US: Anti-immigrant groups target Arizona churches, lawsuit claims

SPLC lawsuit accuses anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups of 'harassing' religious communities working with migrants.

    Pastor Angel Campos of Iglesia Monte Vista in Phoenix, at podium, talks Tuesday, June 4, 2019, about feeling afraid and harassed by two anti-immigrant groups who have protested at his church over its aiding immigrant families who have recently arrived at the southern border [Astrid Galvan/AP Photo]
    Pastor Angel Campos of Iglesia Monte Vista in Phoenix, at podium, talks Tuesday, June 4, 2019, about feeling afraid and harassed by two anti-immigrant groups who have protested at his church over its aiding immigrant families who have recently arrived at the southern border [Astrid Galvan/AP Photo]

    The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday against a pair of Arizona-based anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups accused of "threatening" and "harassing" religious communities working with migrants and refugees.

    The lawsuit filed against several members of Patriot Movement AZ and AZ Patriots seeks unspecified punitive damages and asks a federal judge to order them to stop their practices.

    The lawsuit also accused the groups of conspiring to violate the churches' civil rights, defaming the pastors and trespassing on private property.

    The SPLC and pastors from various Phoenix-area churches say members of the group accused church leaders of human and sex trafficking, trespassed on private property and refused to leave until police arrived. It also claims they secretly recorded immigrant children who were playing outside.

    They contend the groups' actions made it more difficult to recruit volunteers and led to some churches to cut back on helping.

    The lawsuit comes amid growing attention on the US border with Mexico, where militia organisations and armed vigilantes have sparked controversy for patrolling the borderlands and detaining migrants in recent years.

    'Keep one eye open'

    Angel Campos, pastor at Iglesia Monte Vista in Phoenix, said he's had to buy surveillance video equipment and walkie-talkies to keep himself and his volunteers safe. Campos said he is afraid and frustrated when the groups show up to his church to film government buses dropping off migrants. Some of them are visibly armed, he said. 

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    "As a human being, it's horrible to go to sleep and to keep one eye open because you don't know what's going to happen," Campos said.

    The groups did not immediately respond to messages The Associated Press news agency sent to their email and Facebook accounts.

    Most of the recent videos the groups posted on their public Facebook accounts show them at the border or in Mexico. The last video that was posted of them at a church appears to be in March.

    In one video from January, members of Patriot Movement AZ - which the SPLC considers a hate group - at first refused to leave church property as a bus dropped off migrant families. 

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    They then backed away but yelled at the church members, claiming they were breaking the law and should be ashamed of themselves.

    Detaining migrants

    Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asked the churches to step in as its resources were strained because of a soaring number of largely Central American families arriving at the border. 

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    ICE drops the families off at various churches and nonprofit groups, which then provide temporary shelter, help with travel arrangements, food, diapers and clothing.

    The families pass through Arizona but most have final destinations elsewhere.

    The churches and volunteer groups have a capacity to shelter around 700 people a week in the Phoenix area. When the groups are at capacity, ICE drops migrant families off at the bus station, where they must fend for themselves.

    Border Patrol arrested over 248,000 families with children from October through April, the last available data. That's a 400 percent increase over the same time last year. 

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    In April, New Mexico-based militia group United Constitutional Patriots prompted an outcry after it detained at gunpoint hundreds of migrants that had recently crossed the border into the United States.

    The group claimed that its operations on the border were intended to help US Border Patrol.

    The FBI later arrested the group's leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, on separate weapons-related charges.

    Although anti-immigrant militias and other groups have long been active on the country's southern border, many more flocked south after President Donald Trump falsely claimed that a US-bound caravan of migrants and refugees constituted an "invasion" during the 2018 midterm election period.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies