Right-wing media outlets are endorsing border militias as a tool to curb immigration
Anti-migrant militias have long operated along the southern border. They’re also finding a home on conservative media.
Conservative media outlets are promoting, defending, and coordinating with right-wing border militias – who are in some instances working with local law enforcement – to serve as tools to curb immigration. The symbiotic relationship between right-wing media, law enforcement, and vigilante groups serves to highlight the shared interests and ideological overlap among these reactionary forces, creating a feedback loop and furthering the narrative that the U.S. is facing an “invasion” at the southern border.
The two border militias that appear to have received the most attention from right-wing media are Patriots for America, led by Samuel Hall, and Arizona Border Recon, led by Tim Foley. The SPLC has designated both Arizona Border Recon and Patriots for America as anti-government militias, and reported that Foley attended the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021. Democratic lawmakers have also drawn attention to another border militia, Veterans on Patrol, also an SPLC-designated anti-government group, but they do not appear to have as significant a presence in conservative media.
Hall has appeared on Fox News and Real America’s Voice, a right-wing streaming platform and television channel that’s a home to Steve Bannon’s War Room and The Charlie Kirk Show. His group has received favorable coverage from conservative blogs like Townhall and Western Journal, and from NTD News, a right-wing site owned by Epoch Media Group, which also owns far-right website The Epoch Times. Ben Bergquam, a correspondent for Real America’s Voice, has repeatedly used footage provided by Arizona Border Recon, and has given the group’s founder, Tim Foley, friendly interviews. Conservative blog The Daily Caller has also used the militia’s footage.
Militias have operated along what is now the southern border since the 19th century, serving to displace indigenous tribes and Mexicans in what is now Texas and throughout the southwest. In the 2000s, the Minutemen militia gained prominence for patrolling the border. By the 2010s, many of the factors that led to the rise of Donald Trump – including increasing nativism and backlash to former President Barack Obama – also fueled a resurgence of right-wing border militias.
Hall has claimed that his group works in conjunction with Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe. “Mr. Hall said he has worked closely with Mr. Coe and has called his office whenever the group has encountered immigrants,” the Wall Street Journal reported in December 2021.
Texas Monthly reported that “key local officials welcomed” Hall and his group after they showed up in October 2021. In a livestream from the same month – also flagged by Texas Monthly – that included conspiracy theorist Jim Hoft of junk site The Gateway Pundit, Coe appeared to express his approval of an unspecified militia group, likely a reference to Patriots for America.
“The ones I recently met with, they all seemed to be well-trained,” Coe said. “They seem to be all Christian-based.”
“This country was founded by the militia,” Coe added. “Texas was founded by the militia."
Sheriff Coe also spoke favorably about Hall and his group as late as October 2022, as reported by The Intercept.
Coe called Hall a “straightforward, strong Christian man.” When asked where the militia was operating, Coe said he had no idea. “He’s out and about somewhere,” he said. “As long as he’s staying on private property and not creating a ruckus, he’s free to come and go as he pleases.”
County Attorney Brent Smith denied that Hall’s group had a “close working relationship with Sheriff Coe or anyone else in Kinney County,” according to Texas Monthly, which then went on to note that Patriots For America had performed “at least seven rotations in Kinney County."
Democratic lawmakers appear to be increasingly interested in these border militias. In a hearing on February 7, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) asked Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin, of Customs and Border Protection, about reports that Border Patrol was working in conjunction with Veterans on Patrol, the SPLC-designated anti-government group.
Just a month earlier, Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection’s Troy Miller urging “the Biden administration to investigate illegal conduct by paramilitary groups at the border, especially if it included unofficial or unsanctioned collaboration with law enforcement agents, and take appropriate action in response.” The senators identified Patriots for America and Veterans on Patrol in their letter.
On February 8, right-wing blog Townhall responded to the letter with a post headlined: “Senate Democrats Want DOJ and DHS to Harass Citizens Patrolling the Southern Border."
The rest of the article consists primarily of Patriots for America’s Hall defending himself and the group:
PFA leader Sam Hall told Townhall the senators' accusations of their militia having racist motives are wrong, nearing defamation, because they work hard to intercept people who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border and provide aid to them when the situation calls for it while waiting for law enforcement to arrive.
"It's slanderous...I don't know if there is going to be legal that can be taken there or not," Hall said. "We got plenty of media out there that have our mission, our message, and what we do, but it seems like none of these so-called journalists decided to include any of that in their [letter] stories."
The Townhall blog captures the overall tenor of much of conservative media’s approach to these militias: deferential, supportive, and legitimizing.
Patriots for America
Patriots for America founder Samuel Hall appeared on Fox News on December 27, 2021, to assure Fox News host Katie Pavlich and her viewers that his militia was a force for God and for good. As Hall spoke, the lower-third of the screen read: “Texas militia group ‘Patriots for America’ helps law enforcement halt flow of migrants.” (He was joined by Townhall’s Julio Rosas, who would later go on to write the piece responding to the Senators’ letter.)
“Well, Patriots for America, Katie is, you know, we are a militia organization, but we are a faith-based organization,” Hall said. “You know, we are Christ-centered.”
“We come with a peaceful mission,” he continued. “We come with a mission of humanitarian aid, and we do everything the right, legal, constitutional way. We leave our egos out the door and we're just here to make a positive difference.”
Later in the interview, Hall appeared to endorse a version of the racist Great Replacement Theory, arguing that the Biden administration is bringing migrants to the United States to increase Democrats’ political power.
“There's a lot of children being hurt because the Biden administration, those socialist Marxist communist in D.C. have opened up our borders on the altar of political gain and votes,” Hall said. “And that's what this is all about. It's about turning Texas blue. That's what they are doing right now and their Marxist playbook is very clear."
