Patriots of America 3

They passed 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’s out until 3 a.m., scanning the opposite bank where smugglers’ flashlights glimmer among the fireflies. When they finish, they return to the hunting cabin a local rancher loaned them and collapse on their bunks.

Patriots for America began deploying in October, posting photos, videos and updates online, 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 said 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 insists the militia does not oppose the U.S. government. While he believes Trump won the 2020 election, Hall said he opposed the Jan. 6 insurrection and deployed with the militia afterward to protect the Texas capitol.

He said he doesn’t believe QAnon conspiracy theories but does believe a related theory, Pizzagate, which involves child sex trafficking. Whenever he encounters migrant children, Hall said 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/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 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 Health and Human Services within 72 hours, then placed with relatives or another sponsor until their case went before an immigration judge.

Might the girls have been unnerved by the armed group, scared to discuss such matters in public? Maybe their family advised them not to talk to strangers?

Perhaps, Hall said. He posted his video on the group’s 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, said federal officials have yet to respond to the ACLU of Texas’ call on 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,” Huddleston 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 said she’s concerned that militia members without law enforcement training are questioning migrants who don’t realize they have the right to remain silent.

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