A right-wing militia has been confronting groups of migrant families at the Southern U.S. border and holding them at gunpoint in what has been described by some as a form of kidnapping motivated by racism in order to hand those families over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the New York Times reported Thursday.
The militia, known as the United Constitutional Patriots, this week detained a group of 200 asylum-seekers near Sunland Park, New Mexico. According to the Times, a video from one recent encounter shows “exhausted looking migrant families blinking in the darkness in the glare of what appear to be the militia’s spotlights” and, in another video, “kneeling on the ground and embracing one another” as Border Patrol agents arrived, apparently after members of the militia had already been pointing firearms at them.
As Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern pointed out on Twitter, a civilian militia has no power to arrest migrants, and therefore its actions are more similar to kidnapping and false imprisonment than a lawful detainment. Families of migrants are legally allowed to request asylum, making the threatened use of force and firearms all the more unjustifiable.
A spokesman for the militia told the Times that the group’s actions were legal and amounted to a verbal citizen’s arrest. He added that the group intended to remain at the border until President Donald Trump’s extended border wall is built or Congress dramatically changes immigration law to make it harder for migrants to request asylum.
But New Mexico’s attorney general rebuked the militia. “These individuals should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement,” he said in a statement. Civil rights groups have also condemned their actions as illegal.
“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 an investigation into “this atrocious and unlawful conduct.”
One of the group’s members, who livestreamed a video of one of the arrests, echoed Trump’s rhetoric when he commented, according to the Guardian, “This is an invasion. Gotta build the wall.”
Videos also appear to show members of the group misrepresenting themselves to the migrants. In a video posted Wednesday, that same member said “Border Patrol” to a group of four adults and three children as he approached, and as another member of his group joined him, the two appeared to call Border Patrol to summon them to their location. Some critics have questioned why CBP agents would respond to and work with this militia group. A spokesman for the militia told the Times that Border Patrol agents had never asked his group to stand down.
A spokesperson for CBP said in a statement the agency “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands” and that “[i]nterference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.” It added that “Border Patrol welcomes assistance from the community and encourages anyone who witnesses or suspects illegal activity to call 911.”