For nine weeks now, Donald Trump supporter Jennifer Harrison has been on the southern border near Yuma, Arizona, hiding in a bush and livestreaming encounters with immigrants crossing the border.
Harrison’s videos, which often feature Harrison and her cohort crouching in the brush before jumping out at the immigrants, have earned more than 10,000 Facebook followers for her group, “AZ Patriots.” She even set up a string of motion-activated cameras along her favorite stretch of desert to capture more footage.
In May, though, another group—the “AZ Desert Guardians”—moved in on Harrison’s turf. Suddenly, the motion-activated cameras were instead capturing footage of the rival group of livestreamers.
“I want footage of the migrants crossing, right?” Harrison says. “They intentionally and deliberately walked through there.”
With donations and social media clout at stake over who can capture the most dramatic encounters with immigrants, turf wars have broken out between some self-styled citizen-journalist groups over what qualifies as their livestreaming “territory.”
After all, finding the best place to livestream immigrant crossings on Facebook is the key to internet stardom.
“It’s all about who can be more popular on social media,” Rebecca Ferland, the founder of AZ Desert Guardians, said.
Trump’s attacks on immigrants have driven more attention to the Facebook livestreamers, who often urge viewers to send their donations.
Some of that attention hasn’t worked out for the groups’ favor. In April, members of New Mexico’s “United Constitutional Patriots militia made headlines—and got their leader arrested—after falsely identifying themselves as law enforcement officers and detaining hundreds of migrants, then posting the video evidence to Facebook.
The vast stretches of desert and the constant splintering of the various vigilante groups makes it hard to track the growth of the Facebook livestreamers attempting to intercept immigrants. Still, Joel Smith, the operations manager of faith-based immigrant aid group Humane Borders, says he’s seen a “tremendous” uptick in amateur border patrols and Facebook livestreaming. Water barrels set out in Arizona by Smith’s own group have been destroyed by at least one group of Facebook streamers.
“It’s a money-making scam, and basically these people are making probably a fortune and the IRS should be looking into them,” Smith said.
Smith said the Facebook fame-seekers are constantly competing with each other for the most dramatic videos to ensure their viewers keep watching.
“They put video on Facebook, which is enabling them to commit crimes and spread hate,” Smith said.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Facebook spokesperson said only that Facebook doesn’t allow weapons-related fundraisers.
The feud between AZ Patriots and AZ Desert Guardians broke into the open last week, when AZ Patriots’ Harrison accused the rival group, which is originally from Tucson, of coming to Yuma to move in on their prime livestreaming territory. Harrison claims that AZ Patriots had to study video posted online by the U.S. Border Patrol before selecting the place to put their cameras and hide in the bushes.
“It’s distasteful and disrespectful to attach yourselves to another group’s work and broadcast like you just discovered the site. There is a lot of open border to cover in Arizona,” Harrison said in a Facebook post aimed at AZ Desert Guardians. “Please stop copying our work and the location we put our time and our money into. There are other areas in Yuma you can find. Go put the time and working into finding them!”
According to the members of AZ Desert Guardians, though, Harrison’s supposedly secret livestreaming spot is no secret at all. Ferland says her group just went to the most well-known crossing area in Yuma,
In a video, AZ Desert Guardians member Paul Flores, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, taunted AZ Patriots’ defensiveness over their border filming area. The rival group, Flores declared, was “butthurt.”
“There’s one spot [immigrants] go through,” Flores said, “Everybody fucking knows it.”
In a field where toughness and machismo is prized, both groups have accused one another of “LARPing”—a reference to Renaissance Faire-style “live action role-playing.” Calling someone a LARPer, a frequent insult in far-right circles, suggests that they’re overdramatizing the situation.
Ferland, for example, says there’s no need for Harrison’s group to hide in the bushes when the immigrants often immediately turn themselves over to Border Patrol.
“What they were doing is hiding down in there, pretending that the illegals were trying to sneak in without Border Patrol seeing them, and they were jumping out at people and yelling and yelling at screaming and swearing at them,” Ferland said.
Harrison insists that her group has legitimate reasons to hide in the bushes.
“We do hide behind the brush so that we’re able to document the drop-offs,” Harrison said.
AZ Desert Guardians are no strangers to outlandish claims either, though. The group is made up of the remnants of Veterans on Patrol, a Tucson-area militia group that made headlines last year when its leader, Michael Lewis Arthur Meyers, claimed he had discovered evidence of a “child rape camp” on the outskirts of Tucson.
Meyers briefly became a hero to Pizzagate and QAnon believers, only to see himself become a laughingstock on the right when police pointed out that the “rape camp” was just a homeless camp. Meyers now faces several criminal charges over his own Facebook livestreaming activities, with the Facebook video of his alleged trespassing used by law enforcement as evidence against him.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Harrison accused Ferland of trying to make money out of her livestreams. Ferland accused Harrison, meanwhile, whose group claims it doesn’t take donations, of pursuing “Facebook fame.”
Harrison and Ferland still haven’t met in real life, despite sharing the same patch of Arizona desert. But the groups’ leaders and their followers still trade angry livestream videos and Facebook posts. Harrison, for example, claimed recently that she had found a new prime spot to film immigrants at a help center, only to have Ferland’s group blow her cover when she showed up to film, too.
While the feud between the two groups can appear comical at times, Humane Borders’ Smith fears that competition between these groups and others over livestream content could drive them into more dangerous encounters with immigrants, right as the desert heats up for the summer.
“These people aren’t playing with a full deck,” Smith said.