NOGALES, Ariz. (WNCN) — Spanning nearly 2,000 miles, the border between the United States and Mexico is made up of a variety of terrain, from major urban areas to isolated towns and uninhabitable deserts.
Federal border patrol agents are responsible for ensuring the security of the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. But even with protection, the border has become a gateway for drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
More than 11 million illegal immigrants currently live in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, a drop of about 1 million.
Every year, more than a million pounds of illegal drugs pass over the U.S. border from Mexico. Arizona is one of the busiest sectors for marijuana seizures, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And now more than ever, groups of men and women from all over the country — including here in North Carolina — are taking it upon themselves to watch over the border.
In a small camp near Nogales, Arizona, a group of men and women set patrol plans for each day.
“We have no extra rights being down here than any other citizen that comes down,” a group leader announced to the camp. “That means you do not have any special arrest powers, you do not have any ability to go out and start detaining people, tying people up, handcuffing people, chasing people and tackling them down for border patrol. You have none of those, ‘privileges’ let’s say.”
The groups are well-numbered, well-organized and well-armed. But unlike Federal Border Patrol agents, these groups have absolutely no authority.
“If you come across folks, the best thing to do is keep eyes on them,” the leader announced. “If it’s a close encounter, you can tell them to stop. Funny thing is most of them will.”
It’s a trip sponsored by groups like the 3% United Patriots and OathKeepers, who rally support and funding online.
“Doc” from North Carolina
One man, who they call Doc, is from right here in North Carolina. He decided to take a vacation and drive more than 2,200 miles to take part in a border patrol operation.
“Our government doesn’t have a handle on what’s coming through our borders,” he said.
Once out on an operation, the groups have to be prepared for hot days as they patrol miles of desert looking for vulnerable spots along the border.
“They come through and they cut the barbed wire and it takes literally just a few seconds to get on the other side, on our side of the border with packs and mules and things like that,” explained a man they call Geezer. “It’s basically not even a deterrent, it only holds them up for a few seconds.”
During this operation in Arizona, the nongovernment sanctioned group didn’t stop any people from crossing illegally but they did find marijuana that was dumped near the border in the U.S. They contacted Border Patrol to pick it up. “We’re not on an assault force,” Doc said. “We’re not here to arrest anybody, we’re here to observe and report.”
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that North Carolina has about 325,000 “unauthorized” immigrants, giving the state the ninth-highest illegal immigrant population in the U.S.
“My forefathers came nine generations ago from Germany and settled into North Carolina,” Doc said. “So I mean we were all immigrants at one time. We just want it done legally.”
But not everyone believes in their motives.
Vigilante ‘Hate Groups’
Kate Woomer-Deters, an attorney with the NC Justice Center, said, “That’s the federal government and the state government’s responsibility to enforce those laws. From the little I understand from this particular group they are considered to be a hate group.”
“It’s not about race, it’s not about racism,” Doc said. “We have a problem in our country and we don’t know what’s coming in our borders.”
One group member is on camera using a racial term while patrolling at night.
Federal border patrol agents do stop by the camps to check on the nongovernment organizations but often times they are isolated miles from anyone.
Doc says their guns are for protection against cartels. “I carry a weapon because down here there are bad people, unscrupulous people that do bad things to good people and I carry that for self-protection,” he explained.
The men and women who make up the nongovernment organizations are from all across the country and motivated by many different reasons.
“I’ve always hated illicit drugs, I mean it’s something; I’ve lost friends and family to drugs,” Doc said. “It’s a problem in our country and these guys are jumping the fence bringing drugs.”
Woomer-Deters argues that it is not that simple. “What we think is called for at the border is a humane process for immigrants who come across, often times fleeing terrible tragedy and violence in central America, are offered due process, a chance to see a judge,” she argued.
Doc says he and other like him are just filling a gap left by the actual Border Patrol, acting as an extra set of eyes protecting the frontline.
“They’ll probably find somewhere else to come over but we’ve got this area taken care of,” Doc said.
The 3% United Patriots are on the list of 20 groups in North Carolina who the Southern Poverty Law Center consider anti-government.
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