Two local groups are intimidating Phoenix-area churches and volunteers who provide assistance to immigrants after they are released from ICE custody
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit in federal court today against two Arizona-based groups and their members who have been intimidating, threatening and harassing churches, pastors and volunteers who are helping immigrants and their families following their release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.
The lawsuit describes how the members and supporters of AZ Patriots and Patriot Movement AZ (PMAZ), an SPLC-designated hate group, have impeded churches and volunteers who provide immigrants and immigrant families in the Phoenix area with food, clothing, basic medical care and temporary housing and help arrange transportation to their U.S. sponsors. The churches are cooperating through the Alliance of Christian Leaders of East Valley, a nonprofit organization comprising pastors of several Latinx churches in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
PMAZ is listed by the SPLC as a general hate group because it peddles in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry. Its founder, Lesa Antone, a named defendant, has engaged in fearmongering and conspiracy theories about undocumented immigrants.
AZ Patriots comprises former PMAZ members who split off from the group in February 2019. It is led by Jennifer Harrison, another named defendant. The group has engaged in many of the same tactics as PMAZ, including harassing churches that shelter immigrants.
“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, deputy legal director at 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.”
Since October 2018, ICE has brought people it has released from custody to the plaintiffs’ churches and other churches in the greater Phoenix area. The churches do not receive any government assistance for their efforts. The churches were able to publicize their efforts during the first couple of months when they started this humanitarian work, which helped bring in volunteers and donations.
But starting in late December 2018, PMAZ and its members and supporters started going to the churches where ICE took individuals and their families, seeking to intimidate the plaintiffs so they would stop providing services to people recently released from ICE custody. AZ Patriots and its members and supporters did the same after its formation in early 2019.
These intimidation tactics included trespassing on church property, sometimes armed; filming immigrants, including small children, volunteers and people working at the churches and uploading the videos online; and posting the names and addresses of the churches. Defendants would stand near church property yelling insults and defamatory accusations at the pastors and volunteers, falsely claiming that they are participating in human and sex trafficking. PMAZ and AZ Patriots have even gone so far as to include the names and contact information of some of the pastors, encouraging others to contact them directly. After these posts, several pastors received messages on social media and phone calls that were hostile and threatening.
Magdalena Schwartz is a pastor and the founder and president of the Alliance of Christian Leaders of the East Valley. She has helped coordinate the drop-offs of migrants and their families to churches around the greater Phoenix area. She began cooperating with ICE and assisting migrants and their families in October 2018.
One example of this harassment happened in late January 2019. Jennifer Harrison went to Iglesia Nueva Esperanza, a church in Mesa, shortly after an ICE bus had arrived to drop off immigrants, including small children, at the church. Harrison stood on church property and shouted “fuera” (“get out!” in Spanish) and “criminals” at people as they exited the bus. She then yelled that the churches, pastors and volunteers were human trafficking, singling out Schwartz. Harrison yelled at her, “Magdalena, you know what you’re doing. You know those kids don’t belong to those men. How much are you getting paid, Magdalena? How much are you being paid to human traffic children?” A video of this incident was posted on the PMAZ Facebook page, where it has received thousands of views.
“Our churches, pastors, and volunteers make many sacrifices to help these families, but the defendants force us to do so in fear,” Schwartz said. “We are not breaking the law, but the defendants threaten us and accuse us of being law-breakers. 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.”
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, seeks an injunction to stop PMAZ and AZ Patriots from engaging in illegal harassment and intimidation. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages. Additionally, it accuses PMAZ, AZ Patriots and their supporters and members of seven different counts, including conspiracy to violate civil rights, defamation and trespassing.
“The United States Constitution protects freedom of speech,” said Larry Wulkan, a Phoenix-based attorney. “But it does not protect speech that is aimed at harassing and intimidating church volunteers as they provide much-needed assistance to immigrant families who are in this country with the federal government’s permission. Our country’s founders did not intend the Constitution to be used as a sword to harm families seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
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 earlier that month. 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 pleaded guilty and took plea deals.
“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.”
The full complaint can be found here.