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Some anti-immigrant protesters agree to settle federal lawsuit with Valley churches

By: and - September 5, 2019 5:16 pm

Jennifer Harrison (left) and Lesa Antone (right) speak to their Facebook followers after following an ICE bus to a church in Phoenix. Screenshot via Facebook

Four members of the anti-immigrant group AZ Patriots and small Hispanic churches who sued them for disrupting their work of welcoming migrant families have reached an agreement to settle the lawsuit, according to a court filing.  

“Plaintiffs’ counsel and counsel for Jennifer Harrison, Jeremy Bronaugh, Michael Pavlock and Eduardo Jaime hereby give notice that they have reached an agreement to resolve all claims between and among their respective clients by means of a Consent Decree,” a notice of settlement filed Aug. 30 states. 

The terms of the settlement have not been filed. A judge still has to review and approve or reject it.

The civil lawsuit, filed in June in U.S. District Court, is still ongoing. Besides the four that have agreed to settle, there are at least seven other people – most of them associated with a right-wing group called Patriot Movement AZ – were also sued by the faith organizations.  

The 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 mediayell at church volunteers, accuse them of human trafficking and call the migrant families an invading force. 

The plaintiffs — which include five Christian churches and two other faith-based nonprofits and their leaders — sued the groups and some of their members for defamation, trespassing, invasion of privacy, discriminatory interference with property and conspiracy to violate their civil rights. 

The two groups, which are both pro-Trump and anti-immigrant, claimed the lawsuit is frivolous and an intimidation tactic by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights. SPLC, which also monitors hate groups and labels Patriot Movement AZ as such, helped the church leaders file the lawsuit.

The faith organizations asked the court to order the anti-immigrant protesters to stay off church property; “stop illegally intimidating, threatening, harassing or otherwise interfering” with their ability to welcome guests to their buildings; impose punitive damages; and award compensatory relief, according to the complaint

The lawsuit claimed the members of AZ Patriots and Patriot Movement AZ were motivated “at least in part by animus against Central Americans and people of color.”

Harrison shares some terms of the settlement 

Attorneys Larry Wulkan and Javier Torres, who are representing the church groups, didn’t reply to a request to comment on the settlement. The SPLC declined to comment on the agreement reached. 

Patriot Movement AZ also said it had no comment on the settlement agreement.  

Attorney Mike Curran, who is representing Harrison, Bronaugh, Pavlock and Jaime from AZ Patriots, said in an email he had “nothing to say about the lawsuit or any settlement.”

But in a video she streamed on Facebook on Sept. 1, Harrison shared details about the settlement.

“A lot of the things they asked for were not unreasonable and were not things we did anyways,” she said while sitting inside a vehicle along with Bronaugh, Pavlock and Jaime.  

Harrison said the churches asked for a $5,000 payment, but Curran negotiated that out of the agreement.

AZ Patriots agreed to not damage church property or block access to their property and buildings, Harrison said.  

“Basically, they asked for things, we asked for things, you meet somewhere in the middle to where they’re not violating our constitutional rights and we’re not infringing on their rights, either,” Harrison said.

She insisted the group “didn’t do anything wrong” and “didn’t violate any laws.”  

Harrison added they will have to pay between $40,000 to $50,000 in attorney fees. Later in an email to the Arizona Mirror, Harrison clarified that those costs were associated with taking the case to trial and they only owed $4,000 to $5,000 in attorney fees. 

Court records show that two other defendants, Laura Damasco and Brandi Payne (both associated with AZ Patriots), have lawyers representing them in the lawsuit. 

Lesa Antone and Russell Jaffe, leaders of Patriot Movement AZ, and Antonio Foreman, Tami Jo Garver, and three other unidentified defendants, still have no lawyers representing them, court records show. 

According to the SPLC, Foreman marched alongside white nationalists during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. 

Churches continue work of welcoming migrant families

Citing space constraints due to large groups of migrant mothers, fathers and children arriving at the border and legal limits to detention of minors, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement began releasing as many as 300 migrants a day to area faith groups and nonprofits. 

Small faith organizations like the ones involved in the lawsuit stepped up in October to help welcome, feed, clothe, bathe and house groups of hundreds of migrant families released from border and immigration custody. Most of the migrants arrive in the country hoping to seek asylum.  

The flow of migrant family releases has since slowed. In July and August, ICE released about 2,200 migrant mothers, fathers and children to community groups in Arizona. That’s in stark contrast with the spring, when immigration officials released 9,200 migrant parents and their children in Arizona between March 5 and April 8 – a span of 34 days.  

Still, churches like the Iglesia Monte Vista in Phoenix continue to receive groups weekly, its pastor, Angel Campos, said. 

“For the past two months, the groups have been smaller, of 59 people at most, not like before when we had 200,” he said.

Campos is among the church leaders that sued the pro-Trump demostrators. He referred inquiries about the settlement to his lawyer.    

In total, immigration officials has released 42,200 migrant family members to Arizona community groups (mainly in the Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma areas) since Dec. 21, according to the most recent estimates from ICE.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection in June opened a tent facility to house up to 500 migrant families to deal with the surge in border crossings. 

A new “welcome center” for migrant families opened in Phoenix on July 27, operated mainly by the International Rescue Committee of Phoenix, a non-profit organization that provides resettlement services to refugees. 

Stanford Prescott, a spokesman for the IRC, said about 335 migrant family members had arrived at the facility since opening. 

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.