19 April 2019 | SARAH LYNCH BALDWIN | CBSNews
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico says “armed vigilantes” are detaining migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border and is calling on officials to launch a probe into the group it calls a “fascist militia.”
“[W]e cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum,” the ACLU said in a letter sent to the New Mexico governor and attorney general.
The organization said the group that calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots detained nearly 300 people on Tuesday near Sunland Park, New Mexico, who were seeking safety in the United States.
Un día con una milicia pro-Trump que patrulla la frontera en Nuevo México (google translate: A day with a pro-Trump militia that patrols the border in New Mexico)
A live video shared early Tuesday on the group’s Facebook page shows a large group of people, including children, sitting and kneeling on the ground. A voice of the woman apparently taking the video says, “I don’t know if we got ’em all. But this is crazy. I don’t know what to say about this other than the fact it’s gotta stop.”
Other videos appear to show the group’s activities along the U.S.-Mexico border, and people who just crossed into the United States.
In one video shared Wednesday by Jim Benvie, the spokesman for the United Constitutional Patriots, he appears to stop a group of seven people who just crossed an area where a border fence ends. “And of course as usual, this is why we’re here, guys,” he says. “Because there’s no Border Patrol – they’re busy right now.”
A Border Patrol vehicle is later seen arriving.
Armed groups have long policed the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Reuters news agency. And recently, militias have boosted their activities in states including New Mexico, The New York Times reported.
Benvie told The Times that for two months his group camped near El Paso. “We’re just here to support the Border Patrol and show the public the reality of the border,” he said, according to the publication.
“If these people follow our verbal commands, we hold them until Border Patrol comes,” Benvie said. “Border Patrol has never asked us to stand down.”
We are here to uphold the Constitution of The United States of America. We uphold this cause against all enemies both foreign and domestic which shall infringe upon the rights of the citizens given by the Constitution.We are here to serve in time of need at the local and state level and if necessary for our country.
The law states that: Any two or more persons, whether with or without uniform, who associate, assemble or congregate together by or under any name in a military capacity for the purpose of drilling, parading or marching at any time or place or otherwise take up or bear arms in any such capacity without authority of the Governor, must, on conviction, be fined not more than $1,000.00.This section does not apply to any school or college where military training and instruction is given under the provisions of state or federal laws. We are covered under the 501C3 Home of the 5th.
“If a member of the community witnesses or suspects illegal activity, please call 911, or if related to illegal cross-border activity, call the Border Patrol tip line at 1-877-872-7435 or 1-800-BE-ALERT,” it added.
The Associated Press reported that more than 700 migrants were taken into custody along the border between Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico and areas in West Texas, recorded more than 1,800 apprehensions on Tuesday alone, the AP reported, citing authorities.
In the middle of the night Tuesday, United Constitutional Patriots, an armed civilian group patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border in the Sunland Park area, detained more than 300 migrants who illegally crossed the border.
The group, who claim they are at the border to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America,” is patrolling the desert near Sunland Park, New Mexico, searching for migrants.
In a video livestreamed April 16 on Facebook by one of the United Constitutional Patriots’ members, the group is seen detaining a group of about 300 migrants, including children. The video starts in the middle of the incident with U.S. Border Patrol vehicle and agents already at the scene.
In the video, the member repeatedly says, “This is an invasion … and it is never, never ending” referring to the large number of Central American migrants crossing into the U.S. to seek asylum.
The group claims on its website that it is not violating any state or federal laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico disagrees with the group calling their actions “unlawful.”
In a letter sent to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, ACLU officials request they “investigate an armed vigilante group currently engaged in the unlawful detention of hundreds of migrants near New Mexico’s southern border.”
MORE: El Paso and Las Cruces continues to see drop off of migrants by Border Patrol
The letter states, “an armed fascist militia organization describing itself as the United Constitutional Patriots arrested nearly three hundred people seeking safety in the United States, including young children, near Sunland Park, New Mexico. Other videos appear to show arrests in the past few hours. The vigilante members of the organization, including Jim Benvie, who posted videos and photographs of the unlawful arrests to social media, are not police or law enforcement and they have no authority under New Mexico or federal law to detain or arrest migrants in the United States.”
It continues, “Their actions undermine the legitimate efforts of our state’s law enforcement officials to keep New Mexico families safe and they erode community trust. The Trump administration’s vile racism has emboldened white nationalists and fascists to flagrantly violate the law. This has no place in our state: we cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum. We urge you to immediately investigate this atrocious and unlawful conduct.”
MORE: Border Patrol: Agents rescued migrants abandoned in Sierra Blanca desert
The ACLU concludes its letter stating, “The Trump administration’s vile racism has emboldened white nationalists and fascists to flagrantly violate the law. This has no place in our state: we cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum. We urge you to immediately investigate this atrocious and unlawful conduct.”
United Constitutional Patriots leaders could not immediately be reached by phone or through social media for comment Friday. United Constitutional Patriots members have posted dozens of videos of the group patrolling and detaining migrants they find in the desert.
