How Patriot Movement AZ sows fear at churches that are housing migrant families released by ICE
Protesters are taking issue with Phoenix churches' aid for migrants, but pastors say it's a humanitarian effort. Arizona Republic
Several weeks ago, Phoenix pastor Agustin Hubert agreed to join more than a dozen other local churches allowing federal immigration authorities to drop off busloads of migrant families that have overwhelmed the government's capacity to hold them.
Hubert saw the arrangement as a way to help the government cope with the rising numbers of migrant families arriving at the southern border seeking asylum in the U.S., which President Donald Trump has characterized as a national emergency.
It also fulfilled the church's Christian mission of providing humanitarian assistance to people in need.
But now the pastor is considering no longer accepting migrant families after the church was targeted by members of Patriot Movement AZ, making Hubert fearful for the migrant families and his own congregation.
The small but vocal right-wing group over the past two weeks has protested outside several churches that are providing temporary shelter, meals and clothing to migrant families until they can arrange transportation to relatives and sponsors all over the United States.
Volunteers have called police multiple times after they said the protesters trespassed on church property.
A video clip posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed members of the group protesting Saturday at a church in Phoenix. On the clip, one protester with a red beard and a gun holstered on his hip claims to have been kicked off the property after he "busted right through the door" of the church.
No arrests connected to protests
Phoenix police have made no arrests related to the protests, said Sgt. Armando Carbajal, a department spokesman.
He said police are investigating a complaint by one protester who claims to have been assaulted by a volunteer on Dec. 28 at a church in Phoenix. Police responded to the church after someone called 911 to report a fight. Carbajal said there were no arrests, and no injuries, but a report was taken.
The protests at local churches show some of the rising tensions as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to release large numbers of migrant families.
The mass family releases are happening despite the Trump administration’s announcement in December that, under a new policy, migrants seeking asylum in the United States will be sent to Mexico to wait until their case is finalized.
A partial shutdown of the government has dragged on for nearly three weeks over a dispute between Democrats and Trump over funding for a border wall.
Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency unless Congress approves $5 billion to fund a border wall, in part to stem the flow of migrants requesting asylum at the southern border, who Trump says mostly don't qualify but are coming because they know they will be released under what he calls "loopholes" in the nation's immigration laws.
More than 12,000 men, women and children traveling as families have been released at local churches in Phoenix since October, according to Magdalena Schwartz, a Mesa pastor coordinating with ICE to release families at local churches as an alternative to releasing them at the bus station.
Most of the families being released by ICE in the Phoenix area are from Guatemala, but some also come from El Salvador, Honduras and other countries with high levels of poverty and gang violence. ICE has been releasing migrant families in other cities near the border, including Tucson, El Paso, Texas, and some cities in California.
Protesters shouted 'Go home' at migrants
On Wednesday, two members of the Patriot Movement AZ group showed up at Hubert's north-central Phoenix church just as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security bus was arriving to drop off about a dozen migrant families.
On video that the two Patriot Movement AZ members posted live on Facebook and YouTube, they can be heard shouting, "Go home" and "Fuera de aquí" as about two dozen men and women traveling with children walked off the bus into the church.
"Who is cleaning their feet? That is what I want to know," one protester shouts.
At one point, the video shows two Phoenix police officers asking the Patriot Movement AZ members to move off the church parking lot, where they had been shouting and shooting video.
A new Department of Homeland policy would make migrants seeking asylum return to Mexico and wait there until their cases are decided. The Republic | azcentral.com
The Patriot Movement AZ members also posted the name of the church and the address.
The church's telephone system was immediately flooded with angry calls.
“Shame on you for bringing illegals into the country and I hope they arrest everyone at your church and throw the whole bunch of you out of the United States," one caller said.
Another caller said: “I’m an American tax-paying U.S. military family. I demand you stop busing in these illegal aliens. Now.”
Hubert was visibly shaken after listening to the calls, which he played for the first time in the presence of a reporter and photographer from The Arizona Republic.
"How are we doing something illegal if the government is asking us to help them?" Hubert said. "They should protest the government. ... These are people who were already let in. They were already screened. They are already under the system. We are just helping them and helping the government."
Wednesday was the fifth time ICE had dropped off families at his church but the first time protesters had shown up.
Pastor worried about migrants' safety
Hubert said he is now worried about the safety of the migrant families being dropped off at his church as well as the volunteers providing humanitarian assistance. As a result, he is rethinking whether he will allow ICE to drop off families in the future.
“I’m not Martin Luther King,” Hubert said. “I wish I was, but I’m not. I've got all these people to think about. I would feel responsible if anything happened to them.”
In an interview, the two Patriot Movement AZ members who protested on Wednesday outside Hubert's church, Lesa Antone and Jennifer Harrison, said they are concerned that by offering humanitarian assistance to migrant families being released by ICE, they are encouraging more to come, even when they don't qualify for asylum.
"Our concern is that these churches are aiding and abetting human trafficking," Harrison said. "What we've witnessed is busloads of people being dropped off at these churches that have illegally entered our country, screamed asylum, are detained and then released into the community.
"They are providing a free ride and they are incentivizing more people to come across that border illegally because they know the church will get them from A to B."
Court ruling, lack of space force family releases
ICE officials furloughed because of the government shutdown could not be reached for comment.
But in the past, ICE officials have released statements saying the agency has been forced to release groups of migrant families. The reason is because the agency does not have the capacity to hold the large numbers arriving and also because a court ruling known as the Flores Settlement prohibits the government from holding migrant families.
“To mitigate the risk of holding family units (FAMU) past the timeframe allotted to the government, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decides, on a case-by-case basis, whether FAMUs will be detained pending immigration proceedings," the ICE statement said.
"In making these determinations, ICE officers weigh a variety of factors, including the individual’s criminal record, immigration history, ties to the community, risk of flight, and whether the individual poses a potential threat to public safety. Aliens are fully advised of the terms and conditions of their release.”
Migrant responds: 'We are humans'
Rosario, a 35-year-old migrant from Chiapas, Mexico, walked off the Homeland Security bus Wednesday as Patriot Movement AZ protesters shouted for them to go home.
Rosario, who declined to give her last name, said she came to the United States with her two daughters, ages 13 and 11, because children in the mountains where she is from have been targeted by organ traffickers.
"They offer them candy and money," she said. "Then they kidnap them and kill them and steal their organs. This is happening in my town."
Police in Mexico have arrested criminal cartel members in the past suspected of kidnapping children and harvesting their organs.
When asked how she felt about the protesters shouting at the migrants to go home, Rosario said: "We are humans. We are children of the same God. If they were in the same situation, I believe they would do exactly the same thing."