As the migrant crisis continues to grow at the Southern border, humanitarian groups are faced with a continued assault from far-right extremists who push anti-immigrant and antigovernment tropes vilifying migrants.
On April 6, internet conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones uploaded a video that went viral depicting his crew trying to stop a humanitarian organization, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, from supposedly “smuggling children” in McAllen, Texas.
According to the church’s website, it “provides a place for the countless men, women, children, and infant refugees to rest, have a warm meal, a shower, and change into clean clothing.” It also runs a Humanitarian Respite Center.
Jones’ crew was stationed near the church filming migrants being processed at a COVID-19 checkpoint. Once the group noticed children being put into a church-affiliated SUV, they swarmed the vehicle and accused the driver of engaging in “mass smuggling.” At one point, one of Jones’ associates got into an argument with bystanders who were questioning his motives, to which the associate responded saying the children were “being raped.”
In a statement posted to the church’s Facebook page, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the church, described the encounter as a “contrived misrepresentation” of the organization’s humanitarian work. Pimentel added that the church has worked with past presidential administrations regardless of political leaning. She accused Jones of contriving a “staged confrontation.”
In recent months, Jones is just one of several extremists who have used visits to the Southern border to politicize the migrant crisis. The far right has a long history of targeting migrants with harassment campaigns. In some cases, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) designated extremist groups in the Southwest, such as Veterans on Patrol, AZ Desert Guardians, AZ Patriots, Patriot Movement AZ and Border Network News, have directed their vitriol at humanitarian groups.
Over the last two decades, there has been significant crossover between some of the key concepts pushed by the anti-immigrant movement and the beliefs espoused by the antigovernment movement.
The SPLC designates anti-immigrant groups as organizations that are known for confronting and harassing immigrants along with immigrants’ rights groups. Anti-immigrant groups typically push out racist propaganda and have focused much of their attention on trying to halt both illegal and legal immigration.
Antigovernment groups have taken nativist beliefs around shifting demographics and intertwined them with conspiracy theories around globalization, resulting in built-up anger and animosity toward immigrants. Antigovernment groups have traditionally operated on the idea that the U.S. Constitution grants them legal authority to take the law into their own hands. These concepts undergird their activities as they embark on missions in the desert against perceived threats.
The humanitarian water workers
At the height of the Trump presidency, the group Veterans on Patrol (VOP), run by conspiracy theorist Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer, also known as “Screwy Louie,” made it a mission to document migrant crossings. Hatewatch has documented the group’s long history with conspiracy theories, including QAnon, that have fueled their racist beliefs and characterized migrants as “violent sexual predators, cartel scouts and drug mules.”
VOP’s claims of having “discovered” cartel-operated “child sex camps” has, over time, built the group a loyal online following that donates to support their activities. Meyer claims VOP was originally formed to help servicemen find homes, but lately the group has devoted much of its time to targeting the faith-based humanitarian group Humane Borders.
The Humane Borders mission is to “save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure and to create a just and humane environment in the borderlands,” according to its website. The group, which has been around since 2000, embarks on expeditions into the Sonora Desert to manage manmade water stations that are set up along migrant routes. The idea is that if water stations are set up and easily recognizable by anyone crossing through the region, the stations might function as a lifeline for people on the verge of death by dehydration.
In an interview with Hatewatch, Doug Ruopp, a chair of Humane Borders, said his organization has dealt with harassment at the hands of “various groups” for years. The group’s water barrels have been shot or stabbed, and some have had spigots kicked out. In recent years, Humane Borders has been on the receiving end of misinformation campaigns by both VOP and its splinter group, AZ Desert Guardians.
VOP social media pages are littered with accusations that Humane Borders is running “taxpayer funded cartel water stations.” Both VOP and AZ Desert Guardians have a long history of engaging in harassment campaigns and draining water barrels. In some cases, VOP has claimed to have camped near water stations to stop migrants from crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.
Last May, Meyer claimed his group launched “Operation Stop it All” or “OpSIA,” a campaign that disguised VOP campsites as Humane Borders water stations, with the intent to lure migrants into the camps in order to call Border Patrol on wanderers. At one point the group’s Twitter page claimed to be running at least three separate “decoy water stations” out in the desert. The actual Humane Borders water stations are easily recognizable in the Sonora Desert thanks to the group’s iconic blue flag and closely placed blue water barrels.
