"The time has come to defend ourselves from the invasion with every possible weapon," said Garza, one of whose great-grandparents was Mexican.
"What must be done is to seal the border, take away their (the illegal immigrants') jobs, and throw in jail anyone who takes advantage of the illegals," like people traffickers and employers in the U.S., Garza said by telephone from the state of Arizona.
The Minutemen, who take their name from the New England militias that fought British forces during the 1775-1783 American Revolution, claims to have 6,000 members, including people with law enforcement or military experience, as well as ranchers from southern states along the border.
The group, whose volunteers sometimes carry weapons, periodically holds "vigils" along the border to keep watch for undocumented immigrants and tip off border patrol agents. Their campaigns, during which they monitor the border from lawn chairs, using binoculars and cell phones, have received heavy press coverage over the past year.
Garza said the Minutemen "have good relations" with the U.S. border patrol, "because they know we are just defending our country, and that we don't cause any trouble."
In late May, the activists began to build five-metre high fences on privately-owned land in Arizona -- across the border from the Mexican state of Sonora -- to keep illegal immigrants from crossing over. The Minutemen want Bush to build similar fences all along the 3,200-km border.
In mid-May, Bush reported that 6,000 National Guard troops would be dispatched along the border to help stem illegal immigration.
The deployment, which has begun with small contingents, is to be completed in August. Bush explained that the unarmed troops are to assist the border patrol in surveillance and intelligence, and will install fences and vehicle barriers, build patrol roads, and provide training, but will not carry out arrests of illegal migrants.
Last month, the U.S. Senate also approved the construction of a 595-km stretch of triple-layer border fencing, as well as immigration reforms that would provide a means of earning citizenship to some seven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
The Senate bill, which has yet to clear Congress, raised the ire of the Minutemen. "No reform that gives an amnesty to the illegals will be passed," said Garza, a Vietnam war veteran whose father fought in WWII and whose grandfather fought in WWI. "The tax-paying citizens of this country won't allow it."
"All illegals should be deported and face a penalty," he added.
The Senate bill must be reconciled with a much tougher bill passed by the House, which would make undocumented immigrants felons.
As 42.7 million people who live in the United States are of Latin American origin or descent, the region's governments are closely following the U.S. immigration reform debate.
Government spokespersons in Latin America, along with academics and activists in the region, say that curbing immigration by force is ineffective, and suggest mechanisms to regulate the inflow, which is encouraged by the demand for cheap labor in the United States.
Since January, the Mexican government of President Vicente Fox has been heading up meetings among officials from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama to discuss the question and look for ways to influence the debate in the U.S. legislature.
"Mexico, where Central American immigrants are treated worse than animals, better not meddle in U.S. decisions, because its government doesn't have the moral authority," said Garza. "They should instead create jobs for their people. That way they wouldn't have these problems," he argued.
"In the end, we Americans are going to block all the holes, including the hospitals and schools, so immigrants can't use them. Then we'll see where they run," he said.
Garza said the Minutemen have become so well-respected that the Bush administration and many lawmakers "are now listening to us, and they know we won't allow anything illegal to happen."
"And it should be made clear that we are not racists and we aren't talking about white supremacy. The only thing we want is for the laws to be enforced against the invaders, against those who break our immigration laws, and for our country to be sovereign," he added in his interview with IPS.
The Mexican government and Congress, as well as human rights groups, have protested the presence of the Minutemen along the border, and have demanded a curb on their activities.
Ranch Rescue, Arizona Border Watch and American Border Patrol are among the vigilante groups sporadically active in the U.S. states along the Mexican border. Riding in all-terrain vehicles or on horseback, dressed in military-style uniforms or as ranchers, their members search for immigrants in desert areas, which are the least heavily monitored.
But human rights activists say their numbers are often exaggerated, and that the groups are mainly made up of relatively small numbers of retirees, often war veterans or retired police and soldiers.
So far, none of the Minutemen has been involved in any direct attack on migrants.
"We have a clean record," said Garza. "It's true that we're armed, but that's only to defend ourselves from the coyotes (people smugglers) and drug traffickers. Our mission is to monitor and report to the authorities, not to attack immigrants."
Garza said that in the last two years, the group has spotted 6,000 "illegals," most of whom were lost or thirsty in remote border zones and were granted assistance by the Minutemen before they were reported to the border patrol to be detained and deported..
"They call us violent, but that's not true, because we have actually stopped a lot of annoyed ranchers from shooting at the illegals," he said.
Last year, more than 400,000 Latin American and Caribbean undocumented immigrants -- mainly Mexicans -- entered the United States, in defiance of existing border controls. One million others were intercepted and deported.
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June 13, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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