The armed militia arrived at the Rio Grande after dark and headed toward a group of 29 migrants who had crossed the river into the U.S.
The migrants had already been stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, constables and National Guard troops. Under a spotlight, they huddled against a security fence, awaiting a Border Patrol van that would take them to a nearby station for processing.
Assembled law enforcement officers were not fazed to see the half-dozen armed figures emerge from the shadows, some toting AR-15-style rifles. For seven months, law enforcement has been working with the Patriots for America militia in south Texas, routinely allowing militia members to question migrants.
The militia’s leader, Sam Hall, wearing a tactical vest, body camera and handgun strapped to his waist, shot video with his phone as he approached the migrants. He noticed a 5-year-old girl in a blue Batman sweatshirt.
“Where's Mama and Papa?” Hall asked.
The girl just stared with wide brown eyes. Hall sat down beside her. He wanted to know how the girls joined the group. He asked a militia member to translate.
A migrant woman holding one of the girls said they had appeared without adults in Piedras Negras, the city on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande.
“Sola,” said the woman, adding in English, “Alone. They crossed alone.”
Hall wasn't satisfied.
"Ask them: Where did they find the kids if they're not with their parents?” he said to Shawn Tredway, the militia member who was acting as his interpreter.
As militia members distributed water and snacks, the Nicaraguan woman, Jania Barrantes, 40, tried to explain what had happened. Barrantes said the girl was Honduran, and that she and her 12-year-old sister had traveled to the border without adults, then joined the rest of the migrants at a smuggler’s house before crossing the river. The girls were headed to join their grandparents in Los Angeles.
“So they’re smuggling these kids?” Hall said.
Patriots for America is a conservative Christian militia trying to stop human trafficking and drug cartels on the border. Based in north Texas, they’ve been patrolling in monthly weeklong rotations, consolidating support among law enforcement in south Texas.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas maintains that Patriots for America is a racist group that has been patrolling without adequate training — detaining, questioning and intimidating migrants, who often assume they are law enforcement. In two complaints this year, most recently last month, the ACLU of Texas called on the Justice Department to investigate.
“The state National Guard’s willingness to work with and alongside a virulently white-supremacist group that built its reputation through protesting Black Lives Matter and the removal of a Confederate statue is particularly alarming,” the latest complaint said.
The militia initially faced some resistance from state troopers and local lawmakers. But they have since expanded their rotations to three border counties, and plan to deploy even more members this month in case the Biden administration lifts a pandemic rule, Title 42, so that migrants may once again claim asylum and enter the U.S. Last month, a judge temporarily blocked the administration's plans to lift the rule on May 23. Officials estimate that once it is lifted, 18,000 migrants could potentially arrive at the border daily, mostly in south Texas.
Hall, 40, is a father of five who attended Bible college and volunteered as a missionary in Kenya, Uganda and Jamaica. He worked in finance and as a car salesman before founding Patriots for America to help protect conservative protesters in 2015. They patrolled at Black Lives Matter protests, including those over a Confederate statue in north Texas that lawmakers were considering removing. But Hall contends that the militia is not racist.
“We're No. 1 a faith-based organization. We're Christ-centered,” he said while riding down to the Rio Grande to patrol last month.
“Whether you're white, Black, Mexican or whatever, as long as you're a constitutionalist and you believe in our Constitution — you believe in our Founding Fathers and the foundation that this country was set upon — and you'll defend that Constitution, that's what we see,” Hall said.
“We're a peaceful organization," he added. "Granted, if someone tries to hurt us, we're going to defend our lives. But we hope to God that we're never in that situation where we're forced to do so.”
Like other members of the militia, Hall is a supporter of former President Trump and is frustrated by President Biden, whom he considers incompetent.
“Their plan is to flood our nation with illegal immigrants in hopes that they vote in 2024. And that's how they're going to hold on to power," he said.
He’s also frustrated by Republicans like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, faulting his Operation Lone Star deployment of more than 10,000 state law enforcement and National Guard troops to the border at an annual cost of $2 billion.
During a recent patrol, Hall pointed out shipping containers that state forces had placed along the riverbank, and the state-funded 10-foot-tall chain-link border fence.
“It's not stopping anything,” he said.
Militia members patrol the river at various times of day, scrambling down the banks to trace migrant trails through bamboo-thick stands of carrizo cane. They carry night-vision binoculars and radios, wear earpieces, and use code names and law enforcement jargon when communicating with one another. They call the National Guard "NG" and Border Patrol "BP," and refer to "IAs," which stands for "illegal aliens" — their term for migrants.