That same month, in videos posted to the YouTube account of Paul Flores, a VOP associate, Flores claimed that “the first 2 scumbags walked into camp this morning.” The video, which appeared to show two individuals walking into a VOP campsite, was posted with the description reading: “Operation Water Bait will be a success. The cartel traffickers will no longer know which aid station is the real aid station.”
In the video, Meyer is seen confronting the men and pulling out and unfolded a blue flag similar to one used by Humane Borders. He proceeded to tell the individuals to stay away from Humane Borders’ water flags, and by extension their water stations, saying, “These are going up to catch people who are coming in, no bueno.” The men, who appeared confused, only looked at the flag and responded by repeating the phrase “no bueno.” The video showed seven minutes of the exchange. It is unclear what became of the two men after the interaction.
When asked how these incidents have affected the work of Humane Borders, Ruopp said, “Even if we see their face when we see them standing at the station saying, ‘We hate the station,’ unless the video shows them actually destroying the station we can’t get anywhere legally.”
But Meyer has been arrested numerous times for trespassing on private property while searching for the ever-elusive child sex ring networks he purports exist in the Arizona desert. As High Country News reported in 2018, VOP’s theories about “child sex camps” have been debunked by the Tucson police, the sheriff’s office and the Pima County medical examiner.
“There’s nothing factual about what he says, it’s just a story that he can weave, and we think people send him money to do what he’s doing,” Ruopp said. Although VOP and AZ Desert Guardians claim their mission is to keep the country safe from cartels and child traffickers, it’s clear no child sex camps have ever been identified by these groups.
At times, VOP and AZ Desert Guardians share images on Telegram showing donation packages they claim they receive in the mail from their loyal supporters. Their social media content makes it appear as if the migrants’ personal belongings serve as enticements for these groups to continue their predatory behavior. It’s common for the groups to post images of personal belongings that appear to belong to foreign nationals from Central America. These items often include clothing, cell phones, personal documents, IDs and currency. It’s unclear how most of these items ended up in the hands of the vigilantes.
On Instagram, VOP has posted videos of allies stopping, searching and interrogating individuals in the desert. In one of the videos, posted in February, Rebecca Ferland, leader of AZ Desert Guardians can, be heard accusing two men of being coyotes while she rummages through their belongings, saying, “So, one-two-three phones, two wallets, we’ll give those to BP when they get here.” This isn’t the first time these groups have claimed to be aligned with Border Patrol.
In a separate incident from February, Meyer shared video of an encounter he had with two migrants at the border wall. The video, which appears to show two men, one on the U.S. side and one the Mexico side, depicts Meyer interrogating both individuals. At one point he asks them if they have any money and then proceeds to ask the individual on U.S. soil if he has weapons or drugs. The young man, who doesn’t speak English, replies in Spanish that he doesn’t understand.
In the four-minute video, Meyer can be heard telling a member of his group to drive up along the border wall and get the attention of Border Patrol, so “BP will see me walking up with him.” As the video comes to an end, the young man can be heard asking in Spanish, “¿Adónde vamos?” or “Where are we going?” Meyer replies with, “immigration.”
Hatewatch reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to get clarification on the relationship between Border Patrol and groups freelancing out in the desert. In an email, Robert Daniels, a public affairs specialist for the state of Arizona said: “The Border Patrol doesn’t support/endorse any private group or organization.”
A tradition of vigilantism
Border states have a long history of dealing with civilian vigilante groups. The groups have been around for at least 150 years, according to a Congressional Research Service report from 2006.
The history of border surveillance groups can be traced back to the early 20th century and goes hand-in-hand with rampant racist violence that eventually led to the creation of groups such as the Texas Rangers and, eventually, the Border Patrol, according to The Intercept, an online publication.
It’s no surprise that these groups have once again turned their attention to the American Southwest. Unfortunately, recent harassment operations targeting such humanitarian groups as Humane Borders and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley are not isolated incidents.
In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center along with Stinson LLP filed a lawsuit against Patriot Movement AZ and AZ Patriots, two far-right groups, after members targeted church volunteers who were aiding immigrants from Central America. The plaintiffs, Alliance of Christian Leaders of the East Valley, identified in the lawsuit as “a nonprofit organization comprised of pastors of several Hispanic churches,” accused the groups of “intimidating, threatening, harassing or otherwise interfering with plaintiff’s ability to invite guests onto their property and into their buildings or homes.”
In 2019 a court order was issued prohibiting PMAZ from targeting humanitarian volunteers and in 2020 the same agreement was reached with AZ Patriot, essentially barring both groups from:
- Trespassing on, standing, sitting, or lying on, or blocking, impeding, or obstructing ingress or egress from any property or building owned or regularly and consistently used by plaintiffs, or directly encouraging others to do the same;
- Physically abusing, grabbing, touching, pushing, shoving, crowding, or tortiously harassing persons entering or leaving, working at or using the services of any property or building owned or regularly and consistently used by plaintiffs, or directly encouraging others to do the same;
- Using any mechanical loudspeaker or sound amplification device, including, but not limited to, megaphones, bullhorns, and electric amplifiers, or making any excessively loud sound which injures, disturbs, or endangers the health or safety of any person on any property or building owned or regularly and consistently used by plaintiffs, or directly encouraging others to do the same; and
- Stating or implying (or directly encouraging others to do the same) in any public forum, including but not limited to, social media or media interviews, that any plaintiff is engaged in any form of human trafficking or sex trafficking or harboring fugitives.
The lawsuit brought forth by SPLC and Stinson LLP is one of the rare cases where humanitarian groups were granted some level of protection.
Today, AZ Patriots continues to target liberal groups and create content to satisfy their far-right base. Jennifer Harrison, a Arizona based anti-immigrant provocateur and one of the most well-known faces of the group, praised Alex Jones for the viral video outside the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Respite Center. On Twitter, Harrison reshared the story and tagged Infowars affiliated accounts. “Alex Jones and AZ Patriots call it like we see it. Don’t give a fuck whose feelings get hurt,” she wrote.
In early January, the group’s YouTube page shared a video depicting Harrison and two other members of AZ Patriots rummaging through an unidentified humanitarian water bin. It’s unclear where the group was located at the time of filming, but Harrison can be heard telling her viewers that the water is “going to the cartels,” before asking a member of her group if she should “dump it.” The group eventually decided to place the water gallons back inside the larger blue bin, but not before Harrison decried the humanitarian water bin as aiding and abetting supposed criminal networks.
Later, Harrison can be seen kicking over the wooden sign reading “Agua,” before a male member of the group places it back in its original set up in order to take pictures of the station. The group eventually left the area but not before Harrison is heard expressing her anger toward migrants saying: “Guess what, there’s water on the other side of the border. Stay there, how about that.”
Hate has no borders
In recent years, the issue of extremists going after migrants and humanitarian groups has spilled into neighboring countries. In a number of instances, individuals associated with the group Border Network News have traveled across U.S. borders into countries in Central America. The duo Oscar “El Blue” Ramirez and Anthony Aguero, otherwise known as “Conservative Anthony,” teamed up with their longtime friend Ben Bergquam, a reporter with Real America’s Voice, to spread misinformation about humanitarian organizations.
As first reported by The Daily Beast earlier this year, their content is riddled with racist nativist narratives. Much of it often relies on anti-immigrant and antigovernment tropes that vilify asylum seekers as well as the parties who provide humanitarian aid.
It’s common for the trio to characterize the migrant crisis as an “invasion,” and in videos shared to social media platforms, the group often dabbles in conspiracies that pin the blame for the migrant crisis on “leftists,” “globalists,” Democrats, George Soros and the United Nations.
They have found a niche audience with Trump supporters, and it has become a staple of theirs to interview migrants under the guise of being friendly Mexican and Mexican American journalists. Both Ramirez and Aguero are originally from Mexico, and the two men easily attract migrants into giving live interviews. Bergquam, although not a Spanish speaker, frequently guides the questions and the group has learned to capitalize on Ramirez and Aguero’s Mexican roots to strike up a conversation and later pepper the discussion with misinformation.
