The images beaming out of the U.S.-Mexico border — migrants storming barricades, children gagging on tear gas — have intensified the debate regarding the Trump administration’s bare-knuckled approach to immigration.
On Tuesday night, an unlikely critic took President Donald Trump to task for his comments portraying members of the migrant caravan now massed in Tijuana as “criminals” and “gang members.” In a video posted on Facebook, Ammon Bundy, the anti-government militia leader, pushed back against Trump’s heated rhetoric.
"He has basically called them all criminals and said they're not coming in here. It seems that there's been this group stereotype," Bundy said in a 17-minute clip. "But what about those who have come here for reasons of need? . . . What about the fathers, the mothers, the children, who have come here and are willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually by criminals?"
Along with his father, Cliven, and brother, Ryan, Bundy became an ascendant figure on the right after a long-standing land dispute with federal authorities sparked an armed standoff at the family ranch in Nevada in 2014. Since then, the Bundys have regularly clashed with the government both inside and outside the courtroom, making them figureheads of the anti-Washington energy that also propelled Trump to the White House.
But Bundy's message Tuesday may be another sign that Trump's border policy is isolating him from many who are usually fully tuned in to his messaging.
"It's all fear-based, and frankly it's based upon selfishness — 'I'm going to lose something by them coming in,'" Bundy said of the anti-migrant rhetoric. "I think that's incorrect. But also to base your arguments or your motives or your actions upon fear is a very dangerous thing to do."
There is an explicit overlap between the land battles fought by Bundy and his followers and Trump.
In January 2016, Bundy and other militia members rallied around Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father and son who were jailed by federal authorities on arson charges stemming from a dispute over their Oregon ranch. In response, Bundy and his group led a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The standoff came to a head when Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was killed by law enforcement at the refuge on Jan. 26, 2016. Bundy was later acquitted by a jury for his role in the occupation.
The Hammonds, however, were pardoned by Trump in July 2018. The president’s actions were seen by supporters as a corrective to the government overreach of the Obama administration. Bundy’s brother Ryan was a recent independent candidate in Nevada’s 2018 gubernatorial race. He secured 1.4 percent of the vote.
In his video Tuesday night, Bundy said he attempted to do his own research on the border to separate fact from fiction.
"I tried to go outside of the media, both in this case the media from the conservative side and the media from the liberal side because I do not believe either one of them are telling the truth," he said. "On the liberal side, you have, 'Oh we've got to let them in.' . . . Then, you have the conservative side of it that has it they're here because they've been sent by the U.N. or they're being paid by George Soros, they're a bunch of terrorists. I have found that is a bunch of garbage, too."
Bundy acknowledged that among the "thousands" of migrants in the caravan, there are some that will "act like criminals." But he argued the majority of the people are fleeing violence in countries like Honduras. "Then, they come to the border, and they have a right — a legal right — to apply to come into this country," he argued. "Each one of them should be considered individually."
The anchor behind Bundy's feelings about the border stem from what he calls the responsibility of Americans in this "Christian nation." The Bundy family's personal brand of Mormonism mingles the faith with an individualistic interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, a fusing of church and state that, they claim, justifies their battles against the federal government.
"I have been frankly surprised, disappointed, and even at times disgusted the amount of people who profess to be Christians, but will not truly adhere to what Christ said," he said.
Bundy also said his past comments in favor of the migrants had triggered negative feedback, "negative to the point where several people wished me dead," he explained. But he remained steadfast in his opinion.
“These are people, the majority of them need help,” Bundy said. “There is a possibility of danger with some of them, they need to be vetted. And then they need to be brought in here and added to this great, wonderful country.”