Phoenix-area churches and religious leaders on Tuesday sued two extremist groups for intimidating volunteers who provided food and shelter to undocumented immigrants.
The lawsuit — filed in federal court by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attorneys — accuses Patriot Movement AZ and AZ Patriots of trespassing, defamation, and violating the civil rights of several Christian churches and their pastors.
Among those suing: Alliance of Christian Leaders of the East Valley, Iglesia Alfa y Omega, Iglesia Monte Vista, Iglesia Nueva Esperanza, Iglesia Apostolica, Helping With All My Heart, Iglesia Apostolica De La Comunidad, and Iglesia Cristiana El Buen Pastor.
During a press conference announcing the lawsuit, SPLC deputy legal director David Dinielli said the plaintiffs are seeking damages, as well as a court order blocking the "patriots" from trespassing or further harassing volunteers.
"The lawsuit is being filed to make certain nothing worse happens," Dinielli said. "Many of our clients are extremely scared of what could happen next."
Someone who answered a Facebook message for Patriot Movement AZ said, "PMAZ has no comment on frivolous lawsuits filed by illegitimate groups such as SPLC."
AZ Patriots did not respond to request for comment.
Since a surge of asylum-seekers began overwhelming the border in 2018, immigration officials have dropped migrants off at the Valley churches to help them connect with their U.S. sponsors.
The churches, aided by volunteers and donations, provide food, clothing, medical care, and overnight shelter to migrants before transporting them to bus and rail stations.
Members of Patriot Movement AZ and AZ Patriots have exploited these drop-offs to spread anti-immigrant propaganda on YouTube and Facebook. They have filmed themselves accosting volunteers and pastors, baselessly accusing them of abetting human trafficking.
In one video taken at Iglesia Monte Vista, a "patriot" member can be heard chanting "punch her" at a volunteer.
In a video taken at Iglesia Nueva Esperanza, AZ Patriots founder Jennifer Harrison can be heard telling a bystander as they watch migrants get off a bus, "Hopefully, ma'am, they don't get loose and rape any of those little kids."
One one occasion, a protester affiliated with Patriot Movement AZ named Antonio Foreman allegedy walked onto Iglesia Alfa y Omega property with a gun and would not leave until a pastor called the police.
In a phone call after this story was published, Foreman disputed that version of events. He said he left when the pastor asked him to.
The videos — which often show the faces of immigrant children — rack up hundreds of thousands of views.
According to the lawsuit, the churches have "cut back on solicitations for volunteers and donations for fear that they would attract even more harassment" from the patriot groups. Volunteers have also stopped providing aid over the intimidation, the lawsuit states.
During the press conference, Iglesia Monte Vista Pastor Angel Campos likened the actions of the extremist groups to "terrorism." He described migrant children crying over the intimidation, asking what they did wrong.
"That's the atmosphere," Campos said. "It's anger. It's frustration. It's fear. Even my children are afraid."
In addition to the churches and pastors, volunteer Terence Driscoll is also a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. Driscoll claims that Patriot Movement AZ members surreptitiously photographed him picking up an immigrant woman and daughter from a church to bring them to the airport.
The group posted his photo online, circling his face in red, and wrote: "Single, grown men leave the Casa de Oracion church with Guatemalan women and young girls. Catch, release and disappear!"
Since its founding by Lesa Antone in 2017, Patriot Movement AZ has become one of the most visible anti-immigrant groups in the Valley. Its founding members Lesa Antone and Russell Jaffe are known for carrying weapons at left-wing protests and shouting at demonstrators.
Patriot Movement AZ gained prominence in March 2018 when two women affiliated with the group were arrested for shouting slurs outside a Tempe mosque. The group also made headlines harassing dark-skinned legislators and staffers, calling some of them "illegals."
AZ Patriots splintered off from Patriot Movement AZ in early 2019. Founded by Harrison, the group has focused its attention on the southern border, where members livestream border crossings and attempt to deter migrants from walking into the U.S.
This story was been updated at 11:44 a.m. with new information.