In videos shared to YouTube in late 2019, Ramirez and Bergquam traveled to the city of Tapachula, Mexico, and took footage of migrants waiting to get processed at a nearby immigration center. During the course of their interviews with migrants, Bergquam accused churches of perpetuating the crisis.
“Many of these shelters, the private ones run by these churches, some of them legitimate churches some of them have been corrupted by the globalists, leftist, globalists. But what we were told is they are promoting the illegal immigration, the migration. This idea of ‘anyone has the right to go anywhere’ because they’re making money on it,” Bergquam said.
Later in the video, while talking to a group of Cuban migrants, Ramirez proceeded to tell the refugees that in the U.S. the Democratic Party was attempting to bring “socialism” and “communism” to the country. Ramirez eventually asked the group if any lawyers had approached them to offer help processing their asylum cases. The group replied saying no lawyers had approached them at any point throughout their journey. In the video, Ramirez and Bergquam can then be heard telling the group to be cautious of scam artists who pose as lawyers and prey on migrants in order to take their money.
The group singled out Al Otro Lado, Pueblos Sin Fronteras and Angeles Sin Fronteras, three humanitarian immigrants’ rights organizations. As a small group gathered around the two men, Ramirez could be heard telling the crowd that the three groups only take advantage of migrants, with Bergquam chiming in in the background saying, “No bueno, they’re liars.”
According to Al Ortro Lado’s mission statement, which is found on their website, the group provides legal and humanitarian support to “indigent refugees, deportees and other migrants in the U.S. and Tijuana.” In addition, they also offer legal services on both sides of the border and engage in impact litigation to fight for the rights of migrants. Pueblos Sin Fronteras similarly describes their work on their homepage as providing “accompaniment, humanitarian assistance, leadership development, recognition of human rights, and coordination of know-your-rights training.” The group carries out their work in both the U.S. and Mexico. Lastly, the group Angeles Sin Fronteras describes their mission online as one that focuses on providing migrants with food, clean clothing and a safe shelter.
The fact that the humanitarian groups are legitimate and established didn’t stop the Border Network News group from actually traveling to the office of Al Otro Lado just a month after visiting Tapachula.
In an interview with Hatewatch, Nicole Ramos, one of the co-directors for Al Ortro Lado, recounted the day Bergquam, Ramirez and Aguero showed up to her office in Tijuana. Ramos said that prior to that day, she had never met any of the individuals who showed up espousing wild claims about her and about the organization.
“They have made accusations that I sell drugs to unaccompanied minors, we create fraudulent documents for people to enter, coach people to lie, we do fake marriages, charge people for our services, we’re not a legal organization in Mexico, you know, all sorts of nutty things,” Ramos said.
Ramos is the director of her organization’s border rights project, which has served thousands of asylum seekers by providing them with information about the U.S. Asylum process. Her work includes providing intake consultations and accompanying vulnerable asylum seekers through the process of seeking parole at U.S. ports of entry. She also engages in impact litigation against Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on behalf of migrants when violations related to conditions of confinement arise.
In their coverage of the duo earlier this year, The Daily Beast reported that Ramirez had been deported from the U.S. in 2008 after serving four years in prison for trafficking meth into the country. It wasn’t until 2020 that Ramirez was able to get a visa under the Trump administration, something that is typically difficult to accomplish with a drug trafficking conviction per the rules of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Online records show that in 2010 Aguero pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for family violence assault and, in 2015, he was sentenced to two years in Texas state prison for vehicular assault while intoxicated.
In January, Aguero uploaded and then removed a video to social media where he recounted his experience storming the capital on Jan. 6. Based on his own account, Aguero claimed he was able to get inside the building and film the blood of the insurrectionist Ashley Babbitt, who was shot and killed after trying to get past Capital security.
Hatewatch has also previously reported the relationship between Aguero and his longtime friend and former QAnon adherent, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. Today, Aguero continues traveling the country covering right-wing events and periodically returns to the desert to film migrants.
Despite the obstacles faced by humanitarian groups at the border, many of the workers remain undeterred.
Ruopp, from Humane Borders assured Hatewatch that even in midst of feeling down at times as a result of Meyer’s activities, he had no plans of stepping back.
“He hasn’t upset what we do,” Ruopp said, recalling the organization’s mission of saving lives in the desert.
Photo illustration by SPLC