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Immigration 101: The Deadly White Nationalist Militias Patrolling the U.S./Mexico Border

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Armed Anti-Immigrant Militia Groups Run by Vigilantes who Illegally Detain Migrants are Emboldened by Trump but have a Long, Violent, and Racist History

In April 2019, a heavily armed anti-immigrant group calling themselves the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) illegally detained more than 200 migrant asylum seekers, many of whom were children. They confronted the migrants with semi-automatic weapons and held the families at gunpoint along a dirt road in New Mexico until Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arrived on the scene. To be clear, this group was not officially sanctioned in any way. “We cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum,” read a statement from the New Mexico ACLU.

State and federal officials issued warnings after UCP posted a video of their illegal detention of migrants to Facebook. “These individuals should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement,” said New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.

“It should go without saying that regular citizens have no authority to arrest or detain anyone,” said Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. She said it was “completely unacceptable” that migrant families “might be menaced or threatened in any way, shape or form when they arrive at our border.”

Based in Flora Vista, New Mexico, UCP made the false claim that their actions were legal because they were making a citizen’s arrest. The local police chief quickly countered their claim, while the ACLU of New Mexico told BuzzFeed News that a citizen’s arrest can only be made in the case of a felony. Crossing the border without documentation is a misdemeanor.

Ironically, it was UCP’s leader, Larry Hopkins, who has been arrested by the FBI on charges of possessing firearms and ammunition as a convicted felon. Hopkins had a rap sheet that spans several states and decades. In 1996, Hopkins pleaded guilty to felony possession of a loaded firearm in Michigan. In 2006, Hopkins was arrested in Oregon on charges of impersonating a police officer and possessing a weapon. In 2007, Oregon issued a warrant for his arrest after he failed to attend probation meetings. In 2009, he was indicted on charges of failure to pay child support in South Dakota.

In 2017, the FBI began to scrutinize Hopkins and the UCP after they received reports they were “training” to assassinate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros.

UCP’s detention of the 200 migrants is not new; their Facebook account contains dozens of similar videos of the group brandishing firearms while harassing migrants. UCP claims they have detained more than 3,000 migrants to date, including many children. Their videos show UCP members stopping immigrants at gunpoint while in full camo gear wearing official-looking badges and identifying themselves as Border Patrol.

In one video you can hear a UCP member yelling at an approaching migrant family, “Alto! U.S. Border Patrol!” even though falsely identifying yourself as a law enforcement officer is a felony. “If [immigrants] can’t tell the difference, that’s their problem,” Mark Cheney, a UCP member, once callously told BuzzFeed News.

The group echoes the same xenophobic language that Donald Trump uses, calling for his wall to be built and characterizing the asylum seekers (who are mostly children and families seeking safety) as an “invasion.” UCP also peddles a wide range of racist conspiracy theories through their online radio show.  

The recent spotlight on their activity led both PayPal and GoFundMe to shut down their accounts for violating the sites’ policy on promoting hate or violence. However, a Fox News segment came to their aid, telling its viewers that the group was looking for donations and characterized their illegal activity as “trying to help out”. Fox News’ defense and promotion of them may allow UCP to keep illegally detaining migrants and putting them into dangerous situations.

The UCP is just one, unfortunately, of many border vigilante militia groups that have cropped up over the years. Anti-immigrant groups have for decades staged armed events at the border as a tactic to raise money, harass migrants, and spread their nativist messages. In a nutshell, militias are vigilante groups who take it upon themselves to use deadly weapons to back up their xenophobia and hatred of immigrants. Sometimes — as in the case of Shawna Forde and Brisenia Flores — the existence of these groups leads to tragic consequences. Beginning with the Klan in the 1970s, anti-immigrant militia groups have had a long, racist, and deadly history.  

A brief history of the racism and violence of armed vigilante anti-immigrant groups along the border

Anti-migrant border militias actually started with, of all things, the KKK. In 1977, David Duke, leading the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan announced that he and his Klansmen would create a caravan in an effort stop unauthorized border crossings. Mostly a racist political stunt to garner media attention, Duke’s caravan mainly consisted of about a dozen trucks and sedans with “Klan Border Watch” signs attached on the side.     

Several years later, a group involved in the Iran Contra scandal formed a group they described as an alternative to joining the Klan. Calling themselves the Civilian Materiel Assistance (CMA), they armed themselves with semiautomatic weapons and night vision goggles, led patrols along the border, set booby traps, and fired on vehicles they suspected of transporting undocumented immigrants. On July 4, 1986, they held 16 migrants at gunpoint until the Border Patrol arrived, forcing the men, women and children they detained to stand in stress positions for 90 minutes.  The following year, a CMA leader, J. R. Hagan, plead guilty to firearms charges.

These armed anti-immigrant patrols have continued to attract all sorts of highly questionable characters, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, who have conducted horrific acts of violence. In 2000, an organization named Ranch Rescue that operated in Arizona attracted a man named Casey Nethercott, who had previously done prison time for assault in the 1990s. In 2003, he and other members of Ranch Rescue assaulted two Salvadoran migrants, whom they held at gunpoint, pistol whipped, and attacked with a Rottweiler.

