AZ Churches Sue Anti-Migrant Groups Who Film Themselves Harassing Asylum Seekers

A group of Hispanic churches in Arizona is suing two far-right groups for trespassing and defamation, among other things, and asking a judge to require the groups to stay away from their property.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday on the churches’ behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the churches alleged that the far-right groups repeatedly harassed the legal asylum seekers that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had dropped off at the churches, in addition to harassing church volunteers.

“Groups like Patriot Movement AZ and AZ Patriots have rejected American ideals,” Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) deputy legal director David Dinielli said in a statement accompanying the suit. “[I]nstead, they have chosen to give voice – and in this case action – to fear and bigotry. Their harassment is lawless. Their threats have prevented our clients from helping people in need. They’re motivated by the simple fact that the people our clients have chosen to help look and sound, to these purported ‘patriots,’ as if they don’t belong.”

The complaint asked the judge to order the groups to “stop illegally intimidating, threatening, harassing or otherwise interfering with Plaintiffs’ ability to invite guests onto their property and into their buildings or homes.” It also seeks unspecified damages. (Read the filing in full here.)

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The groups named in the complaint, Patriot Movement AZ and the spin-off group AZ Patriots, allegedly “came close to people who were working at the churches, often only inches away, and yelled in their faces,” according to the lawsuit. The complaint also alleged that some of the right-wing groups’ members “openly carried guns” and accused the migrants of sex trafficking, among other things.

The groups allegedly trespassed on church property and filmed children, posting their faces online, per the complaint. After the defendants posted the churches’ addresses, the churches received “hostile and threatening” calls, as did the churches’ pastors, the suit said. 

The anti-migrant activists are well known locally. As the Phoenix New Times reported a few days ago:

Patriot Movement AZ is is known for yelling at church volunteers helping asylum-seekersquestioning the immigration status of dark-skinned legislators, and targeting the home of Congressman Ruben Gallego with a demonstration.

AZ Patriots, which has a similarly long track record of harassment, also toured the border in a ride along with Border Patrol agents in April.

In a video to supporters that made its way online Tuesday, Patriot Movement AZ founder Lesa Antone, who’s named personally in the suit, called it a “frivolous lawsuit.”

“We made them feel unsafe, is what they say,” she said, referring to the churches. “Well, they make me feel unsafe.” Saying that she would fight the suit, she said: “It’s probably going to get ugly.”

In an interview with Ben Bergquam of the right-wing outlet America’s Voice News, Jennifer Harrison (pictured above), the first individual named in the suit and co-founder of the spin-off AZ Patriots group, was dismissive of the allegations.

“Really, what did we do? We protested, we recorded, we documented,” she said. “They’re saying that because we showed up, we took away from donations that they would have received to be able to support the illegal aliens coming in.” Harrison said “people” had told her and others that “these churches primarily consist of illegal aliens.”

Patriot Movement AZ “has been designated as a hate group” by the SLPC, its lawyers noted, and one man listed in the complaint, Antonio Foreman — who “has visited at least one church” in the group — is alleged to be “affiliated with multiple white nationalist hate groups,” per the suit. Foreman, the complaint alleged, once “forced his way into” one of the churches, Alfa y Omega, while armed and later said he’d claimed he was homeless “and demanded to be fed.”

The complaint lists the ways the far-right groups’ activities have harmed the churches’ work, from a decline in volunteer work and donations to decreased calls for public support “for fear that publicizing their efforts or identifying the times that the Immigrants will arrive at the churches would attract more harassment.”

Confrontations like those alleged in the complaint have alarmed local officials and volunteers who are working with legal asylum seekers. Last month, two contractors with the New Mexico Republican Party were kicked off of the Expo New Mexico grounds in Albuquerque after they filmed facilities prepared as temporary migrant housing without permission.

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