LOS ANGELES- The top U.S. border enforcement official said Wednesday that his agency is exploring ways to involve citizen volunteers in creating "something akin to a Border Patrol auxiliary" - a significant shift in rhetoric that comes after a high-profile civilian campaign this spring along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner told The Associated Press that his agency has focused on involving citizens after noting the willingness of volunteers to help federal agents catch illegal immigrants.
"It is actually as a result of seeing that there is the possibility in local border communities, and maybe even beyond, of having citizens that would be willing to volunteer to help the Border Patrol," Bonner said.
Volunteers would need training and be organized "in a way that would be something akin to a Border Patrol auxiliary," he said. "We value having eyes and ears of citizens and I think that would be one of the things we are looking at is how you better organize, let's say, a citizen effort."
Bonner characterized the idea as "an area we're looking at." Questions such as what kind of authority volunteers would be given _ would they be deputized to make arrests or carry guns _ haven't been answered.
"This is what we need to study," said Bonner, who was in Los Angeles to discuss port security.
In April, hundreds of volunteers joined the Minuteman Project to patrol a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border, generating international attention and criticism and spawning similar campaigns.
Until now, Border Patrol officials have generally criticized civilian efforts to police the nation's borders, saying it was the job of trained law enforcement officers. President Bush has expressed his opposition to border "vigilantes."
"The Border Patrol does this every day, and they are qualified and very well-trained to handle the situation," Bonner said in February, noting that the Minutemen planned to carry firearms. "Ordinary Americans are not. So there's a danger that not just illegal migrants might get hurt, but that American citizens might get hurt in this situation."
Customs and Border Protection had yet to tell Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other top departmental officials of its discussions, though they would be briefed in coming months once the agency came up with a proposal, said CBP spokeswoman Kristi Clemens.
"All proposals are being considered, including clerical work by volunteers that would free up more agents to secure our borders," Clemens said.