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SPLC sues Arizona groups for harassing churches that help immigrants

As the immigrants stepped off a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bus to receive assistance from a local Arizona church, a woman stood on church property and began shouting “fuera” (“get out” in Spanish) and “criminals” at them.

But the immigrants were not breaking the law. ICE had just released them to the church, whose members were ready to welcome them to the U.S.

The SPLC filed a lawsuit today that describes how members and supporters of Patriot Movement AZ (PMAZ) and AZ Patriots have interfered with churches and volunteers in the Phoenix metropolitan area who provide immigrants and their families with food, clothing, basic medical care, temporary housing and assistance with transportation to their U.S. sponsors.

The churches are cooperating with ICE, through the Alliance of Christian Leaders of the East Valley, a nonprofit organization comprising pastors of several Latinx churches in the area. The churches have been assisting people who are seeking asylum after immigration authorities release them. But AZ Patriots and PMAZ members and supporters have tried to stand in the churches’ way.

“Our clients feel called to welcome the stranger, and have worked with thousands of immigrants to help them get safely to U.S. sponsors after being released from ICE custody,” said David Dinielli, a deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Groups like Patriot Movement AZ and AZ Patriots have rejected American ideals; instead, they have chosen to give voice – and in this case action – to fear and bigotry. Their harassment is lawless. Their threats have prevented our clients from helping people in need. They’re motivated by the simple fact that the people our clients have chosen to help look and sound, to these purported ‘patriots,’ as if they don’t belong.”

PMAZ is listed by the SPLC as a general hate group because it traffics in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry. Its founder, Lesa Antone, a defendant, has engaged in fearmongering and conspiracy theories about immigrants.

AZ Patriots comprises former PMAZ members who split off from the group in February 2019. Its leader is Jennifer Harrison, another defendant. The group has engaged in many of the same tactics as PMAZ, including harassing churches that shelter immigrants, the lawsuit states.

Since October 2018, ICE has brought people it has released from custody to churches associated with the Alliance of Christian Leaders and other houses of worship in the greater Phoenix area. The churches do not receive any government assistance for their efforts. They rely completely on donations.

“If [the people assisting the immigrants] were breaking the law, ICE wouldn’t give them a ride there,” Henry Lucero, the Phoenix field director for ICE, said on March 21, according to the complaint. “They’re just doing something out of the goodness of their hearts. Trying to help people find a way to where they’re going.”

In the first two months of doing this humanitarian work, the churches were able to publicize their efforts, which helped them bring in volunteers and donations. But the same publicity alerted members and supporters of PMAZ, who used that information to harass and intimidate the churches and their volunteers. The churches have either stopped or decreased their public calls for support, out of fear that publicizing their efforts would only attract more harassment from the two groups.

In late December 2018, PMAZ members started going to the churches where ICE was taking individuals and their families. Their aim was to intimidate the churches and their volunteers to stop them from providing services. After forming in early 2019, AZ Patriots and its members and supporters participated in the same kind of harassment and intimidation tactics, according to the lawsuit.

The tactics included trespassing on church property, sometimes while armed with guns. The defendants also filmed immigrants – including small children – as well as volunteers and people working at the churches, and uploaded the videos to Facebook and YouTube. Additionally, they posted the names and addresses of the churches on the web.

The defendants would also stand near church properties, yelling insults and defamatory accusations at the pastors and volunteers – including the lie that they were participating in human and sex trafficking, according to the complaint.

PMAZ and AZ Patriots members and supporters have also included the names and contact information of some of the pastors on social media, encouraging people to contact them directly. After such information was posted, several pastors received messages and phone calls that were hostile and threatening.

Some of the defendants have also entered the churches under false pretenses by posing as volunteers or donors, prompting some of the pastors to be extremely cautious about accepting new volunteers and donors.

“The defendants have harassed, threatened and caused our volunteers and church members to fear for their safety,” said Angel Campos, pastor of Iglesia Monte Vista. “When an ICE bus arrives at our church, we welcome the families with an open heart and make them feel loved, yet we do so in fear that the defendants were following the bus and will soon arrive.”

In one incident described in the lawsuit, AZ Patriots members followed buses carrying immigrants from the ICE field office in Phoenix to Revolution Church in that city on Feb. 19. They parked on church property and stood at the door of the church, feet away from immigrants who were getting off the bus and entering the building. Then the harassers used their cell phones to record the immigrants – including young children – on video.

As the immigrants walked past Harrison – the AZ Patriots’ leader – she repeatedly shouted “criminals” at them, and refused to move away from the door when the pastor asked her to do so. Later, Harrison approached a volunteer’s vehicle in the parking lot, yelled at her, and attempted to film inside her car, according to the lawsuit.

In another incident in January, one of the defendants forced his way into one of the churches while openly carrying a gun. The incident happened during a PMAZ protest.

“Our churches, pastors, and volunteers make many sacrifices to help these families, but the defendants force us to do so in fear,” said Pastor Magdalena Schwartz, president of the Alliance of Christian Leaders. “We are not breaking the law, but the defendants threaten us and accuse us of being lawbreakers. We have been repeatedly targeted by the defendants, and now we will ask the court to stop this behavior so that we can continue our mission in peace.”

This is not the first time PMAZ or its supporters have targeted a place of worship. In March 2018, two women then affiliated with PMAZ were arrested on suspicion of burglary for an incident that took place at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, Arizona earlier that month.

In that incident, Tahnee Gonzales and Elizabeth “Liz” Dauenhauer posted a live video to Facebook showing them entering the grounds of the mosque with three children, yelling anti-Muslim slurs. Both women took plea deals, pleading guilty to aggravated criminal damage.