A member of an armed group known for stopping migrants at the US-Mexico border was arrested and charged with impersonating a US border patrol agent.
Jim Benvie, spokesman for the Guardian Patriots, a militia that has been camped at the border near Sunland Park, New Mexico, was arrested on Friday in Oklahoma after a warrant was issued on Wednesday in southern New Mexico.
The US Department of Justice filed two federal charges, alleging that Benvie, 44, passed himself off as a border patrol agent in mid April.
It was the second arrest to target members of armed groups that have been patrolling the border near Sunland Park since February.
In recent years, there have been growing reports of paramilitary groups and xenophobic activists surveilling the US border with Mexico, working to intercept undocumented people trying to cross into the United States. The groups in New Mexico have previously presented themselves as “volunteers” aiding border patrol and and supporting Donald Trump.
News photographs taken in March showed Jim Benvie wearing a camouflage jacket with a badge reading “Fugitive Recovery Agent” and a patch with an eagle-head insignia.
Several livestream videos posted by Benvie to Facebook in April documented some of the actions of the Guardian Patriots in New Mexico. One video appeared to show the militia ordering around a large group of migrants, including many children, and telling them to sit on the ground. As he filmed the migrants kneeling in the dirt, Benvie narrated: “There’s no border patrol here. This is us.”
A second video appeared to show Benvie stopping a group of migrants, including several children, saying “border patrol” to them as he approached, before calling for another member of the Guardian Patriots to join. A second man who arrived wearing camouflage pants then ordered the migrants to sit on the ground. The men subsequently appeared to call border patrol, with one saying, “Hello, I’ve got seven over here.”
The militia members advocated for Trump’s proposed border wall on the video streams and echoed the president’s anti-migrant rhetoric, warning of an “invasion”.
“There’s very dangerous people here. That’s the reason we carry guns,” Benvie narrated on the second video just before encountering the group. “This is why we’re here, guys. ’Cause there’s no border patrol.”
In a letter to state officials following the incidents, the ACLU said the militia had targeted nearly 300 migrants in Sunland Park.
Stephanie Corte, an immigrant rights campaign strategist with the ACLU in New Mexico, told the Guardian on Monday that the video evidence was clear and she was glad officials finally responded: “I feel relieved for any of the migrants who might be coming through right now … These vigilante groups are very, very dangerous. They don’t care for the constitutional rights and basic human rights of migrants.”
In Reuters interviews earlier this year, Benvie denied his group posed as border patrol agents and said he was a citizen journalist documenting proof of the need for the border wall promised by Trump.
William Early, an Oklahoma public defender representing Benvie, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Benvie remains in federal custody pending a detention hearing scheduled for Tuesday in Oklahoma before his full trial begins in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
He also faces a fraud charge in Oklahoma for allegedly running a child-cancer charity scam.
In May, the Guardian Patriots split from another armed group on the border, the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP).
Larry Hopkins, the leader of the UCP, was arrested in April on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms.
“Today’s arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not armed vigilantes,” the New Mexico attorney general, Hector Balderas, said in a statement at the time.
The ACLU in New Mexico described the group as “an armed fascist militia organization” made up of “vigilantes”, saying they were working to “kidnap and detain people seeking asylum” and had directly made illegal arrests and held migrants at gunpoint.
Corte said she feared the arrest would not stop other armed vigilantes from traveling to the border, especially as Trump intensifies his anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail.
“They are saying, ‘I responded to a call by my president, and I came down to fight this invasion,’” she said, adding that border patrol has to “actually do their jobs and stop this”.