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A still from a livestream of AZ Patriots' ride-along with Border Patrol agent O. Zapien.
A still from a livestream of AZ Patriots' ride-along with Border Patrol agent O. Zapien.
AZ Patriots / Facebook

Anti-Migrant Vigilantes AZ Patriots Went on Ride-Along With Border Patrol

They stand near the southern border, intimidating migrants seeking asylum. "Go home!" they shout. "America cerrado!"

They wander the desert, confronting groups with children and asking where they came from. "Honduras?" "Guatemala?"

Sometimes, they're armed during these citizen patrols.

Since March, the anti-immigrant group AZ Patriots has made numerous trips to the Yuma sector of the southern border, attempting to deter migrants from crossing into the United States.

Jennifer Harrison, the group's founder, often broadcasts AZ Patriots' vigilante adventures on Facebook to tens of thousands of viewers across the country. The group frequently finds itself at odds with the Border Patrol and openly criticizes the agency for what it views as lax enforcement.

That didn't stop the Border Patrol from taking AZ Patriots on a drive on April 13 along a stretch of fence separating San Luis, Arizona, from San Luis Río Colorado, Mexico.

Riders USA, an anti-government motorcycle club, joined AZ Patriots for the federally sanctioned tour, with members from both groups packing into a Border Patrol van for a firsthand glimpse of a canal where migrants often cross.

It's not unusual for federal authorities to chauffeur reporters along the southern border. But the Border Patrol associating with nativist groups that openly express animus toward migrants and actively work to deter crossings raises concerns about the agency's neutrality.

Responding to inquiries from Phoenix New Times, the Border Patrol did not address the ride-along. Instead, a Customs and Border Protection official repeated a statement it tweeted last week after a New Mexico militia group drew national attention for detainee 200 migrants at gunpoint.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not endorse or condone private groups or organizations that take enforcement matters into their own hands," the official said. "Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved."

Someone responding to questions from the AZ Patriots Facebook page said the group requested the tour.

"You can request one too," the person said. "Any organization can request one." The AZ Patriots representative claimed not to know whether any of the groups' members were armed during the ride-along.

AZ Patriots founder Harrison recorded the tour in videos: First came an hourlong clip of a Q&A session with a Border Patrol agent whose name tag read "O. Zapien." Then, there was an 18-minute ride-along tour of the San Luis border.

During the Q&A session, Agent Zapien showed a video (also distributed to media this month) of migrants with children crossing under a border fence through an area submerged in water.

After the video, Zapien addressed the controversial policy under President Donald Trump wherein border agents separated migrant children from their families, saying: "A lot of people don't understand when we talk about family separation — we don't know who these people are. Yes, they can claim, this is my child, but we don't know that is their child."

(The federal government has reported that 3,000 children or more were separated from their parents last year, but the total number of kids forcibly removed remains unknown. A Yuma Border Patrol spokesperson recently told CNN that authorities have apprehended roughly 600 fraudulent families this fiscal year.)

Zapien answered several questions from AZ Patriots: Can border agents shoot into Mexico if they're being shot at? If you can see where they're shooting from. Any possibility of putting chips in migrants? No. Why can't border agents fingerprint children under 14? Because of policy. (That policy recently changed.)

Near the end of the session, one audience member asked how the groups can help border agents do their jobs more effectively.

"Talking to people, telling them what you learned today," Zapien responded. "Tell them what the facts are."

He then took them on the drive along the border.

AZ Patriots recently splintered off from Patriot Movement AZ, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group whose followers have a history of harassing clergy members and volunteers helping asylum seekers. In March 2018, two women associated with the group were arrested for shouting anti-Muslim rhetoric outside a mosque in Tempe.

Harrison drew headlines last year when she and Patriot Movement AZ founder Lesa Antone protested outside the Arizona Capitol, harassing lawmakers of color, including Representatives César Chávez and Eric Descheenie. The Arizona Capitol Times reported that members of the group asked dark-skinned legislative staffers whether they were "illegals." House Speaker Rusty Bowers later banned Harrison from the building for violating the chamber's rules of decorum.

Facebook posts indicate that AZ Patriots separated from Patriot Movement AZ in February. It's unknown what caused the break.

In the Facebook exchange with New Times, a member using the group's official page wrote, "Report the truth of what is happening on that border and stop looking to criticize Patriots who are documenting the stuff left-wing media refuses to report."

While Patriot Movement AZ predominantly appears at events in the Valley, AZ Patriots has been active on the border for the past two months. The group has undergone self-described "operations" in which members position themselves on the Arizona side of the border in an attempt to deter migrants from crossing.

In a video posted on March 23, Harrison can be heard yelling in Spanish toward a group of migrants in the distance: "Out! Out!"

As the group of migrants look confused, standing behind a tree, Harrison laughs and says, "They don't know what to do. They were told they'd be met with Border Patrol to give them a ride into Phoenix."

She adds: "Where are the Americans, guys? This is the attention I want to bring. Imagine if we had 100, 1,000, 2,000 patriots down here protecting this border."

In another video on March 31, Harrison and her group are wandering near the southern border at night. A Border Patrol truck pulls up, but the agents weren't there to apprehend a migrant.

The Patriots had tripped a sensor.

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