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Aid workers helping migrants at the border say they're dealing with more vigilante groups

Aid groups helping migrants along the border say they’re dealing with an uptick in harassment from vigilante groups and far-right activists there. 

Vigilantes have long been part of the fabric of Arizona’s borderlands — especially in remote stretches like Sasabe. But Dora Rodriguez, an aid worker the Tucson Samaritans and Salvavision, says as the number of asylum seekers has increased in places like Sasabe, so have confrontations with vigilante groups. Many arrive armed with rifles, trying to get personal information from migrants and aid workers. 

"None of us have guns, all of us have food, and water, and blankets. And providing that aid in the middle of all those large groups, they are in your face, well-armed, and with vests, bulletproof vests, you know, it is intimidating," she said. 

Rodriguez says vigilante groups often film encounters with migrants and aid workers and she's worried the misinformation they spread could incite violence.

"What makes me nervous is that they immediately show up and start filming, live filming, to their followers, and when they're filming to their followers, they're saying .. 'all these NGOs are in cahoots with the cartels,'" she said.   

Tucson aid workers signed onto letters sent to local sheriff’s departments and the U.S. Attorney's Office about the vigilantes last month — ahead of a February convoy planned by right-wing groups along the border in Texas and Arizona. A group of volunteers with the Samaritans also met with Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos, according to reporting from the Arizona Daily Star, but the department declined to comment on any local efforts to address the groups. 

In a statement, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency is aware of the presence of various groups along the border, but declined to comment further.

"CBP is aware of the dynamics of the groups operating along the border in the Sasabe area; no Tucson Sector stations are working directly with any NGO or citizen groups," the statement read. "Any activity by NGOs or citizen groups occurring north of the easement is difficult for us to regulate unless there is a violation of law."

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.