Lawsuit accuses 'patriot' groups of harassing churches aiding migrant families
Protesters are taking issue with Phoenix churches' aid for migrants, but pastors say it's a humanitarian effort. Arizona Republic
The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a lawsuit in federal court asking a judge to order two right-wing "patriot" groups to stay off the property of local churches in the Phoenix area that provide temporary shelter to asylum-seeking migrant families released by federal immigration authorities.
The lawsuit accuses the Patriot Movement AZ and an off-shoot group, AZ Patriots, of threatening, harassing and intimidating the churches, along with their pastors and their members.
"The defendants do not think these immigrants should be here in the United States at all," Southern Poverty Law Center attorney David Dinielli said at a news conference. "And so they have taken it upon themselves to engage in an orchestrated intimidation campaign designed to scare the churches into abandoning their humanitarian work."
The Patriot Movement AZ had no comment on the lawsuit. Efforts to reach AZ Patriots for comment were not immediately successful. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Arizona in Phoenix.
In addition to the two groups, the lawsuit names 12 individual members as defendants and two members identified only as John Does 1 and 2.
The Arizona Republic in January documented some of the group's activities protesting outside a church in Phoenix shortly after ICE had released a group of migrant families there.
Dinielli said the two groups have the constitutionally protected right to protest, but they do not have the right to interfere with the humanitarian work of local churches that have been providing food, shelter and other assistance to migrant families released by federal immigration authorities.
The lawsuit alleges that the groups' conduct amounts to a "conspiracy to violate" the civil rights of the churches, is racially motivated against Latinos, and amounts to defamation and trespass, he said.
In addition to an injunction, the lawsuit seeks monetary damages, he said.
The churches have called police multiple times when groups have showed up to protest or trespassed on their property, Dinielli said.
No one from the 'patriot' groups has ever been arrested in connection with the church protests, said Luis Samudio, a Phoenix police spokesperson.
"They have always been very compliant with our detectives and maintained amenable communication with the Community Relations Bureau," he said in an email.
Dinielli said the pastors are "called by their deeply held religious beliefs" to provide food, shelter and other aid to the migrant families, and are working in collaboration with federal immigration authorities.
"In our lawsuit we will prove that our clients have a right to do just that and by contrast that the defendants do not have the right to interfere with their providing this aid, aid that they provide on their own property, on their own dime with the cooperation of ICE and in fulfillment of what they perceive their religious beliefs and obligations," he said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was prompted to file the lawsuit after members of the two groups began showing up at local churches and began harassing volunteers and migrant families who had been released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The agency began releasing large groups of migrant families at local churches in late October in response to a wave of migrants arriving at the southern border after traveling through Mexico from poverty and violence plagued countries in Central America.
The migrant families are released by ICE with documents instructing them to report to immigration authorities once they unite with sponsors in other states.
They typically spend a night or two at the churches until volunteers arrange transportation by bus or plane to other states.
A network of about 40 churches have been providing assistance to migrant families released by ICE.
As of May 21, the agency had released 32,500 migrant family members in Arizona.
Church volunteers are afraid of the 'patriot' groups' threats, lawyer says
Members of the so-called patriot groups have filmed migrant families as they got off the ICE buses, "screaming at children and telling them to go home and accusing them of having lice, small pox and other diseases," Dinielli said.
The groups then post those videos online, he said. Members of the groups have also trespassed on church property, "oftentimes carrying firearms," Dinielli said.
A video posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in January on Twitter shows one protester with a red beard and a gun holstered on his hip claiming to have been kicked off the property after he "busted right through the door" of a church aiding migrant families.
Members of the groups have also accused pastors and volunteers of engaging in human trafficking and sex trafficking, and posted online the personal information of church members and other volunteers, and encouraged others to harass them, Dinielli said.
Some of the videos of group members "screaming taunts and false accusations" posted online have been viewed "hundreds of thousands of times," Dinielli said.
In response, the effort by the churches to aid migrant families "has been severely deterred," Dinielli said. Churches have cut back on fundraising and volunteer recruiting. Some churches have had to put up barriers to keep patriot groups members off their property.
Many of the volunteers have refused to come back because they are afraid of the threats, he said.
"The defendants do not reserve their vitriol for the adults or for even the leaders," Dinielli said. "They unleash it directly on children, toddlers, even infants. Young people who are already having a difficult time understanding what is happening to them."
Angel Campos, pastor of Iglesia Monte Vista Church, in Phoenix, described how he hurriedly escorted families, many of them with young children, into the sanctuary of the church after members of the 'patriot' groups arrived and began yelling at them.
He said one child turned to him and said, "What did we do? Why are they angry with us?"
Campos said he now lays awake at night afraid for the safety of the migrant families the church's congregation and his own family.
The church has since installed a surveillance camera system and members now walk around with handheld radios for safety, Campos said.
"The harassment that we have endured is illegal, it's terrifying and I will even mention it's like terrorism and absolutely unacceptable," Campos said.