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ACLU: Group illegally detaining migrants

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Members of the United Constitutional Patriots NM Border Ops militia keep an eye on the border in Sunland Park in March. The ACLU of New Mexico is asking the governor and attorney general to investigate the group. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

SUNLAND PARK – The ACLU of New Mexico is calling for the governor and attorney general to investigate an “armed vigilante group currently engaged in unlawful detention of hundreds of migrants” on the border near Sunland Park.

The organization sent a letter Thursday to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas, both Democrats, asking for an investigation after seeing video posted on social media by the United Constitutional Patriots.

“I was horrified. I was outraged to see young children being held apparently at gunpoint in the dead of night in a remote part of the desert by people who have unknown motives,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

The incident in the video apparently happened in Sunland Park on Tuesday night, according to the ACLU.

“Just from what I could glean from the video, it raises serious questions about multiple different kinds of crimes they may be committing…” including kidnapping, said Simonson.

At a small camp near the border fence in Sunland Park, members of the United Constitutional Patriots said they are not breaking any laws.

“We are detaining people but not illegally. If they do not surrender to our verbal commands, we do not force them to stay with us,” said Jim Benvie, United Constitutional Patriots spokesman.

He said that when his men spot a group of migrants coming through the area, he issues a command in Spanish. “Sientate, that means sit. If they don’t sit, they might run. We will pursue them,” said Benvie who is from Minnesota.

He said team members will follow while another militia member calls Border Patrol to report the group.

One video, taken at night, shows migrants seated on the ground with armed members standing over them; another one, taken in the daytime, shows team members handing out bottled water to seated migrants.

The Border Patrol asks the public to report illegal activity, but warns people not to take the law into their own hands. The El Paso Border Patrol Sector, which includes all of New Mexico, did not respond to requests for comment on the Constitutional Patriots’ recent activity in Sunland Park.

The Attorney General’s Office issued a statement, but did not say if there would be an investigation.

“My office has been informed that this week, an armed group has detained nearly 300 people near Sunland Park, New Mexico,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said. “These individuals should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement.”

The governor is working with the Attorney General’s Office to “verify exactly what happened,” according to Claudia Tristan, a spokesperson with the governor’s office.

“If migrant families feel menaced or threatened at all when they arrive at our border, that’s completely unacceptable, and it should go without saying that regular citizens have no authority to arrest or detain anyone,” Tristan said.

On Thursday, about half a dozen of the members of the United Constitutional Patriots were gathered around a campsite. Militia members were infuriated by news of the ACLU letter to the governor and attorney general.

“I think somebody needs to read the frickin’ Constitution because we have a right. Yeah we have a right to bear arms, defend our country,” a man with a bullet-resistant vest said.

“I’m not contesting their use of firearms,” Simonson said. “I’m contesting the fact that they are portraying themselves as federal border enforcement agents. They are holding people against their will. They are exposing them to the possibility of violence and danger.”

Benvie said the group is armed to defend themselves against “coyotes” or cartel smugglers, and the only law breakers are the people crossing the border, even if they are coming to ask for asylum.

Group members, mostly from other parts of New Mexico, said they came to the border to help the border patrol deal with the influx of migrants. There has been a record surge of migrant families seeking asylum, with 53,565 families and 7,565 unaccompanied children arriving October through March in the El Paso sector alone. That sector covers the New Mexico border.

But Simonson said that with the language barrier, the camouflage and guns, migrants may not understand the situation.

“Why would they think they’re free to leave?” Simonson asked.