Are Gun-Toting Border Vigilantes So Different from the Border Patrol?

Outraged by that video of freelance border guards detaining migrant families? Wait til you find out what the official border cops have been up to...


It's rare that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are on the same side. Yet this week, both outfits have criticized a right-wing paramilitary group for detaining immigrants at the southern border.

Over the weekend, video surfaced of the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), a vigilante group, detaining some 200 migrants, including many women and children, at the border near Sunland Park, New Mexico.

The video sparked criticism from the ACLU and from New Mexico state officials, with both agreeing that private citizens shouldn't be enforcing the country's immigration laws.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tells The New York Times that it "was unacceptable" that migrant families "might be menaced or threatened in any way, shape or form when they arrive at our border," adding that "it should go without saying that regular citizens have no authority to arrest or detain anyone."

"The vigilante members of [United Constitutional Patriots]…are not police or law enforcement and they have no authority under New Mexico or federal law to detain or arrest migrants in the United States," says the New Mexico ACLU in a letter to state officials. "We cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum."

CBP was more muted, but also distanced itself from UCP, with an agency spokesperson telling the Times it "does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands."

After alleged UCP leader Larry Hopkins was arrested on federal weapons charges Saturday, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas issued a statement saying "today's arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not armed vigilantes."

Given the unsavory history of Hopkins and the UCP, not to mention the shocking video of the group detaining migrant families, it's understandable why the ACLU, state officials, and even federal immigration authorities are not happy to have the group around. What's less clear is what exactly makes Border Patrol agents any better.

If we are to judge government officials and private citizens by the same standards, there's not a huge difference between immigration officials detaining peaceful immigrants and private paramilitaries doing the same thing.

And indeed, there's a very good case for not making a distinction between the actions of private citizens and government agents, according to Jason Brennan, Georgetown University philosophy professor.

As Brennan wrote for Reason in January: "Imagine thugs beat up a drunken trucker, the mafia hacks into people's computers and phones, or your neighbor throws people in his basement to punish them for smoking pot. Now imagine the same situation, except the perpetrators are government agents acting in their capacity as such: The police beat Rodney King, the National Security Administration hacks your phone and email without a warrant, or the sheriff arrests you for pot possession. Does that change things?"

Brennan's answer was no, it doesn't change things at all. He argued that the morality of an action isn't affected by the person committing it. If it's wrong for a private citizen to steal, kidnap, or murder, it is just as wrong for a government agent to do those things too, even if that agent is abiding by the letter of the law.

With that principle in mind, it's hard to see much daylight between the actions of UCP members and those of Border Patrol agents on the southern border.

Surely these agents have "menaced or threatened" migrants in the process of arresting them as they cross into the U.S., the very same thing that Grisham slammed the UCP for doing.

Absent the reference to "vigilantes," the ACLU's criticism that armed persons are being allowed to "kidnap and detain people seeking asylum" could just as easily be applied to the Border Patrol agents.

Indeed, the video of UCP members detaining migrants is an excellent example of just how shallow any distinction between the actions of government agents and these vigilantes really is. At the beginning, one armed group (the UCP) is holding huddled migrants against their will. Later, a different armed group (Border Patrol agents) shows up to take the migrants away. If you were one of those migrants, how much of a distinction would you draw between the two groups?

To be sure, Border Patrol agents are supposed to go through an extensive vetting process and months of training before being put into the field, making them far less likely than untrained vigilantes to cause harm to the immigrants they're detaining.

Yet it is also the case that, despite their ostensible training, a number of Border Patrol agents have engaged in some pretty loathsome behavior, including fatally shooting an unarmed Mexican teenager through a border fence and allegedly going on a sex worker murdering spree. Not to mention the numerous reports of neglect and abuse reported by detained migrants at CPB facilities.

If detaining nonviolent people at gunpoint is wrong, then the ACLU and New Mexico state officials are dead on in their criticism of the UCP. But the idea that this same behavior is fine when done by government agents is far less convincing.