03/20/2012 07:26 am ET

Report: Border-Watch Groups Shrink To Almost Half

They used to be in the evening news on our TV’s, day in and day out: in any of the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, they were patrolling the border in armed groups, keen on stopping illegal immigration by spotting groups of undocumented trying to cross and alerting the Border Patrol to their presence. Or they would drive at night and light the border with their cars’ lights, making the crossing more difficult and increasing the immigrants’ chances of being caught.

They called themselves the Minuteman Project, or American Freedom Riders, or Crispus Attucks Brigade, or American Freedom Riders.

In time, they expanded, totaling in 2010 319 groups in 35 states.

But now, a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization, says that their momentum has almost vanished, and their numbers decreased by almost half, to 185 by the end of 2011.

The report says that the reasons for the decline in the number and activities of what they call “Nativist extremists” groups are a combination of “the weight of bad press, organizational disarray, and the co-optation of the movement’s concerns by state legislatures passing draconian legislation targeting foreigners.”

Far from being relegated to the fringes of the political scale, the ideological positions held by these groups are now closer to mainstream. Several states, including Arizona with its SB 1070 and Alabama with HB 56, legislated laws that tackle undocumented immigrants. All republican presidential candidates in the current campaign have expressed strong opposition to illegal immigration and pledge, at the least, to increase deportations, even beyond the record setting numbers achieved by the current Administration.

Precisely, this may had the effect of diminishing the enthusiasm of the groups.

According to the report, “Most of the surviving groups are part of a single large coalition, the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition (FIRE). The most important Minuteman groups — the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) and the Minuteman Project (MMP) — have all but collapsed. In 2010, MCDC had 77 chapters and MMP had 38. By the end of 2011, there were only two MCDC chapters and eight MMP chapters left.”

The survival of FIRE, with 124 groups in 34 states, adds the report, may be attributed to its collaboration with Tea Party and “more radical antigovernment Patriot movement” groups on other conservative causes.