What with all the somber news in the past two weeks, you’d think members of the press would be eager to have some fun when and where they can. That opportunity came in the form of Monday’s debut of the Minuteman Project, a media Kabuki cum Scouting jamboree put together to look for illegal aliens crossing into Arizona from Mexico. And while there were a few good efforts, no one nailed it.

The project was the brainchild of Tombstone Tumbleweed owner and editor Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant from California. Earlier this year, the pair issued a call for volunteers to patrol a stretch of the Arizona border, or, as the group’s Web site declares, “Americans doing the job Congress won’t do.” President Bush stunned the organizers, calling the volunteers “vigilantes.” The American Civil Liberties Union, warning of violence, dispatched monitors.

Although Simcox and Gilchrist initially hoped that a thousand pairs of eyes and ears would show up for the search for aliens, the actual headcount on Monday was about 200 — roughly equal to the contingent of journalists searching for a story.

The best of the lot is yesterday’s article by David Kelly of the Los Angeles Times. Kelly hung out with Gilchrist on opening day, and aptly described some of the silliness of the whole effort — the code names Dingo, Sierra, Tango; the California family spending spring break on patrol “to see the border situation up close”:

A few miles toward the border with Mexico, the cars pulled onto a dirt road, and everyone got out and followed Gilchrist through the desert. There were piles of old clothes, knapsacks, underwear and empty bottles left by illegal immigrants.

“Hey, we got a fresh pair of prints here,” said Gilchrist, wearing a bright flowered shirt, a canteen and a hat with a feather poking out. “I think they lay up here during the day and walk at night.”

The patrol meandered around scrub oak, up and down hills, and over barbed wire. Sighting an immigrant began to take on the element of spotting a rare butterfly or obscure bird species.

The locals have mixed views of the newcomers (both aspiring border guards and media), according to Kelly. Ray Borane, mayor of the nearby town of Douglas, Ariz., observes: “[I]f the press leaves tomorrow these guys would be gone by Thursday.”

Ioan Grillo of the Houston Chronicle tagged along with Houstonian and Minuteman Bill Breaux. “There is a real problem with assimilation,” Breaux tells Grillo. “Around Houston there are a lot of people who won’t carry American or Texas flags on their car. Instead they carry a flag from El Salvador or Mexico.”

Grillo also reports that volunteers stumbled onto several Border Patrol sensors designed to locate intruders, forcing government agents to spend hours checking out false alarms.

The Boston Globe’s Brian MacQuarrie gave us a few good details, including nighttime jitters of Minuteman Steven J. Mueller, a landscape photographer, and rumors that a ruthless Salvadoran gang might be launching an attack. He writes:

Billy, a big Texas man who did not provide his last name, said, ”This ain’t no testosterone test. If somebody wants to go home, you just go.” [We’d bet MacQuarrie’s Billy is Grillo’s Bill Breaux.]

No one left and the attack never occurred on a quiet night when no undocumented immigrants approached the fence. … The only sounds the group heard in the desert were the howling of coyotes and the rumbling tires of US Border Patrol vehicles on surveillance runs.

So close, yet so far. If only the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez or the Washington Post’s Ann Gerhart had been dispatched to the scene, we’d have gotten a grand slam.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.