Armed rightwing militia members detained a large group of migrants at the US-Mexico border and coordinated with US border patrol agents to have them arrested, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, in a series of actions the civil liberties organization called a “kidnapping” and a flagrant violation of the law.
Several videos taken at the border in New Mexico this week appeared to show men belonging to a group that calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots approaching migrant families and children, ordering them to sit down, calling federal agents on them, and at one point potentially misrepresenting themselves by saying “border patrol” as they approached.
“The Trump administration’s vile racism has emboldened white nationalists and fascists to flagrantly violate the law,” the ACLU of New Mexico said in a letter to the state’s governor and attorney general, urging them to “immediately investigate this atrocious and unlawful conduct”.
The ACLU described the group as “an armed fascist militia organization” made up of “vigilantes” working to “kidnap and detain people seeking asylum” and accused the group of directly making illegal arrests.
The group has repeatedly appeared in local news stories in recent weeks, expressing support for Donald Trump’s proposed border wall and presenting themselves as “volunteers” aiding border patrol efforts.
In recent years, there has been a reported surge in paramilitary groups and xenophobic activists having a presence at the border in an effort to target undocumented people.
The United Constitutional Patriots posted several live-stream Facebook videos this week that appeared to detail their activities at the border.
A video posted Monday night by Jim Benvie, a member of the armed group, appeared to show the militia ordering around a large group of migrants, including many children, and telling them to sit on the ground. As he filmed the migrants kneeling in the dirt, Benvie narrated on his video: “There’s no border patrol here. This is us.”
It’s difficult to decipher exactly what’s happening in the dark footage, but border patrol agents eventually appeared in the footage. “We finally got BP here,” Benvie said about six minutes after the footage started.
The ACLU’s letter said the group was targeting nearly 300 migrants in Sunland Park, New Mexico, which is along the Mexico border and adjacent to El Paso, Texas. In the video, the migrants sitting on the ground said they came from Guatemala. Benvie mirrored Trump’s anti-immigrant language in his videos, saying, “This is an invasion. Gotta build the wall.”
In another video posted Wednesday, Benvie filmed himself stopping a group of four adults and three children and said “border patrol” to them as he approached, before calling for another member of his group to join. The second man who arrived wearing camouflage pants then ordered the migrants to sit on the ground. The men subsequently appeared to call border patrol, with one saying, “Hello, I’ve got seven over here.”
“There’s very dangerous people here. That’s the reason we carry guns,” Benvie narrated on the video just before encountering the group. “This is why we’re here, guys. Cause there’s no border patrol.”
Benvie did not respond to a request for comment.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) declined to answer specific questions about the militia group and its actions, but a spokesperson said in an email that CBP “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands”, adding, “Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.”
The CBP statement continued: “Border Patrol welcomes assistance from the community and encourages anyone who witnesses or suspects illegal activity to call 911.”
Peter Ibaro, a spokesman for the city of Sunland Park, was dismissive of concerns about the militia group violating laws.
“As far as we know, they are just observing and reporting,” he told the Guardian, saying, “I think they are just out there exercising their constitutional right.”
Rachel Lederman, a California civil rights lawyer not involved in the case, said it was illegal for a private citizen to “interfere with somebody’s freedom of movement”, and that in a situation like this, prosecutors could potentially allege “false imprisonment” and “kidnapping”.
The migrants could also have a strong civil case if the state did not file charges, she added.
“There’s an implied threat with the firearms,” she said, adding that if the men were directing the migrants to sit on the ground, “it doesn’t seem that hard to prove, especially if they’re broadcasting videos of themselves”.
The militia members could also potentially face consequences for acting as “unregistered and unlicensed people pretending to be security”, said Michael German, a former FBI agent.
“These videos are very, very heartbreaking,” said Stephanie Corte, an immigrant rights campaign strategist with the ACLU in New Mexico, which has not yet been able to contact the migrants captured on the videos. “They treat these asylum seekers … as less than human beings. They’re taking away their dignity and terrifying them. They are gathering them all together like they’re animals and holding them there.”
Nora Meyers Sackett, the spokesperson for New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, told the Guardian her office was working with the attorney general to “verify what exactly happened regarding this group”, adding in an email, “If migrant families feel menaced or threatened at all when they arrive at our border, that’s completely unacceptable, and it should go without saying that regular citizens have no authority to arrest or detain anyone.”
Families crossing the border are typically coming from Central America and fleeing severe violence and poverty.
The militia action comes amid reports of law enforcement aggressively cracking down on a different class of volunteers at the border – people helping migrants in need. People who have left water for migrants and helped border crossers facing health crises have increasingly faced criminal prosecution.
Law enforcement should intervene and treat the militia actions as a kidnapping offense, said Corte, adding that the solution was not to bring out more border patrol officers, but to stop arresting asylum seekers.
“From the families’ perspective, it’s incredibly traumatizing to have these people who are not law enforcement, who are carrying guns in the middle of the night … rounding them up,” she said, adding that the state needed to “put an immediate stop to this”.