James, 24, a volunteer with Arizona Border Recon, a private force searching for illegal entrants from the south

Migrant wars

Armed militias and pro-immigrant groups battle it out in Trump Wall land

On a bend in the road at the top of a hill outside Arivaca, a tiny town in the Arizona desert 11 miles from the Mexican border, three men sit in the back of a pick-up truck. Dressed in plain clothes except for desert-camouflaged bulletproof vests, they are huddled over a tangle of wires and screens.
Anywhere else, this would quite obviously be a case of officials on official business. But exactly who is up to what — especially when it comes to men in camouflaged gear — is less clear in this off-the-beaten-track community of 600. (“We’re teeny-tiny,” says one resident with a broad grin.)
When asked, the men tell me they are with the Department of Defense. My further questions are, unsurprisingly, given short shrift. A few miles along the road, past road signs for Hardscrabble Lane and Broken Dreams Drive, on Arivaca’s main strip — a petrol station, a bar, a shop and not much else — two grey-haired men in hunting camouflage sit in an idling truck. A third pumps petrol into a quad bike loaded with gun cases. The dead deer strapped to the truck’s front grill reveals the weapons’ purpose.

Further down the road are signs that point to another, more troubling armed presence. “No Militia” reads one. The door of the bar opposite echoes the message: “UNWANTED: Members of any vigilante border militia group, including, but not limited to, Arizona Border Recon. Do not enter our establishment. We have the right to refuse service to any person or persons we deem undesirable.”

Militia groups are just one of the surprising ways in which the politically charged US-Mexico border has become more than just government business

Arivaca’s proximity to Mexico means the presence of official authorities is keenly felt. The Border Patrol’s white and green cars speed along undulating roads and dot the tops of scrub-covered hills. Its agents man a checkpoint on the road into town. But, as the signage suggests, the area is also home to less-than-official efforts to secure America’s 2,000-mile southern border.

Militia groups are just one of the surprising and sometimes alarming ways in which the politically charged and sometimes deadly US-Mexico border has become more than just government business, with a range of groups on both sides of the fraught issue of immigration using deeds as well as words to make their point.

According to its website, Arizona Border Recon exists to “provide intelligence to the public in matters relating to the trafficking activities originating from the international border in Arizona”. Judging by videos they post online, “observing and reporting” appears to require an array of automatic weapons and a wardrobe seemingly purchased exclusively from an army surplus shop. Think Dad’s Army with much more serious gear and less of a sense of humour.

“Our objective is not to overthrow any government, or take the law into our own hands,” they claim. “We are not here to replace the Border Patrol. We operate within the scope of the law as citizens, by observing and reporting what we see.” The group has generally managed to stick to that pledge. One recruit was kicked out of the group before he was arrested and eventually convicted of running what prosecutors described as a “firearms and ammunition factory” out of his house last summer.

Last autumn, as Trump was issuing warnings on the midterm campaign trail about an imminent “invasion” by a migrant caravan, the owners of an online firearms marketplace pitched up in Arivaca in an armoured military-style vehicle emblazoned with the message “TAKE YOUR COUNTRY BACK”.

In early 2018, Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, who ran a group called Veterans on Patrol, claimed to have discovered a child-trafficking camp on the outskirts of nearby Tucson. He also live-streamed videos from Arivaca and attracted a following of conspiracy theorists adamant that they had a paedophile cover-up on their hands. Eventually, the police told them that all they had discovered was a homeless encampment.

“We try not to engage,” one regular tells me at the town bar. It is not hard to see why. The wariness is down to more than the hassle of middle-aged men playing soldiers on your doorstep. A decade ago, two Arivaca residents, Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter Brisenia, were murdered in their home by members of Minutemen American Defense, a self-styled militia with a similar ostensive purpose to other groups still in Arivaca today.

