A network of small Hispanic churches that for months have welcomed and aided migrant families who have been processed by federal immigration officials on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against two Arizona anti-immigrant groups.
The civil lawsuit stems from AZ Patriots and Patriot Movement AZ members confronting church volunteers as they welcome migrant mothers, fathers and children. In videos posted on social media since December, the right-wing demostrators — sometimes posing as volunteers or members of the news media — confront church volunteers, accuse them of human trafficking and call the migrants an invading force.
They frequently live-stream their activities, in some cases claiming the churches are “harboring illegals.” In one instance, Jennifer Harrison, member of AZ Patriots, filmed inside a church in Tucson after saying she was interested in volunteering.
The church leaders sued several members of each group for defamation, trespassing, invasion of privacy, discriminatory interference with property and conspiracy to violate their civil rights.
In a press conference Tuesday morning, Pastor Angel Campos of Iglesia Monte Vista in Phoenix said the confrontations with right-wing protestors have taken an emotional toll on him, his congregation and his family.
“It’s illegal. It’s terrifying. It’s like terrorism, and absolutely not acceptable,” Campos said.
He said it’s not fair that, in order to act on a religious calling to help those in need, volunteers have to face intimidation in the form of angry verbal attacks, unwelcomed visits and false accusations.
“The Bible teaches us to help the needy people. We are not breaking any laws. We do this because of our faith,” he said. “I’m always watching, I’m always afraid and it shouldn’t be like that.”
The church leaders are represented by lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights that also monitors hate groups.
David Dinielli, deputy legal director at the SPLC, called protests at churches an “orchestrated intimidation campaign.” He said the actions are “lawless,” “un-American” and “unfair,” and said SPLC hopes a court interferes before it escalates.
“PMAZ has no comment on frivolous lawsuits filed by illegitimate groups such as SPLC,” Patriot Movement Az said in a Facebook message to an Arizona Mirror inquiry.
A request to AZ Patriots went unanswered.
In the complaint, the churches and their leaders allege members of AZ Patriots and Patriot Movement AZ have deprived them of their rights to practice their religion and enjoy their property. They also claim the groups have invaded their privacy by recording them, defamed them by wrongfully accusing them of involvement in human and sex trafficking, and have trespessed on their properties.
The church leaders ask the court to issue an injunction to stop the groups from interfering in their work of welcoming migrants and asks for punitive damages.
ICE releases thousands of migrant families in Arizona
In October, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement began to partner with a network of churches and small Hispanic congregations in the Phoenix area. At the time, ICE said a surge of families coming to the border strained the government’s capacity to hold them without infringing on limits on how long minors can remain in ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol custody.
The churches pooled their resources to offer the migrants, coming mostly from Central America, a place to sit, eat, bathe and change their clothes. Volunteer medics screened children and adults. The migrants spent a night or two at the churches or at volunteers’ homes while they waited to board a bus or plane to meet their relatives or sponsors elsewhere in the U.S.
Since October, other area non-profits and refugee resettlement agencies have also helped welcome thousands of migrant families. They have mostly done this work without meaningful support from city, county or state governments, despite calls from faith and nonprofit groups for government partners.
According to ICE, between Dec. 21 and May 21, it has released 32,500 migrant family members in Arizona, mostly in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma.
The plaintiffs in the complaint are five Christian churches, two other faith-based nonprofits and their leaders.
The churches and groups are: Campos and his Iglesia Monte Vista; the Alliance of Christian Leaders of the East Valley and its founder, Magdalena Schwartz, a Mesa pastor; Iglesia Alfa and Omega in Phoenix and its pastor, Elias Garcia; Iglesia Nueva Esperanza in Mesa and its pastor, Israel Camacho; Iglesia Cristiana El Buen Pastor and its pastor, Hector Ramirez; Iglesia Apostolica de la Comunidad in Phoenix and its pastor, Cristobal Perez; and a nonprofit Perez founded called Helping With All My Heart.
Terence Driscoll, a volunteer who was photographed by Patriot Movement AZ and described in a social media post as engaging in “human transporting/trafficking activity”, is also a plaintiff.
These Hispanic congregations mostly relied on news media exposure and social media posts to recruit volunteers and fundraise. Because of the attention it brought from anti-immigrant groups, the church groups lost some volunteers and they began to be more private about their work.
Campos said Tuesday while his volunteers were intimated, he will continue to do the welcome the families in need.
“We are not stopping because of this,” he said.
A history of harassment
The two groups being sued used to be part of the same organization, but Harrison split off from Patriot Movement AZ to form AZ Patriots, which has lately been focused on “operations” at the border near Yuma. The group is currently planning a protest that will consist of creating a human wall along the border.
This isn’t the first time the group’s live-streaming has gotten them in trouble.
Earlier this year, Harrison and Jeremy Bronaugh, who is also named in the lawsuit, were barred from the Arizona House of Representatives after they followed a group of students into a private meeting with Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, and broadcast it on Facebook Live.
However, this is not their only connection to the Arizona House.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, traveled to the border near Yuma with the group in April.
The Mirror saved several of the live streams that are in question in the lawsuit.
“We haven’t been 86’d off this property, let’s go,” Patriot Movement AZ founder Lesa Antone said to a group with her while standing outside one of the churches. “You guys, we haven’t been trespassed, lets go.”
The videos showed the group actively trying to make sure members of the church cannot get their license plate or other information they may need to notify police.
In one video, Harrison and Antone shouted, “Fuera!” over and over again as migrants depart from a bus to one of the churches. Fuera literally translates to “outside,” but also means “get out” in Spanish. In another video, Antone and others shouted, “Go home!” at migrants who arrived at Iglesia Monte Vista.
“Every single one of them, we’re getting their faces,” an unidentified woman said about the migrants arriving at Iglesia Monte Vista in a Patriot Movement AZ video.
In one recorded contentious stand-off at Iglesia Monte Vista, police intervened to prevent a fight between Antone and a church volunteer.
“You wanna come at me bitch, come at me,” Antone said during the confrontation.
“You picked the wrong person!” Antone yelled as police seperate the two.
The lawsuit specifically mentions this encounter, saying that an unidentified woman says “punch her” to Antone during the confrontation. However, it is hard to determine if the woman said “punch her” or “touch her” in the recording obtained by the Mirror.
Another person seen in many of the videos is known white supremacist Antonio Foreman who attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as a body guard for alt-right personality Baked Alaska. Foreman is also named in the lawsuit.