In 2005, anti-immigrant extremist and grifter Jim Gilchrist founded the Minuteman Project, which began unauthorized armed patrols of the border. The leaders’ criminal activities and rampant infighting lead to the organization’s collapse six years later, but not before this anti-immigrant organization spread throughout the county and began harassing Latinos far from the border. “The border is no longer in the desert,” the founder of Kansas City’s Heart of America Minuteman Civil Defense Corps chapter said. “It is all over America.”

Gilchrist and the Minuteman Project were also influential on Shawna Forde, a Minutemen Civil Defense Corps member who would go on to murder a 9-year-old girl and her father. Forde was close to Gilchrist and the Minutemen, going out on armed anti-immigrant patrols with Gilchrist and publishing on the Minuteman website. She later formed her own violent anti-immigrant organization, the Minutemen American Defense (MAD). In 2009, Forde reportedly sought to recruit members of the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist gang, to rob suspected drug cartel leaders in order to fund a “super militia.” Forde then broke into Junior Flores and Gina Gonzalez’s home seeking to rob them, falsely believing this family was a front for drug dealers and that there was $3 million in cash inside the house. Forde and her associates shot Gonzalez in the chest and leg and killed Flores. They then murdered their 9-year-old daughter Brisenia, as she begged for her life.

In 2014, another Texas-based militia group recorded a video of themselves illegally detaining and harassing migrants. In one video they zip-tied three men until Border Patrol arrived and took the immigrants into custody. In 2017, Tim Foley, the founder of Arizona Border Recon, another nativist organization, moved to Arivaca, Arizona — the town where Forde and M.A.D. carried out their murders. The small town of about 700, however, pushed back against any militia presence or pro-militia sympathy. T-shirts and a sign posted outside the local bar read “No Militias, Never Again.”

Militia ties to hate groups like FAIR

Militias and armed anti-immigrant extremist groups have been tied to Washington, D.C.-based hate groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). While they have tried to distance themselves publicly from militias, their past actions suggest otherwise. Shawna Forde once appeared on a PBS network “town hall” session on immigration, where she was listed as a representative of the Minutemen and of FAIR.  In 2015, FAIR held an event at a ranch belonging to leaders of the border vigilante group Texas Border Volunteers. The ranch owners were also guests at FAIR’s annual media and lobbying event earlier that year.

Militias and Donald Trump

Those engaged in anti-immigrant wannabe vigilantism also appear to be emboldened by Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about migrants. Some militia members harbor anti-government sentiment in general, but many others — like the anti-immigrant militia in Kansas — show a specific hatred for liberals, progressives, immigrants, and their allies. In October 2016, the FBI prevented their plot to bomb an apartment complex where mostly Somali immigrants lived the day after the election.

Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer in 2016 went undercover with an armed militia group called Members of the Three Percenters United Patriots. Bauer reported one member wrote on Facebook that Clinton was a “bitch” who “needs to hang from a tall tree until dead dead dead.” And another who said their armed anti-immigrant vigilante patrol would be the wall until Trump became president. Bauers’ in-depth report also showed how racism and murderous threats were thrown about with a disturbingly casual regularity.

Bauer also documented several instances where Border Patrol officers sometimes cooperated with militia members, from being friendly with them to giving them outright logistical support. As one Border Patrol agent tells Bauer and the militia members he’s embedded with, “I love having y’all out here, man. It impresses me that you guys come out and do my job for me for no pay at all. Give me a good heads-up next time you guys are gonna come down. If you plan on coming to the Nogales area, since you’re out in Colorado maybe I can take a trip out and give you guys an unauthorized brief.”

At another point, the Border Patrol tips Bauer’s group to a drug run that is reputed to be happening. Even the official Border Patrol statement Bauer received after these events seemed to turn a blind eye to the dangers of having armed militia members running around the border. Border Patrol “appreciates the efforts of concerned citizens as they act as our eyes and ears” but “does not endorse or support any private group or organization taking matters into their own hands,” read the CBP statement.

Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric in the lead-up the 2018 midterms apparently encouraged anti-immigrant wannabe vigilantes. Trump falsely claimed there was a southern “invasion” by a slow-moving caravan “unknown Middle Easterners” and “very tough fighters.” In reality, these were migrant families seeking asylum who were traveling in numbers for safety. But some of his supporters saw this as a call to arms. “We’ll observe and report, and offer aid in any way we can,” said Shannon McGauley, president of the Texas Minutemen. “You got other militias, and husbands and wives, people coming from Oregon, Indiana. We’ve even got two from Canada,” McGauley claimed.

But others see the armed vigilantes as the real threat, including the U.S. military, who warned of “unregulated militia members self-deploying to the border in alleged support.” The military warned of their potential to disrupt a normally-peaceful processing of migrants and of “incidents of unregulated militias stealing National Guard equipment during deployments.”

Local ranchers who live on the border also want militia types to stay way. “The militia just needs to stay where they are,” said Joe Metz, a Republican whose living room is just a mile away from the Rio Grande River. “We don’t need fanatical people. We don’t need anybody here with guns. Why do they have guns?” Metz went on to say that he has interacted with undocumented immigrants “for 30 years, and all of them have been scared, asking for help…we have no use for [militias] here. They might shoot someone or hurt someone.”