Members of a heavily-armed group of vigilantes calling themselves the United Constitutional Patriots intercepted and apprehended hundreds of asylum seekers this week, despite having no authority to do so.
One of the men filmed while others took the asylum seekers, including children, into custody on Tuesday night. For the past two months, the group has camped out in the desert near the town of Sunland Park, on the border between New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
“This is a brand new group who’s invading camp right now guys,” one of the group’s members can be heard saying in the video, which was first broadcast by a local television station, KENS5. The group then turned the asylum seekers over to Border Patrol.
An armed militia is rounding up immigrants in New Mexico and beyond the obvious implications I fear for every visibily latino individual who might encounter a group of this nature. The manhunt for these assholes should be national. pic.twitter.com/ghWZ7WqR93
— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) April 18, 2019
A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official told ThinkProgress that while the agency welcomes community assistance, it does not condone vigilante groups taking border enforcement into their own hands.
“Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequence for all parties involved,” the official said in a statement. “Border Security operations are complex and require highly trained professionals with adequate resources to protect the country.”
Speaking to KENS5, however, United Constitutional Patriots member Jim Benvie — who filmed the initial video — defended the group’s actions.
“We’re just Americans,” Benvie said. “We’re veterans, we’re ex-law enforcement, we’re people who care about the over-strained Border Patrol.” As to why the group was so heavily armed, Benvie contended that there was danger that went along with their patrols, since they were supposedly interfering with cartel-run trafficking.
A Sunland Park police spokesman told ThinkProgress that the group has remained in the desert and has not made forays into residential areas. What’s more, his understanding was that the group was not supposed to intervene, only observe and report. Police also said that Sunland Park was an extremely safe area, owing in part to its proximity to El Paso (which is one of America’s safest cities of its size), as well as the proximity of the nearby military base Fort Bliss.
United Constitutional Patriots did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
Groups like United Constitutional Patriots are not a new presence on the border. A variety of organizations, such as the Minutemen and Arizona Border Recon, regularly patrol the border with the stated aim of gathering “intelligence” on migrant crossings. These groups generally deny that they’re militia members or that they’re on the border to do anything other than provide intel to Border Patrol.
On Arizona Border Recon’s homepage, for instance, there is a bolded section explaining why they are not a militia group. “Our objective is not to overthrow any government, or take the law into our own hands. We are not here to replace the Border Patrol,” the section reads. “We operate within the scope of the law as citizens, observing and reporting what we see.”
The extent to which those lofty ideals trickle down to actual members is an open question, however. In a 2016 investigation, Mother Jones documented how many border vigilante volunteers regularly advocate conspiratorial, far-right, and often outright racist ideals. In 2018, Newsweek obtained U.S. Army documents that highlighted “reported incidents of unregulated militias stealing National Guard equipment [while they] operate under the guise of citizen patrols.”
Landowners on the border also told the Washington Post in 2018 that they don’t trust militia groups, describing them separately as “a bunch of guys with a big mouth and no substance,” “trigger happy,” and “fanatical.”
There’s also the question of whether these groups are on the border to defend America, or whether they’re there to raise cash. United Constitutional Patriots, for instance, uses PayPal to collect donations for “gas money, food, tents, sleeping bags, etc.” In the last six months, they’ve raised nearly $5,000, with donations picking up in recent days.
A similar strategy was employed last year by the Arizona group Veterans On Patrol (VOP), which claimed that they had discovered a “child sex camp” near Tucson, Arizona. As ThinkProgress documented at the time, the claims were completely fictitious, but gave VOP an excuse to solicit substantial donations, including everything from prepaid Visa cards to Amazon packages and group gift cards. One expert who had been tracking the group estimated that they’d received tens of thousands of dollars in donations.
The tactics used by United Constitutional Patriots and other “volunteer” border patrol groups raise some troubling questions about who actually gets to enforce the law on the border.
This is especially true bearing in mind the sharp increase in the number of families seeking asylum. According to CBP, an estimated 53,000 families seeking asylum were apprehended in March, an increase of more than 60% since February and the biggest number since Border Patrol started reporting the figures in 2012.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to toughen its hardline approach to people seeking asylum in the United States, announcing plans to cut off aid from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — where the majority of the migrants originate.
The Justice Department also announced plans this week to keep asylum seekers detained while their asylum claims are processed, which could potentially take months or years given a backlog in the immigration courts.