The 15 migrant children, tired and hungry, stumbled toward an opening in the rust-colored border wall rising between Mexico and Arizona, nearing the end of their two-week trek north. Unexpectedly, a man wearing a cap decorated with a blackened American flag — traditionally a message that “no quarter of an hour” will be given to the enemy — approached them and lured them to his campsite.
Soon the girls and boys, who came from Guatemala, were devouring burgers and sausages under a blue tent. Their host for today in this remote part of the Arizona desert, Jason Frank, an avid follower of the QAnon movement, handed out “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirts with an image of President Joe Biden. Giggling and confused, the kids put on their shirts and posed for a group photo. They later formed a prayer circle with Frank and the rest of his team before the border patrol showed up.
Guns on their hips, Frank and his group have camped near Sasabe, Arizona, as a self-proclaimed border force with the stated goal of protecting the thousands of migrant children who have arrived from the evils of sex trafficking — a favorite QAnon theme.
They are the latest in what has evolved over the years into a cottage industry of dozens of armed civilians who have packed camouflage gear, tents and binoculars and set up along the southern border.
Frank, a QAnon influencer whose facebook Page in recent months has shown himself portrayed with conservative celebrities like Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell, his team has molded a new style of border enforcement, motivated not so much by halting immigration as it is. by guarding the country against other perceived threats — in this case, an unfounded conspiracy theory that migrant children are being channeled into pedophile circles.
“They are trafficked, sex trafficking. That’s the #1 trade,” said Frank, 44, as he dropped his name from his list of alleged conspirators, starting with the late Jeffrey Epstein. “The money, there it is now,” he said.
The federal government has long been concerned that the hundreds of thousands of migrant children who have crossed the border alone for nearly a decade could be vulnerable to criminal exploitation, and it has conducted intensive research to ensure that the young immigrants share legitimate ties to the relatives or friends of the family who come forward to receive them.
But minors crossing the southern border as part of sex trafficking programs is uncommon, according to groups monitoring and combating human trafficking.
“We haven’t heard anything about migrant children being brought in to be sex workers or slaves,” said Stacey Sutherland, an official with the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network. “At the border, it’s overwhelmingly people who paid to be smuggled.”
Federal officials declined to comment on the activities of the QAnon group and it was unclear whether the volunteers had broken any laws.
For QAnon leaders, suspicions that migrant children are falling into the hands of sexual predators fit neatly into the movement’s core conspiracy theory — that an elite cabal of pedophiles led by prominent Democrats prey on innocent children, an elaborate fantasy that gave rise to the PizzaGate drama during the 2016 presidential campaign. But the new focus on immigration, analysts say, also serves to build political support and raise money by leveraging people’s inherent instincts to protect children while maintaining a strict to promote border policy.
“The kids are a mainstay they can use to spread their message,” said Mia Bloom, an expert on extremist radicalization and the co-author of “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon.”
“They are instrumentalizing the children for internal propaganda and to advance their political agenda,” she said.
Frank, who is from Las Vegas, had already become a minor celebrity in conservative circles after helping carry a 100-year-old World War II veteran to the podium at a Trump rally in Arizona in 2020. thousands of supporters across a number of social media platforms.
He arrived in Sasabe in late April with a borrowed recreational vehicle, which he has shared with his teenage son, other QAnon followers who have cycled through, and two large dogs. Inside, he keeps a cache of weapons, including pistols and a loaded AR-15 rifle, according to his social media posts.
Recently, Frank one day volunteered to provide information and answer questions about his mission before deciding he didn’t want to be interviewed by The New York Times. His personal website states that after a drug addiction and a life in prison, he found a purpose in saving children.
Frank gets involved in one of the most complicated aspects of American immigration. While US authorities have rejected a large number of migrants under a pandemic-related public health rule, children who arrive unaccompanied — usually with the address and phone number of a relative in the United States they hope to join — are generally allowed to enter. enter the country. Families from Central America, hoping to free their children from poverty and gang violence at home, often pay smugglers to take the children through openings in the border wall, knowing Border Patrol agents will pick them up.
They are then placed in shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, which conduct background checks on the adults who come forward to receive or “sponsor” the children. The agency said it will look after the children “until they are properly and safely released to a vetted sponsor.”
