OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the spokesman for a group of armed civilians that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border will be released to a halfway house in New Mexico while he faces charges that he impersonated a federal agent there.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Shon Erwin ordered James Christopher Benvie, 44, of Albany, Minnesota, to be conditionally released to a halfway house in Las Cruces, New Mexico, once authorities find a place for him. Conditions include that Benvie stop associating with the border group and find a job, wear a GPS monitoring device and stay at least 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from the U.S.-Mexico border.
A grand jury in New Mexico indicted Benvie last week on two counts of impersonating a Border Patrol agent in Dona Ana County, New Mexico, on April 15 and 17. The FBI arrested Benvie on Friday outside the Logan County Courthouse in Guthrie Oklahoma, where he had appeared to face state charges of possession of a stolen vehicle and attempting to obtain money by false pretenses.
Prosecutors alleged Benvie was a flight risk and a danger to the community and asked that he be detained while facing the New Mexico charges. But Erwin said he did not consider Benvie a flight risk because he has appeared for his court hearings on the state charges. The judge also said he does not consider Benvie particularly dangerous because he doesn’t carry a weapon and he has never made specific threats.
Prosecutors presented a 12-minute video narrated by Benvie and recorded at an undisclosed location along the southwestern border with Mexico. In the recording, Benvie complains that a gate in a privately funded border wall meant to keep immigrants from crossing into the U.S. illegally had been locked open in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We’re not going to let this happen. We’re going to fight,” Benvie says in the video. “We’re not going to let this gate stay open. They want war, they’re going to get war.”
Benvie was a spokesman for a group called the United Constitutional Patriots before becoming a spokesman for a splinter group called the Guardian Patriots.
United Constitutional Patriots drew widespread criticism after frequent social media posts showing masked men in combat fatigues chasing migrants and ordering them to stay put until border agents arrive. Videos capture agents taking migrants into custody. The group was thrown out of its camp for trespassing in Sunland Park, New Mexico, near El Paso, Texas.
Armed civilian groups on the border have portrayed themselves as auxiliaries to the Border Patrol off and on for years. But videos show U.S. authorities keeping them at a distance while also responding to reports of people illegally entering the country.
Benvie’s court-appointed attorney, Bill Earley, said Benvie “considers himself a citizen reporter” who agrees with the views expressed by President Donald Trump that illegal immigration is “a national crisis.”
“He’s just exposing what he feels is a flawed system,” Earley said.
Erwin said that in spite of the inflammatory language, the video seemed more like a fundraising tool and at one point referred to Benvie as “a con man.”
“In some ways this is a First Amendment case,” the judge said. “I don’t think of the video as being particularly incendiary.”
Benvie, who appeared at the hearing in a jail-issued jumpsuit and handcuffs, will remain in custody in Oklahoma until he is moved to the halfway house in New Mexico. Erwin set Benvie’s bond at $5,000 and ordered him to report to federal authorities in New Mexico once he is relocated.