Fox News’ website also gave PFA favorable coverage. On July 8, 2022, the site published a story headlined: “Christian militia group steps in to help besieged border officials amid massive migrant crisis.” The piece’s subheading read, “The Christian militia group is dedicated to stopping drug smuggling and child trafficking,” obliquely alluding to the group’s ideological overlap with the QAnon conspiracy movement, which holds that liberal elites are engaged in widespread pedophile rings.
The friendly write-up includes multiple instances in which Fox describes the group’s supposedly Christian roots and mission, and only includes a passing, already-existing criticism of the group leveled by the ACLU. Like other outlets, Fox includes reporting that PFA was working alongside local law enforcement.
Hall has appeared at least twice on Real America’s Voice, a conservative streaming platform and television channel. On October 22, 2021, correspondent April Moss interviewed Hall about his group’s border activities, including Hall’s belief that his group was about to be deputized by Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe.
“We do know the border is wide open, we do know that they’re letting them in,” Hall said. “They’re giving them money and a bus ticket.”
“Once we’re deputized, we’re under the control of the sheriff of that county,” Hall added. “So whatever he orders, whatever he needs, is what we’re gonna be faced with."
Whether Coe officially deputized Hall or other members of PFA is unclear. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2021 that Coe considered deputizing the group when they’d arrived two months earlier, but received pushback from the Texas Department of Public Safety. But a subsequent report from Texas Scorecard included an interview with Hall that left the impression the group had been officially deputized.
On February 10, Moss again interviewed Hall on Real America’s Voice to respond to the recent letter from the U.S. senators, in a segment host Steve Gruber introduced by highlighting the Townhall blog. Similar to when Hall was interviewed on Fox News, the lower-third of the screen read: “Dems blast groups protecting border.”
“Our focus, more than anything, April, is to deter the drug smugglers, the human traffickers, because when they see us, they turn around,” Hall said. “They don’t want any part of coming over if we’re there, because they don’t want to be caught. They don’t want to give themselves up."
“Those are the ones that are smuggling kids, those are the ones that are smuggling fentanyl, which is a scourge on this nation,” Hall continued. “That’s what we’re really there to be a presence to deter."
Moss concluded the segment by reiterating Hall’s message. “So they do a lot of good there, deterring child trafficking, deterring the drug cartels, and then those that do come aboard, they really assist Border Patrol with helping them with all of the people that come across,” Moss said.
Arizona Border Recon
Real America’s Voice also promotes the work of Arizona Border Recon, another anti-government militia, almost always through dispatches from border correspondent Ben Bergquam. Bergquam appears on programs across the network, including regular hits on Bannon’s War Room podcast.
On August 16, Bergquam appeared on War Room and aired footage provided by Arizona Border Recon of purported “drug trails."
Bergquam then went on to accuse humanitarian workers of siding with cartels in a “war” to “destroy” the United States “from within.”
“What you’re seeing on the videos of the trails are the cartel drug runners, human traffickers, and then right beside them, on the exact same trails, going up, are the water-droppers, the leftist organizations that come down from Tucson, directly aiding and abetting,” Bergquam said. “This is a war and it’s being fought by the NGOs, by the enemies within our own country, and people in Washington, D.C., trying to destroy us from within.”
“This is why you need the footage,” Bannon said to conclude the segment.
Then on August 29, Bergquam was back on War Room, and ended the segment by promoting a fundraiser he was holding for Tim Foley, the founder and leader of Arizona Border Recon. “I’m actually doing a short fundraiser right now, if I can mention it, for Tim Foley of Arizona Border Recon,” Bergquam said. He added that Foley, “lives in Arivaca and is one of the only people that’s actually fighting to stop this,” referring to unauthorized border crossings.
“We’ll get you back on this afternoon to talk about Tim,” Bannon responded. (The follow-up interview does not appear to have happened.)
In total, Bergquam interviewed Foley, used his group’s footage, or referenced the group’s work at least 15 times over the course of 2022, according to transcripts available on Grabien, a news footage database.
QAnon at the border
Anti-migrant activists often conflate migration with human trafficking, including accusations of sex trafficking of minors. This rhetoric often parallels false claims made by adherents of QAnon that liberal elites are engaged in widespread pedophile rings. Sheriff Mark Lamb, of Pinal County, Arizona, embodies this overlap. He recently appeared on a major QAnon show, and had previously signed a copy of his book with a QAnon slogan.
Hall is similar to Lamb, in that he frequently equates migration with child sex trafficking. He formed his militia in 2015 after watching Trump rallies, and “became obsessed with what he believes is an epidemic of child sex trafficking driven by a cabal of elitist pedophiles,” according to Texas Monthly. He told the Los Angeles Times that he’s not an adherent of QAnon, but he does believe the related “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which is also false. As the quotes highlighted above illustrate, this obsession is still very much a part of his militia’s stated mission.
Michael Meyer, who is often identified as “Lewis Arthur,” is the leader of Veterans on Patrol, and is a former QAnon adherent, according to the SPLC. Last February, Meyer was interviewed on RedPill78, a major QAnon show. Ron Watkins, former 8kun administrator and suspected controller of Q, QAnon’s central figureQAnon, visited Meyer’s group last February and told his massive Telegram audience to donate to Meyer’s cause, as reported by extremism researcher Nick Martin.
The borders and distinctions between far-right movements are often porous, as are those between law enforcement and militias, especially ironic given their collective dedication to the rigid enforcement of national boundary lines. One of the constants is that right-wing media outlets are defending, justifying, and promoting anti-migrant ideologies and organizations, fueling the feedback loop and manufacturing a narrative that puts immigrants along the border and inside the United States in danger.