Most families probably didn’t expect Frank and his crew to set up their own ad hoc screening process.
Parked in a location where holes in the border wall make it easy for smugglers to send groups of as many as 30 kids at a time, Frank and his team usually greet the youngsters with burgers and hot dogs and broadcast their arrival on Facebook Live, announcing a intention to keep them safe.
Humanitarian volunteers and immigration activists working in the area said they were stunned to see the children, who clearly had no idea about Frank and his beliefs, being diverted before border police picked them up.
“We believe the behavior of this group is illegal and extremely dangerous,” said Margo Cowan, a public defender in Pima County, which includes Sasabe, and a longtime immigration activist. She said the law requires those who find only children to contact a law enforcement officer immediately. (Frank said his group always contacted Border Patrol after helping the kids.)
She said she was particularly concerned about Frank’s claims that his group of children asked to provide the addresses and phone numbers of the relatives or friends of the family they planned to go with, and then contact those individuals. supposedly to prevent the children from falling into the wrong hands. † These actions could be seen as harassment of adult immigrants who take in the children, she said.
“We have people who call and do health checks and keep coming to make it uncomfortable for them,” Frank said, referring to the adults who eventually take the kids home.
Frank criticized the government’s screening program, calling it “very wide open with many loopholes”. He added: “That’s why we’re creating a solution here, we’re part of it.”
Photos posted to another team member’s Facebook page showed Frank and his colleagues at the camp rocking a baby, who he said was 30 days old and had recently crossed the border with his young mother.
Members of his team called the man the mother said she planned to go with, Frank told the Times. He said that in its investigation, the group had found that two of the four people living at the man’s address had links to organized crime cartels — allegations for which he provided no evidence.
Chris Nanos, the Pima County sheriff, called the “QAnon types” at the border “crazy,” but said they were not his responsibility.
“If they hinder the crossing of migrants, border police have to deal with them,” he said, pointing out that he had 1 million people across 9,200 square miles to protect.
Migrants are not the only ones who have been targeted by the QAnon group’s monitoring activities. On April 25, humanitarian workers visited the border wall with a Tennessee film crew, including a man who is a legal permanent resident of the US from Guatemala. Frank and his team saw them.
“They drove up to us and shouted, ‘Illegal stranger! Illegal stranger!’ recalls Gail Kocourek of Tucson Samaritans, who runs an information center that provides food, clothing and first aid to migrants in the small town on the Mexican side of the border.
A chase ensued, with Frank and another QAnon member trying to get her off the road, according to Kocourek, who said they stopped when a Border Patrol vehicle crossed their path. The officer asked the Guatemalan man for his documents.
One of the team members later uploaded a video of the incident to Facebook, which showed a vehicle trailing right behind Kocourek’s car along a desert road. ‘Who has time,’ Frank wrote, to dig into ‘little old ladies here on cartel operations? I already have names, addresses, ages, phone numbers.”
The 15 migrant children led to the QAnon camp last week, some of them as young as 12, drank water and munched on granola bars as Frank turned on the barbecue.
A Cuban man who had crossed with them was given a piece of paper and told, through a Spanish-speaking supporter on the phone, to go child by child, writing down their names, their destinations and the names and numbers of the people who received them.
The children told a reporter it took them 15 days to complete the overland journey from Guatemala to the United States. They had not eaten since the previous day and were very tired. They seemed stunned, some giggled nervously when Frank mispronounced words in Spanish.
One of the men working at the camp was Justin Andersch, a QAnon vlogger who made headlines earlier this year when he approached Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak at a restaurant and threatened to “tie you to a lamppost.”
Andersch smiled at the assembled children. “Who wants cookies?” he said.
After dinner, handing out T-shirts, taking pictures and praying, Frank handed out Spanish Bibles and phone numbers for the children to call if they needed anything. “Gracias,” replied several. A boy kissed the holy book.
A few minutes later, Border Patrol agents showed up, loaded the children into a van and drove off.
A few days later, Frank announced on Facebook Live that he had to leave the wall to take care of some business, and promised to come back in two weeks.
“We are building our small army,” he said. “So get ready.”