Robert Bonner says his agency might create a volunteer reserve program to boost border security. Critics are skeptical of the idea.

By Solomon Moore
Times Staff Writer

July 21, 2005

The nation's top immigration enforcement official on Wednesday praised the work of citizen patrols along the U.S-Mexican border and said his agency is looking at creating a volunteer reserve program to help beef up security.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said his initial concerns about possible vigilantism by citizen patrol groups have been eased by the volunteers' conduct.

"We welcome the eyes and ears of citizens who help us gain control of our borders, especially when they do so in a peaceful way," Bonner said during a visit to the Port of Los Angeles. "I applaud the fact that the organization of the Minutemen acted responsibly and didn't take the law into their own hands."

Bonner's statements represent a distinct shift for the Bush administration because the president recently condemned the patrol groups as vigilantes.

But Bonner said that he was urging his staff to communicate with the patrol groups and that Border Patrol officials were investigating whether the agency should form its own civilian force, similar to auxiliary programs of the Coast Guard, local sheriff's departments and other law enforcement agencies. Bonner said the idea was inspired by the Minuteman Project.

His comments brought mixed reactions from advocates on both sides of the immigration issue.

"I'm shocked," said Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project. "I think his intentions are very well meaning, but I'm also wondering: Why has the administration come to support the Minuteman Project after we've gotten so used to having a negative response?"

Gilchrist surmised that the administration might have endorsed his movement because of a growing anti-immigration movement sweeping the country in the wake of Sept. 11. Last year, 1.1 million illegal immigrants were apprehended at the border.

He said he would support a plan to create a volunteer force within Customs and Border Protection, but worried that the government would use it to avoid adding full-time agents.

Raquel Fonte, a staff attorney at the Immigrants Rights Project at Public Counsel, California's largest provider of pro bono legal services, said she was concerned that a top government official had endorsed "vigilante justice."

"It's important, particularly given the post-9/11 environment and the possibility of terrorist threats, that we have people who are well trained to carry out this function," Fonte said.

"Another reason that it's important to have well trained individuals at the border is for screening people who might have legitimate immigration claims in the U.S." ... california