It speaks volumes about today’s political climate that anti-immigrant domestic terrorists have begun calling themselves border militias, holding unarmed people at gunpoint and feeling so emboldened that they post videos of their activities on social media, including Facebook and YouTube.
Luckily, the hubris of at least one group didn't impress law enforcement: On Saturday, the New Mexico attorney general’s office announced that Larry Hopkins, the leader of the United Constitutional Patriots (which had been detaining migrants at gunpoint near the U.S.-Mexico border) had been arrested by the FBI and charged with felony possession of firearms and ammunition
The efforts of groups like the UCP are disturbing on every level and raise serious legal, humanitarian and public safety concerns.
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So-called "militia" groups have long been active along the southern border: In the 1970s, for instance, the Ku Klux Klan announced that it was creating its own border patrol to combat illegal immigration. In the 2000s, the Minutemen patrolled the border in Arizona. In 2009, Brisenia Flores was shot and killed in her own home in Arizona by members of a border vigilante group called Minuteman American Defense; she was just nine years-old and an American citizen.
Last year, Newsweek obtained leaked Department of Defense documents warning of the threat of armed, unregulated militia groups operating in between ports of entry along the border. The Department estimated that there were about 200 members of militia groups along the southwest border. And, the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric and calls to build a wall to stem a supposed "invasion" has indeed been accompanied by a rise in militia activity.
It is ironic that a group with “constitutional” in their name is so unaware — or defiant — of the law and the constitution. Only trained law enforcement officials, like the Border Patrol and ICE, have the authority to detain migrants. But last week, Hopkins' group posted videos purporting to show their members identifying themselves as "Border Patrol" and holding immigrants at gunpoint. One member told Reuters that they had "helped" Border Patrol detain 5,600 migrants in the last two months.
By improperly holding people against their will, whether those people legally crossed the border or not, members of the United Constitutional Patriots have opened themselves to charges of assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping and impersonating law enforcement officers. (Hopkins, notably, was previously arrested in 2006 for impersonating law enforcement and illegal possession of a firearm and thus is presumably well aware his actions were not legal.) The UCP members are also likely trespassing on privately-held or federal land.
More importantly, it is perfectly legal under U.S. law for people to cross the border without papers and apply for asylum and other forms of humanitarian relief. So if anyone is “illegal” in a confrontation with Hopkins' followers, it is the United Constitutional Patriots.
A spokesman for the United Constitutional Patriots told the New York Times, “We’re just here to support the Border Patrol and show the public the reality of the border.” But the Border Patrol doesn’t want their help: On April 19, U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweeted that “CBP does not endorse or condone private citizens or organizations that take enforcement matters into their own hands.” And last month, then-Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said his agency didn’t need the assistance of “civil society groups” to police the border. (McAleenan is now acting Homeland Security Secretary.)
Such groups, then, deserve to be called what they are: Domestic terrorists. They are wannabe- immigration agents who dress up in fatigues and harass migrants with dogs and weapons. They could be considered pathetic if their actions did not hold so much deadly potential.
They are right about only one thing: There is a crisis at our southern border, but it is is a humanitarian crisis created by the Trump administration's failure to come up with an effective plan to process asylum-seekers. There would be far fewer asylum seekers for groups like Hopkins' to harass in the desert if the administration complied with the law about processing them at border checkpoints.
Meanwhile, the current occupant of the White House traffics in the ugliest stereotypes about Latinos and immigrants, using words like “invasion” and “infestation” to describe the border situation he has created. From stoking fears about migrant caravans to declaring a questionable “national emergency,” Trump has sent a clear message that he believes immigrants are a threat to the country and that the border is out of control. His rhetoric encourages groups like the United Constitutional Patriots to trample on the legal and human rights of immigrants.
But armed vigilante activities are unlawful, whether they occur in the border region or any other community. Militia groups like the United Constitutional Patriots only make the border more dangerous — and there is nothing patriotic about making America hate again.