the Minuteman project's peaceful assurances may be, this is a volatile situation," says Mark Potok, director of the Center's Intelligence Project. "There have been many documented cases of other vigilante patrols violating human rights on our Southern border, and the prospect of armed extremists searching for migrants in the desert is scary. The potential for violence is real."
Numerous white supremacists have claimed in online postings to be registered as Minuteman volunteers. One who posted to the Minuteman Project forum on the major white power website Stormfront wrote: "While this project is not a White racialist event, per se, it's a project that deserves backing from the White Nationalist community in general."
A self-professed member of the white supremacist organization National Alliance posted to the same forum: "While Minuteman is not affiliated with 'Hate Groups' (like the ones you or I belong to), most of the volunteers smell smoke and know there's a fire that needs putting out. This is a good opportunity to reach out to people who are 'half awake' and help them the rest of the way. I'm a missionary for racism and I see fertile recruiting ground!"
On Monday morning, three days before the Minutemen were scheduled to mass at the border, residents of the town awoke to find National Alliance fliers had been tossed in their driveways during the night.
"Immigration or Invasion?" the fliers read. "Non-Whites are turning America into a Third World slum. They come for welfare or to take our jobs. They bring crime. Let's send them home now!"
One Minuteman on the Stormfront forum made his preference clear: "Personally, I'd like to send 'em back in body bags!"