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Border vigilante groups see resurgence as immigration rhetoric shifts

As the numbers of migrants arriving at Arizona's southern border grows, the rhetoric around it has become more extreme. And, with that, citizen militia groups once seen as fringe are becoming more mainstream.

Keegan Hamilton with the Los Angeles Times spent some time on the border with some of them and he joined The Show to tell us more.

LAUREN GILGER: Thanks for coming on, Keegan.

KEEGAN HAMILTON: Thanks for having me.

GILGER: So I want to begin with this group that you kind of profile here, Arizona Border Recon. Tell us about them.

HAMILTON: First of all, well, Arizona Border Recon has been around for a number of years since around 2010, 2011 is when they first became active down south of Tucson, around the Arivaca area, sort of between the border crossings of Nogales and Sasabe is where they mainly operate. And they're led by a guy named Tim Foley, who has been a prominent figure in this world for a while. He was sort of made famous by a 2014 documentary called "Cartel Land," sort of portrayed him as this guy who's protecting his community, taking matters into his own hands, and sort of the foil for similar groups in Mexico that took up arms to keep out drug traffickers. But what I saw this was a pretty small group with around a half dozen people who only patrols for about a week or so at a time and can only really cover a very small stretch of the border out there.

GILGER: So, tell us about, about what they do. Like they are dressed in camouflage, they are holding weapons, there are other groups like this. What do they do when they encounter migrants, for example.

HAMILTON: Yeah. So these guys, you know, dressed head to toe in combat, they're all carrying AR-15 style rifles. They go out in what they say, they describe it as patrols, and they look in what they say are, you know, known smuggling corridors for people who are trying to smuggle migrants or drugs across the border and they sort of station themselves out there and they have no, you know, authority of a law enforcement group. They are not affiliated with the border patrol or any law enforcement agency. So the way that they describe it as sort of try to be an intimidating intimidation presence essentially of "we're going to let these people see us and then try to, you know, force them to go back across the border into Mexico." And we saw ourselves in one occasion where it was a group of, of you know, migrants who were clearly lost in need of aid hadn't had food or water in quite some time out there. They stopped those folks and called the Border Patrol and waited for the Border Patrol agents to show up with vans and pick up the migrants and take them away for processing.

GILGER: And as you mentioned, groups like this have been out there for some time. What's changed though recently, in terms of what we've seen around the rhetoric on the border. There's certainly been a surge in migrants coming, but you're also writing about basically these groups enjoying a resurgence as well.

HAMILTON: Yeah, I think since the Trump era, I think there's a lot of extremist groups have taken cues from Trump's rhetoric around, you know, migrants at the border. You know, this perception that there is an invasion and that the border is not a secure place. And that has, you know, it attracted all types of extremist groups and not just, you know, these border groups like Arizona Border Recon, which are very focused on, on the patrolling the border, but groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers which were involved in in the January 6th insurrection. Tim Foley, the leader of border Arizona Border Recon, even told us that he had had multiple conversations with Stuart Rose, the leader of the Oath Keepers and denied that there was a formal relationship between their groups. But I think the fact that they're talking and have sort of shared interests shows how big of a tent, this sort of border extremism has become in the post-Trump era.

GILGER: What are the concerns from immigration advocates that are also in that area often leaving out water help for the migrants, things like that. What are their concerns about groups like these?

HAMILTON: Yeah, on the one hand, you have humanitarian groups that are putting out, you know, water in the desert trying to prevent deaths from people who get lost and don't have enough water to die. They've complained of their water stations, their water tanks being shot or stabbed or knocked over. You know, Arizona Border Recon says that their groups are following, their members are following the law, but the humanitarian groups suspect that, you know, some of these extremist organizations that are out there patrolling are you know, vandalizing their, their water stations and on the other side of it from law enforcement, like the Border Patrol agents that I spoke to said, you know, we welcome tips, you know, information, intelligence calls from concerned citizens, but they actually do not want people stopping migrants themselves or trying to, you know, enforce the law. It's a recipe for, you know, somebody getting in a situation where it escalates to violence.

GILGER: Is that a concern or has that happened in the past? When groups like these, these kind of vigilante groups have, have been violent or have resulted in violence on the border.

HAMILTON: We haven't seen them like a shoot out or anything like that. There has been some incidents of violence in the town of Arivaca where Arizona Border Recon operates a number of years ago back around 2009, I believe there was a double murder involving members of another group, the Minuteman American Defense. So, I mean, these random acts of violence happen, they're not frequent, but I think the escalating tensions, the increased presence of these groups, all this is a number of folks that we said to feel like that this is coming to a head and it could boil over at any time.

GILGER: All right, we'll have to leave it there for now. Keegan Hamilton is with the Los Angeles Times. Keegan, thank you for joining us to talk more about this reporting. I appreciate it.

HAMILTON: Thanks for having me.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.