PHOENIX — Members of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups known to protest and harass Christian Arizona churches that aid immigrant families on behalf of the federal government were sued Tuesday by a national organization that monitors extremist and hate groups.
The lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center against several members of Patriot Movement AZ and AZ Patriots seeks unspecified punitive damages and asks a federal judge to order them to stop their practices.
The lawsuit says the groups conspired to violate the churches' civil rights, defamed the pastors and trespassed on private property.
The SPLC and pastors from various Phoenix-area churches say members of the group accused church leaders of human and sex trafficking, trespassed on private property and refused to leave until police arrived. It also claims they secretly recorded immigrant children who were playing outside.
They contend the groups' actions made it more difficult to recruit volunteers and led to some churches to cut back on helping.
Angel Campos, pastor at Iglesia Monte Vista in Phoenix, said he's had to buy surveillance video equipment and walkie-talkies to keep himself and his volunteers safe.
Campos said he is afraid and frustrated when the groups show up to his church to film government buses dropping off migrants. Some of them are visibly armed, he said.
"As a human being, it's horrible to go to sleep and to keep one eye open because you don't know what's going to happen," Campos said. Patriot Movement AZ told The Associated Press it has no comment "on frivolous lawsuits filed by illegitimate groups such as SPLC."
AZ Patriots, an offshoot of the group that formed earlier this year, did not respond to messages sent via email and Facebook.
Most of the recent videos the groups posted on their public Facebook accounts show them at the border or in Mexico. The last video that was posted of them at a church appears to be in March.
In one video from January, Patriot Movement AZ members at first refused to leave church property as a bus dropped off migrant families.
They then backed away but yelled at the church members, claiming they were breaking the law and should be ashamed of themselves. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked the churches to step in as its resources were strained because of a soaring number of largely Central American families arriving at the border. ICE drops the families off at various churches and nonprofit groups, which then provide temporary shelter, help with travel arrangements, food, diapers and clothing.
The families pass through Arizona but most have final destinations elsewhere. The churches and volunteer groups have a capacity to shelter around 700 people a week in the Phoenix area. When the groups are at capacity, ICE drops migrant families off at the bus station, where they must fend for themselves. The Border Patrol arrested over 248,000 families with children from October through April, the last available data. That's a 400% increase over the same time last year.