Earlier this week, a right-wing group calling itself the “Take Our Border Back” convoy began its journey from Virginia to the US southern border. The organizers, who plan to hold anti-immigration rallies in three border cities, say their goal is “to call for immediate action to secure our borders before irreversible serious consequences befall our nation.”
Their catalyst, presumably, was the standoff in Eagle Pass, Texas, where the Texas National Guard has blocked the US Border Patrol from patrolling a section of the US-Mexico border along the Rio Grande. Abbott has accused President Biden of failing to enforce laws that protect the US border, and has said that Texas “has the legal authority to control ingress and egress into any geographic location in the state.” The convoy organizers appear to agree: In their promotional materials, they complain about politicians “who are enabling tens of thousands of illegal entrants, criminals, and known terrorists from over 160 countries worldwide to cross daily into our country along our southern border!”
It’s hard to predict exactly what this convoy will amount to. Initial reports on its size were underwhelming—some accounts estimated that the initial size to be around 40 vehicles, a far cry from the 700,000 that the organizers had hoped for.
Small though the convoy may be, extremism experts that I spoke with told me they were still watching it closely. Noelle Cook, a researcher who is working on a book about the women who participated in the January 6 Capitol insurrection, has been monitoring long-dormant channels from the 2022 People’s Convoy, in which vehicles converged outside of Washington, DC, to protest Covid vaccine mandates. Recently, Cook says, these channels have come alive with fans following the new convoy from home. For the organizers, these channels are “a way to get people across the country thinking that they can participate in something.”
And in those online spaces, networking opportunities abound. The organizers draw from a veritable grab bag of right-wing movements and conspiracy theories: The Christian nationalist organizers refer to the convoy as “God’s army;” the QAnon adherent leaders use hashtags associated with the conspiracy theory; the Covid denialist leaders spread the word about the convoy in anti-vax forums. The cross-pollination of these various factions is one thing Devin Burghart, the president and executive director of the extremism tracking group Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, is paying close attention to.
Take, for example, the influence of the sovereign citizen movement, whose adherents believe that the government is illegitimate, and that therefore laws don’t apply to them. The specifics of sovereign citizen doctrine vary widely, and many are, to put it mildly, quirky. For example, some sovereign citizens write documents exclusively in sentences that begin with the word “for” and contain 13 letters; many believe that a name written in capital letters refers not to the actual person but to a shell corporation set up by the federal government. To sovereign citizens, these conventions are more than just stylistic flourishes—they use these rules to justify behavior ranging from refusing to pay taxes to engaging in violence. The FBI considers sovereign citizens a domestic terrorist group.
Some of the convoy’s sovereign citizen links, Burghart noted, are obvious—for example, one of the sponsors is a sovereign citizen how-to group called Americas Assembly, which says its mission is “to provide knowledge, understanding and education that produces wisdom in becoming an non-citizen National of the united States of America.”
But Burghart noted more subtle connections, as well. Some of the organizers and supporters seem to have adopted language and ideology from the movement. Kim Yeater, a life coach and convoy leader, often reassures followers that the border convoy will be different from the January 6 insurrection by repeating a sovereign citizen theory that Washington, DC, is a “foreign territory” and therefore is subject to different laws from the rest of the country. “I want people to know if they have any fear of what happened to the J6ers, we need to remember that the plot of land of DC that that took place on, the laws in place are very different from the laws of the land in the rest of America,” she said in a recent livestream appearance. Convoy steering committee member Mark Anthony made a similar claim in another livestream video. One particularly outspoken supporter of the convoy is Joshua James, who has appointed himself sheriff of Bexar County, Texas, under “de jure” law, which, according to sovereign citizen doctrine, reflects the will of the people rather than the actual law on the books, or “de facto” law. The addition of this kind of law-exempt ideology to existing tensions at the border could make for a volatile situation.
The Take Our Border Back crew has emphasized that it intends to keep its protests peaceful: “BRING YOUR CHAIRS, COOLERS & A KIND HEART!” the site advises prospective participants. Yet Burghart said that even if the convoy doesn’t amount to much, he worries that it could lead to growth of anti-immigration extremist groups over the coming months. “That’s the kind of thing that happens with these border things—in the aftermath, you have an increase in paramilitary activity around the border, extrajudicial efforts to round up undocumented immigrants,” he said. He noted the 2009 murder of Brisenia and Raul Junior Flores in an Arizona border town, perpetrated by members of a splinter group of the high-profile Minutemen militia.
Cook, the January 6 researcher, said she watched the powerful mixing of conspiracy theories play out during the anti-vaccine trucker convoys of 2022. While participation in that convoy turned out to be much lower than organizers had hoped, “it was absolutely not a failure for movement-building,” she said. “I see all of these movements operating that way—where they start to introduce different extremist ideas, and then people who don’t fully adhere to them or even understand them pick them up and run with them.”