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Arizona right-wing group sends armed man into church to yell at volunteers for helping migrants

The guys involved appear confused about their president's handling of asylum-seekers, and very eager to scream at somebody else about it.

Two protesters affiliated with Patriot Movement Arizona (PMAZ) outside a church in Phoenix on Saturday, January 5. The man in the cowboy hat  with the gun has just explained how he "busted right through the door" to confront staff inside. CREDIT: Screenshot/Nick Martin
Two protesters affiliated with Patriot Movement Arizona (PMAZ) outside a church in Phoenix on Saturday, January 5. The man in the cowboy hat with the gun has just explained how he "busted right through the door" to confront staff inside. CREDIT: Screenshot/Nick Martin

An armed man from the confrontational right-wing group Patriot Movement Arizona barged into a Phoenix church on Saturday as part of the group’s passionate, garbled ongoing protests over asylum-seeking migrants.

The church targeted Saturday by the right-wing group is reportedly helping government officials to resettle asylum-seekers pending final determinations of their immigration status. The people housed at Alfa y Omega Discipulos de Cristo are not taking sanctuary to forestall Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from detaining and deporting them. But the PMAZ rage-spouters seen on video yelling at congregants outside the church seem confused about what’s happening inside.

“You’re in violation of harboring! Federal law! Subsection thirteen twenty-four, A-one-A, a federal offense!” one of the protesters yells in a snippet of video posted Saturday by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Nick Martin.

“America first!” another shouts immediately afterward. That second man, distinctive for his white cowboy hat and short ginger beard, had earlier in the video bragged of “bust[ing] right through the door” of the church to argue with someone inside. He has a handgun in a holster on his right hip.

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PMAZ members were arrested and charged for similar behavior at a protest outside an Arizona mosque in March of 2018. In a Facebook Live video from that incident, a woman stops to give her gun to her son after seeing a sign outside the mosque that says guns are not welcome on the premises. The group made a show of denouncing the two after they were charged, but has not posted anything about the men from Saturday’s video. Police responded quickly to the scene but made no arrests, according to AZ Central.

The two men in the video could not immediately be identified, though the bearded man with the gun who bragged of forcing his way into the church refers to the man filming as Jesse.

Proud though he appears to be of his chapter-and-verse knowledge of the penal code, Jesse could perhaps use a brush-up.

Alfa y Omega is only the most recent congregation to receive an ill-will visit from PMAZ during what appears to be an ongoing self-own by the rabidly right-wing group. The non-citizen migrants who spend time sheltering at the church get dropped off there by ICE agents. The churches help them connect with their U.S. sponsors — often but not always direct family members — with whom ICE expects them to be living while they await further legal and administrative proceedings on their pending asylum claims. The churches are a waystation in the officially-sanctioned pipeline for temporarily resettling people who’ve passed the very first stages of the asylum system’s rigorous verification of migrants’ claims.

Churches in Arizona and other hotspots along the U.S.-Mexico border have been flooded with such people in recent months. As courts have repeatedly found that President Trump’s chosen policy of dividing and locking up families seeking asylum until their cases are complete, ICE has begun releasing such migrants after giving them specific plans for follow-up. Thousands of people have passed through Arizona churches like Alfa y Omega since ICE shifted approaches in October to comply with the rulings.

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The majority of them are placed in electronic ankle monitors by ICE. Trump chose to end a wildly successful compliance and monitoring program last year, despite evidence that ICE had gotten better results from relying on human caseworkers rather than contractor-provided electronic monitoring networks.

Church employees did not respond to a request for comment. Someone from PMAZ refused to identify the men in the video and declined to clarify why the group denounced the women in the mosque incident but embraces a member who burst into a church hall with a gun.

“If sometime in the future you would like a comment on the real story which is illegal aliens making illegal border crossing with trafficked children so they can make false asylum claims and then be traddixked [sic] to the interior of our country supported by our govt and complicit churches feel free to try again,” the PMAZ facebook administrator responded. “Shame on you.”

Ignorance of what harboring is and who’s responsible for the flow of asylum-seeking migrants through Arizona church basements aside, the rage on display in the video from Saturday’s PMAZ action is a common theme in the group’s activities. Its members and leadership partake of the odd modern conservative habit of simultaneously seeking to provoke their perceived ideological enemies with symbols popular among the racist fringe of the so-called “alt-right,” then litigiously decrying anyone who points out they’re using symbols popularized by white supremacists. They have also begun consorting with fellow far-right figures including at least one man who advocates for the United States to formally organize itself as a white ethno-state, according to the SPLC.

The faith community makes an easy lightning rod for right-wing anger toward immigrants, albeit often an ineffective one. While only a small number of congregations ever undertake the far more legally complex and security-intensive moral charge of providing sanctuary to a person who government officials have targeted for deportation, a huge share of this very religious country’s church communities offer migrants some other, more modest form of basic comfort as they navigate the legal system. The ill-informed PMAZ crusade against churches that answer ICE’s calls for help with resettling asylum-seekers indicates how sloppy the frothy, bilious wing of xenophobic “America First” sentiment can be in its targeting decisions — and how willing some of its members are to march into a church with a gun on their hip and start yelling at whoever they find inside.