In late April, the ACLU of New Mexico sent letters to federal, state and local authorities urging them to criminally investigate a group calling itself the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) that has been illegally arresting immigrant families at gunpoint in southern New Mexico and turning them over to Border Patrol. Videos that the UCP posted online show masked men in military camouflage surrounding hundreds of men, women and young children huddled. Some of the men carry military-style weapons. In one of the videos, a vigilante shines a flashlight on two immigrant men and muses, “The only problem is if we shoot on the hill it will be an international crisis . . . It would save some time though, wouldn’t it?”

The situation was, and still is, a disaster waiting to happen. Our immediate concern is to protect the safety of families crossing the border. But the UCP’s activities signal a deeper shift in our political culture that should have Americans across the ideological spectrum deeply worried. 

This isn’t the first time that groups like the UCP have mobilized to stop immigrants from crossing the border. The KKK did it in 1977, as did groups calling themselves the “Minutemen” in the early 2000s. But neither of those efforts went so far as to directly engage with immigrants, opting instead to alert Border Patrol of illegal crossings. That the UCP is willing to take such extreme measures suggests that they feel empowered in ways that few militia movements before them have.

Self-assurance also shows up in the way the vigilantes publicize their activities. Their own videos offer hardto-refute evidence that the group is not only illegally kidnapping immigrants, but also violating laws against impersonating a federal officer. Many of the vigilantes wear official-looking badges. Some of the videos show them announcing themselves as “United States Border Patrol” or as “policia” to the families they approach.

And yet the UCP has posted over a dozen hours of video proudly displaying their illegal activity as if their alleged patriotism shields them from any accountability. And they might be right. Although the FBI arrested the UCP leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, the charges against him stem from a 2017 offense that is entirely unrelated to the UCP’s hostage-taking activities. No further charges have materialized, despite ample evidence of felonious criminal activity.

Contrast this to the reaction of federal authorities toward good Samaritans who provided humanitarian aid to immigrants crossing through the Arizona desert. Initially they charged No More Deaths activist Scott Warren with felony littering for stashing jugs of water in one of the most desolate stretches of the border. Now he is facing a possible prison sentence of 20 years for providing immigrants with food, water, clean clothes, and a place to sleep over three days.

And yet armed, masked men taking families hostage at gunpoint, with scads of video evidence to document their illegal behavior, go uninvestigated.

After news broke about the UCP’s illegal arrests, the Border Patrol put out a statement saying that it does not condone the group’s activities. But the UCP’s videos show Border Patrol actively collaborating with the vigilantes, responding to their call whenever the UCP has immigrant families to turn over. One of the UCP’s videos shows two mounted Border Patrol agents amiably posing with a UCP vigilante, even though the man is masked and wearing a fake badge.

In our letter to authorities, we described the UCP as a “fascist” organization. To some that might sound like hyperbole. But when paramilitary groups begin taking the law into their own hands with the tacit approval of federal officials, we have surely reached an extreme iteration of right-wing authoritarianism. And we are only one Tweet away from the highest officer in the nation making the government’s approval official.

The UCP is a canary in a coal mine. If groups like theirs are not held accountable, the threat is much larger than the danger to dozens of immigrant families. The foundations of our democracy are at stake.