Volunteerism in the borderlands is not a one-sided endeavour. In the same areas patrolled by Arizona Border Recon, members of No More Deaths walk the trails not to search for migrants, but to drop humanitarian aid for them. “We go out and a hike in the desert in places that we think people might be crossing in or in places we know people have died, and we put out food and water,” says Paige Corich-Kleim, a volunteer for the organisation. These are the straightforward means by which No More Deaths pursues a simple goal: reducing fatalities among migrants crossing one of the deadliest parts of the border.

The Border Patrol puts the number of deaths of those attempting to cross the border since the 1990s at 6,000. Other organisations, including No More Deaths, argue that Border Patrol underestimates the number, and claim that nearly 9,000 migrants have died in the borderlands. Another volunteer organisation, La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, opened 1,200 files on missing people on the border in 2015 alone. Deaths at the border increased after 1994, when Bill Clinton instituted what is known as the Prevention Through Deterrence approach, beefing up security in urban areas: this led to migrants attempting to cross in more remote, dangerous areas. No More Deaths calls what is happening at the border a “missing persons crisis”.

Corich-Kleim says it is not unusual to come across human remains on a water drop, and it is getting worse. “In the past four or five years, it’s become a lot more common to find those bodies,” she adds.

Unlike groups such as Arizona Border Recon, these volunteers are generally warmly received in places like Arivaca, which has a small humanitarian centre of its own. Several of the Arivaca residents I speak to say they have taken water onto trails. Another says that migrants heading north are a fact of life in the area, and that if he encounters them on his land he cooks them a meal before sending them on their way.

No More Deaths’s relationship with the law is more complicated. Last year, the organisation released footage of Border Patrol agents sabotaging their drops of food and water, and claimed the practice of slashing water containers was widespread. Scott Warren, a geography teacher and No More Deaths volunteer, spent much of 2019 locked in a legal fight after he was accused of illegally harbouring two migrants from Central America at a camp in southern Arizona, as well as several other misdemeanours relating to the organisation’s work. In November, a jury found him not guilty of the most serious offence, while the judge dropped one of the minor charges on the grounds that Warren, a unitarian Christian, “was obliged to leave water jugs because of his religious beliefs, and the government’s regulation imposes a substantial burden on this exercise of his religion”.

“The government has failed in its attempt to criminalise basic human kindness,” Warren said outside the court.

The privately funded border wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico

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‘‘She’s a big help on that. She’s half German Shepherd, half Coyote. They don’t get by her,” says Jeff Allen, a co-owner of American Eagle Bricks, a brick plant that occupies a dusty plot of land that abuts the US-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico, about 300 miles east of Arivaca. The “that” with which he says his dog is a big help is stopping migrants who attempt to cross into the US via the  site, a slope between the banks of the Rio Grande and the craggy escarpment of Mount Cristo Rey. To the east is El Paso, Texas. South of that is Ciudad Juarez, a notorious hotspot for cartel violence.

“If they’re on the property, she lets me know,” says Allen, a paunchy middle-aged man in an open-neck shirt and a grey and green cap emblazoned with “MAGA”. Pointing to the brick plant, he adds that he has to live onsite “otherwise they would clear this place out overnight”.

Kolfage set up a crowdfunding page and called for private donations to help pay for the wall. He raised more than $20 million in 20 days

He says that last spring his border problem went from being overwhelming to manageable in just a few days. He claims that, at one point, 50 to 150 migrants were crossing onto the site every day. “Now I see a handful a week,” he says.

What changed? Where once just a few whitewashed stone markers demarcated Mexico and the US, there is now a wall. That half-mile side of the site features exactly the sort of steel structure that Donald Trump famously called “big and beautiful”. But it is not the work of the Trump administration and not paid for with US taxpayers’ money (or by Mexico). Instead, it is there thanks to thousands of small-scale private donations.