One night last month, they tried to stop a migrant they’d spotted crossing the river.
“Dark clothes. I looked right at his face,” Hall said as he shone his flashlight into thick brush between the river and the state fence strung with concertina wire.
“He had already crossed the river. I went down there and saw where his tracks had come up,” said Tredway.
They gave up and returned to their vehicles.
“God, that guy’s fast,” Hall said. “Like a gazelle.”
They came across National Guard troops and stopped to chat. The river was high and moving fast, they observed. In recent days, several migrants had been washed away. A week and a half later, a 22-year-old National Guard soldier would drown nearby trying to rescue migrants from the river.
Some days, the militia is out until 3 a.m. scanning the opposite bank, where the flashlights of presumed smugglers glimmer among the fireflies. When militia members finish, they return to the hunting cabin a local rancher lent them and collapse on their bunks.
Patriots for America began deploying in October, posting photos, videos and updates online and attracting volunteers. Most are Texans, but some come from as far as Florida, Illinois and Michigan. They’re former firefighters, oilfield workers and retired businessmen.
Hall says he vets prospective members, including conducting criminal background checks, and says he has rejected volunteers with criminal records.
The militia claims 1,800 supporters nationwide (that’s how many Facebook followers they had before their page was taken down last summer). But Hall won’t say how many members patrol the border monthly, citing security concerns.
Hall says the militia does not oppose the U.S. government. While he believes the falsehood that Trump won the 2020 election, Hall opposed the Jan. 6 insurrection and deployed with the militia afterward to protect the Texas Capitol.
He says he doesn’t believe QAnon conspiracy theories but does believe an equally false related theory, Pizzagate, which involves child sex trafficking. Whenever he encounters migrant children, Hall says, he tries to determine whether they’ve been trafficked or assaulted.
With the 5-year-old Honduran girl and her older sister, Hall asked The Times to translate: Had anyone hurt them? No, they said.
Did they feel safe?
“I saw a lot of violence, on the other side,” the 12-year-old said.
Hall conferred with Nataly “Natly Denise” Diaz, who runs the Daily Traffick website and podcast and had been patrolling with the militia, handgun strapped to the hip of her skinny jeans. As Border Patrol agents looked on, the pair took the girls aside.
Diaz asked where the girls were headed. The 12-year-old said they were joining their grandparents in Los Angeles. Diaz said she thought they sounded “coached.” She agreed with Hall that their body language was suspicious.
He filmed a video airing his concerns. So did Diaz.
“I kept pressing her, pressing her, ‘Where’s your mom? Where’s your dad?’” Diaz said, but she noted that the girl “wouldn’t make eye contact” and spoke with “a coached quality.”
“These kids are getting trafficked,” Hall said, frowning.
Hall alerted nearby Border Patrol agents, who said there was nothing they could do. By law, the girls would be transferred to Department of Health and Human Services officials within 72 hours, then placed with relatives or another sponsor until their case could go before an immigration judge.
Might the girls have been unnerved by the armed group, scared to discuss such matters? Maybe their family advised them not to talk to strangers?
Perhaps, Hall said. He posted his video on his Facebook page.
"Trafficked children? Your thoughts?" he wrote. "I'm going to have other footage posted of the child interviews. You tell me."
Kate Huddleston, an ACLU of Texas senior staff attorney, says federal officials have yet to respond to the organization's call for the Justice Department to investigate Patriots of America's operations on the border.
“We have a lot of concerns that the militia are representing themselves to the migrants in a way that conveys the idea that they are law enforcement,” she said. “They are dressed in camouflage, have patches and maybe have a gun. It is not obvious that that person is a private citizen and not law enforcement. They are not saying they are private citizens, and are ordering people to do things.”
Huddleston says she’s concerned that militia members without law enforcement training are questioning migrants who don’t realize they have the right to remain silent.
“Members of vigilante groups don’t have the same kind of training that law enforcement do: training in de-escalation, training in civil rights violations,” she said, adding that militia members questioning child migrants “is really concerning, particularly because interacting with children requires special training. A child in government custody — a member of the public normally can’t interact with them, let alone ask deeply personal questions.”
Only law enforcement can legally detain migrants. In videos posted online, Patriots for America members can be seen stopping migrants. Hall said they ask migrants whether they have weapons to ensure they’re unarmed. But he says the militia doesn’t detain migrants, adding that members ask rather than tell migrants to stop, and then alert law enforcement.
"We're not a white supremacist group whatsoever, and furthermore, we condemn any rhetoric of white supremacy or hate," he said in response to the ACLU of Texas complaints.