The videos show men and women wearing camouflage military-like uniforms with assault rifles “scooping the border” looking for migrants. The group records videos on its Facebook page in order to document the situation with migrants at the border and to “show the truth to the American people,” United Constitutional Patriots New Mexico Border Ops spokesman Jim Benvie told the El Paso Times in a past interview.
“The truth isn’t being told about this crisis,” Benvie said. “A lot of people are accusing President (Donald) Trump of manufacturing a crisis and I think the videos we are down here producing, which isn’t left or right, is providing evidence that this is a crisis.”
MORE: Border Patrol: Smugglers fly drone scout over border in El Paso region
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement that the group should not act as law enforcement agents.
“My office has been informed that this week, an armed group has detained nearly 300 people near Sunland Park, New Mexico,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement. “These individuals should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement.”
MORE: CBP chief visits El Paso border, says immigration system at ‘breaking point’
U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The El Paso Sector covers West Texas and all of New Mexico.
Group’s leader says they’re providing Border Patrol support, former CBP commissioner said they did not need citizen patrols
In a March visit to El Paso, former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, who is now acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, briefly addressed armed civilian groups patrolling the border.
“In terms of partnering with NGOs and the faith-based community — that’s a critical aspect of caring for migrants after their release from Department Homeland Security custody,” McAleenan said at a March 27, 2019 news conference along the border in the Chihuahuita neighborhood in Downtown El Paso.
He continued, “We are not asking for civil society groups to provide border security assistance. We work very closely with citizens who see issues in their neighborhoods or in their areas, and we respond to that. But we do not need citizen groups to help patrol the border.”
MORE: Border Patrol migrant drop-offs in Las Cruces accelerate with no end in sight
Benvie said in the past interview that the group is made of up of volunteer military veterans and retired law enforcement who want to help protect the border.
“We came down here not as a militia, but as a group of Americans to help protect the border from the crisis going on down here,” Benvie said. “This is a national security issue. Obviously, Border Patrol is part of this as well and we are trying to assist them as far is in the overload where there are areas right now that the Border Patrol can’t cover because we have too many people coming through the border claiming false asylum.”
The group states that they have members across the U.S.-Mexico border including in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
MORE: El Paso detained nearly 8,000 more migrants in March than February
The El Paso Sector has seen a large influx of migrants crossing seeking asylum in recent months with the area becoming the second-busiest location for apprehensions along the Mexican border.
U.S. Border Patrol has made more than 71,000 apprehensions this fiscal year in the El Paso Sector, compared with about 11,000 at the same time a year ago.
U.S. Border Patrol officials said that 1,800 migrants were detained on Tuesday, with half of those in the El Paso metro area.
“It leaves all this open to the cartels and people that want to smuggle drugs, human trafficking and all the other illegal criminal elements that you can imagine,” Benvie said. “Those are the numbers you don’t hear about. You only hear about the numbers everyone catches, you don’t hear about what gets through the border that isn’t recorded.”
Human rights group: ‘They have no authority’
Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said armed civilian groups have no rights to arrest anybody and only create a dangerous situation.
“We have raised concerns over this in the past about the dangers and risks of having armed civilian groups at the border trying to enforce immigration laws,” Garcia said. “It is very clear these armed civilian groups do not have the authority to detain or question anybody because they are not law enforcement agents and are not part of a law enforcement agency. They have no authority.”
He added that armed militias have caused dangerous situation in the past, including members of an armed civilian group shooting and killing a father and daughter in Arizona.
“They are using weapons to stop immigrants from coming across and this could end up in a tragedy,” Garcia said. “We already had an incident a few years ago in Arizona where one of these armed civilian groups killed a father and a daughter, so that could happen again. If no law enforcement is taking these groups seriously and monitoring their actions, we could see a situation like that again.”
Minutemen American Defense militia members Shawna Forde, Jason Eugene Bush and Albert Gaxiola were convicted in connection with the 2009 home robbery in Arivaca, Arizona, The Arizona Daily Star reported.
The group allegedly went to the home disguised as law enforcement officers to rob Raul Flores, 29, who Forde believed was a drug smuggler, in order to get money to fund the Minuteman American Defense border organization.
The group fatally shot Flores and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia Flores.
Forde and Bush were sentenced to death for their roles in the slayings, the Associated Press reported. Gaxiola was sentenced to life in prison.
Garcia claimed that the armed civilian groups “embrace a racist agenda” and bring hatred to the community.
“These groups say that they are coming to the border because they are answering the call of President Trump to protect the border,” Garcia said. “It is clear they embrace a racist ideology and an anti-immigration agenda, the combination of all of this creates a very explosive situation. We are calling for an investigation into these groups and asking for our law enforcement community to look at these groups to see if they are violating people’s rights and bringing a racist agenda to our community.”
Garcia said that no migrants he has talked to has raised any issues they have had with the group. As the group remains on the border, Garcia said his organization is looking at putting people near the group to monitor and record their actions.
“We are going to start a closer look and monitoring their actions,” Garcia said. “We are going to have people going into the area where they are at which is the Southern New Mexico area to observe their actions and see if they are violating anyone’s personal rights.”
Aaron Martinez may be reached at 546-6249; firstname.lastname@example.org; @AMartinez31 on Twitter.