We Build The Wall is run by Brian Kolfage, a Purple Heart recipient and triple-amputee veteran of the Iraq war from Florida. A year ago, when the impasse over funding for the border wall precipitated a government shutdown, Kolfage set up a page on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe and called for private donations to help pay for the wall. He raised more than $20 million in 20 days and has been a minor celebrity in Trumpworld ever since. (When I call him to discuss the wall, he tells me he is at the White House’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony.)

“It was American people just fed up with the way things were going in DC. Donating gave them a way to have their voices heard,” he tells me. When it became clear that the money could not go to the government with a guarantee it would be used on the border wall, Kolfage set up We Build The Wall, a nonprofit, with the help of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Since its completion last spring, the wall has become something of a MAGA pilgrimage. Donald Trump Jr stopped by last July. “This is what capitalism is all about,” he said. “This is private enterprise at its finest. Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else. What you guys are doing is amazing.”

The organisation has begun construction on a second site and has plans for a third. The engineering firm behind the wall in Sunland Park recently won a $400 million contract from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a section of wall in Arizona, reportedly after President Trump made it clear they were his preferred choice. According to Kolfage, We Build the Wall now receives around $600,000 a month. He plans to keep building “until the money runs out”. As well as the practical benefit they see in their work, Kolfage sees We Build The War as a way of raising awareness of what he describes as “the crisis that is going on down there with cartels that are selling these migrants a fake story that they can come to United States. Ninety-two per cent of them are getting deported because they don’t qualify. We’re enabling them to come here with our broken promises.”

Allen hasn’t just had help from We Build the Wall. Another, less salubrious group had been apprehending migrants on this particular strip of the border. Last year, a militia calling itself United Constitutional Patriots set up camp not far from the brick plant and on occasion helped Allen detain migrants. As in Arivaca, this group opted for military garb and heavy weaponry. Soon after the group posted a video detaining several hundred migrants close to their camp, their leader, 69-year-old Larry Mitchell Hopkins was arrested on charges of possessing firearms and ammunition as a convicted felon. Officials later revealed that Hopkins allegedly claimed that his group were training “to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama”.

After Hopkins’s arrest, a new group was formed by former UCP members, called the Guardian Patriots. Last June, a member of that organisation, Jim Benvie, was charged with impersonating border officers. In keeping with the DIY nature of this vigilantism, the potentially incriminating evidence consists of videos uploaded to Benvie’s own Facebook account.

In a video not being used against him, Benvie tells viewers: “This is a war that we’re going to fight. We Build the Wall is going to fight it. The Guardian Patriots and myself, we’re here.” Later he describes the nature of this “war”: “It’s Americans versus Americans, guys. Immigrants and the cartels are the only ones who benefit from this, so you tell me it’s not an invasion… We have government officials here committing treason against the United States of America.”

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It is hardly a surprise that conspiratorial and extreme figures gravitate towards political flashpoints such as parts of the US-Mexican border. But away from those extremes, among the citizens providing essential provisions to migrants and those using their own money to make good on Trump’s promise to “build the wall” an odd symmetry starts to emerge.

The line that separates the US from Mexico is the site of an intractable clash of value

Both sides talk of a crisis at the border. Both sides claim security and humanitarian considerations are best served by their preferred course of events. Those who lament what they see as an excessively militarised border argue that the decriminalisation of border crossings and an increase in legal immigration would mean fewer deaths and an end to migrant dependancy on cartels. Those who see the border as dangerously permeable maintain that a wall would make America safer and create a deterrence so strong as to disempower the traffickers they argue are the greatest threat to migrants.

Talking to some of the borderlands’ little platoons made such claims seem unconvincing. Both a wall and a decriminalised, demilitarised border promise more than they can deliver, while a thousand smaller decisions aren’t win-win at all. If tighter security comes at a humanitarian cost, the opposite is also true. Far from being a technocratic riddle that officials can solve, the line that separates the US from Mexico is the site of an intractable clash of values. No wonder some Americans aren’t content to leave that to the government.

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