Senate Democrats urge Biden to investigate border paramilitary groups

Migrants use their phones inside an idle city bus in their attempt to stay warm while camping outside the Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. Around 300 migrants have taken refuge on sidewalks, some of them afraid to seek more formal shelters, amid new restrictions meant to crack down on illegal border crossings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Three Senate Democrats are raising alarms about the growth of U.S.-based paramilitary groups along the border with Mexico, and the lack of federal government oversight to regulate them.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called on Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to “crack down on vigilante groups that undermine the rule of law, as well as the rights and safety of migrants,” according to a statement by the senators.

“For years, unlawful paramilitary organizations have engaged in unofficial border missions — reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan border patrols  — intended to illegally detain and harass immigrants. These activities undermine legitimate government authority and threaten public safety,” wrote the senators in a letter to Garland and Mayorkas. 

“Recently, many paramilitary groups have stepped up their efforts, creating an escalating crisis that must be a priority for both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice.”

The existence of paramilitary groups along the U.S.-Mexico border has been a headache for immigrant communities in that region ever since the two countries established a binational border, and more so since the annexation of Texas and the Mexican Cession, which established much of the current shared border.

The U.S. Border Patrol itself is a historical offshoot of the Chinese Inspectors, a mounted paramilitary group tasked with enforcing the racial immigration laws of the late 19th century, which often collaborated with local and state law enforcement to patrol the border.

The senators focused their concerns on two groups, Veterans on Patrol (VOP) and Patriots for America (PFA), both of which the senators say have been collaborating with authorities to capture migrants, despite not being legally authorized to do so.

“Since 2021, VOP has been intercepting unaccompanied minors near the border in Arizona, surveilling U.S.-based sponsors, and in some cases, confronting, or helping others confront, the sponsors at their homes. VOP has also disguised its desert campsites as water stations — meant to mimic those placed by faith-based organizations such as Humane Borders — in order to lure migrants; VOP then turns them over to CBP,” the lawmakers wrote.

The senators cited the Texas ACLU in saying PFA has collaborated with the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office and, at least on one occasion, with the Texas National Guard.

“Alarmingly, there is also evidence of open collaboration with federal agents. In May 2021, a video uploaded to Facebook depicted a Border Patrol agent meeting with VOP members and praising their activities before collecting drone footage from the group,” they wrote.

Modern border militias rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, as a group calling itself the Minuteman Project made headlines with both praise and criticism from politicians on both sides of the border, before essentially disappearing due to internal strife.

While militias and paramilitary groups have been present along the border for its entire history as a binational demarcation line, advocates worry that incensed rhetoric, coupled with heavy firepower in private hands and rising migration could end in tragedy.

“They’re a big issue when they apprehend people and actually carry out sort of citizens’ arrests, especially when those people are unaccompanied children,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“A lot of what they do just seems to be lurking around the desert and looking tough. The concern there is that they could hurt somebody,” he added, noting that there aren’t any real federal, state or local efforts to “control these guys or even keep a close eye on what they’re doing.”

“It’s a ‘so many things could go wrong’ kind of situation, but we’re lucky that they haven’t yet.”

Late last month, a man in El Paso threatened migrants with a gun, sending many into a panic.

The man, identified by police as Steven Driscoll, was later arrested and claimed he “was doing it for America,” according to a report by local station KTSM.

KTSM and The Hill are both owned by Nexstar.

Though organized armed groups have so far not openly attacked migrants, they have been known to sabotage water stations in the desert, and for decades migrant assistant programs have had to work around the groups’ presence to give aid to migrants.

And in 2019, a man claiming to be motivated by a “Hispanic invasion” killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart and injured 23 more in the largest anti-Hispanic mass shooting of the 21st century.

The senators wrote a laundry list of requests to the administration, including asking for information on authorities collaborating with armed groups and militias.

“The official [Border Patrol] line in every sector, of course, is that ‘we don’t work with them, we’d rather not have them around, but they have a legal right to be where they are,” said Isacson.

“There are cases of individual agents maintaining contact with them and being very sort of friendly with them,” he added.

DHS did not immediately return a request for comment on this story.

The lawmakers wrote that absent federal action to curb and regulate any illicit action by the militias – and any federal agents who collaborate with them – the threat of violence against migrants will endure.

“Absent federal action cracking down on their unauthorized behavior, vigilante groups will continue to operate and weaken the government’s ability to maintain migrant safety, protect human rights, and defend the rule of law at the border.” 

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Alejandro Mayorkas American Civil Liberties Union Biden Cory Booker Department of Homeland Security Department of Justice Ed Markey Ed Markey El Paso Elizabeth Warren Merrick Garland Merrick Garland migrants Patriots for America Texas Texas National Guard the Chinese Inspectors the Minuteman Project U.S. Border Patrol Veterans on Patrol vigilante groups
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