Never mind that many of the women, children and men are escaping violence and economic collapse. It’s an invasion, they insist. Of course, an invasion means war, and war means enemies. But with more people reaching the southern frontier, recent history warns us that right-wing border paranoia runs the risk of escalating yet more anti-migrant vigilantism that threatens both migrants and Americans alike.
In the leadup to the 2018 midterm elections, then President Trump brought anti-migrant hysteria to lethal levels. On top of “unknown Middle Easterners” and “very tough fighters,” he warned, a U.S.-bound “caravan” of migrants “very well could” include terrorists.
Hearing Trump’s comments as a call to arms, more militias and vigilante groups packed their bags, loaded their weapons, and headed to the southern frontier, while others took aim at migrants and their advocates in communities around the country.
In October 2018, a white nationalist, operating on the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews orchestrate mass immigration as a plot against the country, stormed Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire, killing 11 worshippers. Less than a year later, a gunman wrote an anti-immigrant manifesto warning of an “invasion,” drove some nine hours from the Dallas suburbs to El Paso and shot dead 23 people in a Walmart.
But you don’t have to look to mass murders to see how anti-migrant vigilantism also plagues American communities. On the southern border, militias and other vigilante groups have time and again taken their war to small communities, humanitarians and people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
In Arivaca, Arizona, a town where rogue militiamen killed a man and his 9-year-old daughter in 2009, a fresh flood of vigilantes arrived armed to the teeth in 2018. They circulated Pizzagate-style conspiracy theories about the townspeople, fueling fears of vigilante violence. Years later, some of those vigilantes still haven’t left.
Closer to home, Kevin "KC" Massey led a Texas border militia group known as Rusty's Rangers in Brownsville. In videos he posted on YouTube, Massey claimed communists and Muslims were crossing the border as part of a plot to undermine the country.
When the feds raided his motel room in 2014, after an armed confrontation between Massey and a fellow militiaman, on the one hand, and a Border Patrol agent, they found guns, ammunition and apparent bombmaking materials. Massey went to prison, but once released, he went on the lam after a parole violation, all the while threatening a shootout with federal law enforcement. In December 2019, he reportedly shot and killed himself in East Texas' Van Zandt County.
All around southern Arizona, hardline border groups like Veterans on Patrol, an outfit headed by non-veteran Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, are still traipsing through the desert, targeting residents in small communities and taking aim at migrants and humanitarian groups. As the group broadcasts conspiracy theories to its thousands of Telegram followers – claims that George Soros, the CIA, Democrats and humanitarians have all teamed up to sex traffic women and children – its members empty water tanks that humanitarians leave in the desert for migrants crossing some of the region’s deadliest corridors. In some cases, they’ve even put out fake water stations to “bait” migrants their way.
At a time like this, is it a surprise that anti-immigrant vigilantes feel emboldened? Republican politicians and right-wing commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson have claimed time and again that Democrats want to alter the electorate by allowing more migrants and refugees into the country, echoing the great replacement theory spread by white nationalists around the world.
In 2011, Arizona Border Recon leader Tim Foley told agents he had planted improvised explosives in the desert near the border, a claim that turned out to be false. Foley, whose gun-lugging group still patrols southern Arizona, has in recent years starred in the 2015 documentary Cartel Land and shared stages with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Iowa U.S. Rep. Steve King and former Trump White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, among others.
In April 2019, Larry Hopkins and his United Constitutional Patriots militia detained migrants at gunpoint in New Mexico. Hopkins later pleaded guilty to a federal weapons charge, but it was learned during the trial that his group had allegedly trained to assassinate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama and Soros.
Dangerous or not, politicians are still fanning the flames. In Texas, the same Gov. Greg Abbott who once condemned the El Paso shooter’s rhetoric has now dubbed the border crisis “an invasion,” as have Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others.
Meanwhile, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who’s also a candidate for U.S. Senate, recently issued a legal opinion that allows Gov. Greg Ducey to use military force to combat the “invasion.” (In May 2019, the FBI’s Phoenix office warned that conspiracy theories could drive more “groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”)
Unsurprisingly, as politicians ramp up their anti-migrant rhetoric, vigilantes are gearing up once again. In Texas, an armed citizen group called the Patriots for America Militia has found support among some in local law enforcement. Traveling between back and forth to the border, the group has taken up arms, held fundraisers with GOP primary candidates and promised to help stop the “invasion” in a call for donations.
Trump left office more than a year ago, but border paranoia is as present as ever. Republicans around the country are still relying on his anti-migrant playbook, and with midterm elections nearing, the threat that xenophobia poses only stands to put more migrants and Americans at risk.
Patrick Strickland is a journalist from Texas. His latest book The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in the American Borderlands is now available from Melville House. He is the news editor at the Dallas Observer.