Based in part on their videos, Patriots for America was designated an antigovernment organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Freddy Cruz, an SPLC research analyst who tracks extremists.
“Patriots for America is an organization that has pretty openly claimed that there's an invasion taking place at the border,” Cruz said. “But they also place the blame on federal, sometimes state, institutions."
"They claim the Biden administration is funneling in migrants so they can change the demographics of Texas and essentially get more blue voters," he added. "And it's all based on wild conspiracy theories that we saw come out of the Trump years, where a lot of these groups believe that the election was rigged.”
Like other border militias, Cruz said, Patriots for America films their interactions with migrants to fuel their narrative, providing little or no Spanish translation.
“It all plays into the propaganda that they're engaged in producing because it helps bring in followers. But it also helps bring in donations,” he said.
What sets Patriots for America apart from other border militias — like those fueled by QAnon theories that drew rebukes from migrant advocacy groups in recent weeks for confronting migrants in Arizona — is how well-organized they’ve become under Hall, Cruz said, raising nearly $15,000 via a Christian crowdfunding site and aligning themselves with local government, including law enforcement leaders like Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe.
“Why hasn't the Department of Homeland Security done anything about it? Why hasn't Border Patrol done anything about it?” Cruz said. “Sheriff's departments seem to be either ignoring or don't seem to be concerned with vigilantes essentially running around the border detaining and intercepting people.”
Hall denied the SPLC claim that his militia is antigovernment. "We're anti-corrupt government," he said.
Last fall, Texas Department of Public Safety commanders told troopers to steer clear of the militia. But Hall says his group has since met with a DPS commander and improved their relationship.
“Militias working along the Texas border have been informed to contact the U.S. Border Patrol upon encountering illegal immigrants,” the Texas DPS said in a statement. "If [the Border Patrol] is unable to respond, the militia can then contact the local sheriff’s office in south Texas for assistance. The sheriff’s office can request DPS assistance if needed, and DPS will aid as available."
As Hall was walking near the Rio Grande with fellow militia members last month, they ran into an off-duty Border Patrol agent.
“Minutemen or ... ?” the agent asked, referring to armed groups that patrolled the border years ago. No, Hall told him, they’re a militia based in Texas.
“Even better,” the agent said.
He showed them a night-vision video on his cellphone. He said the video, filmed from the U.S. riverbank, showed a smuggler on the Mexican bank separating a woman from a group of migrants and raping her. The following week, the agent said, a 16-year-old migrant girl he detained told him she had been raped by the same smuggler.
The agent, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the Border Patrol, said he alerted Mexican authorities, but the smuggler was never caught.
“That makes me so angry,” he said. “It’s stuff you know happens, but it’s different to see it on someone else’s camera.”
Patriots for America has won support from officials and forged unofficial agreements in three border counties. During the militia’s rotation last month, Hall and two other members met with Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin in Uvalde County, a fourth. McLaughlin's office at his pipe-shipping business featured deer heads mounted beside a portrait of Republican presidents, including Trump. The TV was tuned to a Fox News report on “Biden’s border crisis.”
McLaughlin, a nonpartisan official who says he “leans Republican,” was skeptical of the militia. He gets a couple calls a month from militias wanting to come to town, he said, and had refused them all. He chewed tobacco as he listened to Hall make his pitch.
“We’re faith-based, not violent or white supremacist,” Hall said. “… We do it off our own dime. We do it because we believe in our mission.”
The mayor nodded. Uvalde is mostly Latino, he said, but residents were tired of daily high-speed pursuits of migrants through town — including four chases just that morning — which trigger school lockdowns. He said that migrants were tearing up ranch fences and breaking into homes, and that one even confronted a resident with his own gun.
McLaughlin and his wife had started arming themselves daily.
The mayor said that if the Biden administration lifts Title 42 to allow asylum seekers to enter the U.S. again, he planned to shut down the highway through town in protest dubbed “Border Lives Matter.” He said he'd been in weekly contact with the governor's office, and expected Gov. Abbott to declare an invasion if the rule is lifted, invoking a never-before-used constitutional provision to expel migrants to Mexico.
“It’s already an invasion,” Hall said. “It’s going to get worse.”
McLaughlin said Hall had convinced him to allow Patriots for America to patrol in Uvalde.
“I was apprehensive at first,” he said. “But now I’m not. You’re no different than I am.”
Before the militia left, Hall and the mayor shook hands, posed for a photo and prayed.
Hennessy-Fiske embedded with the Patriots for America militia on the border in south Texas over the course of three days last month.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.