Immigration has long been a source of division in American politics, but the issue has reached a crescendo in recent months. 

In February, a feud over immigration policy between Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the White House prompted hundreds of Trump supporters, Christian nationalists, and conspiracy theorists to converge on the U.S. border with Mexico for “Take Our Border Back” rallies. And in Congress, Republicans blocked a bipartisan immigration deal and impeached President Joe Biden’s top immigration official, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 

According to one researcher, gun culture may be playing a role in the widening adoption of anti-immigrant views. 

Emine Fidan Elcioglu, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, spent several years studying  an armed militia group that patrolled the border in rural Arizona, including by embedding with them in the desert. The group was an outgrowth of the now-defunct Minutemen, and its goal was to document migration routes and supply intelligence to the U.S. Border Patrol in hopes of reducing the number of migrants able to cross.

Last July, her research was published in the journal Social Problems. By observing the militia group up close, Elcioglu found that gun culture was the avenue through which many members came to join the group, and that handling firearms and talking about guns mitigated their sense of futility and enabled them to form stronger bonds. The Trace spoke with Elcioglu about her research. (In our conversation, she refers to the militia group with a pseudonym: the Soldiers.) 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do your findings say about the role of gun culture in anti-immigrant activity? 

Guns can become a gateway for people to get involved in other forms — and much more extremist forms — of politics. It could start out with just a simple interest in guns or going to the shooting range with a buddy. A lot of these guys are downwardly mobile, working- to lower-middle-class, and they don’t have a lot of avenues for building camaraderie with other men. Guns can become sort of a way to pull them in and radicalize them on issues beyond just guns.

How did gun culture enable the militia group to recruit new members? 

A lot of Soldiers were recruited at shooting ranges and gun shows. Gun shows are great places to air far-right politics. The Soldiers would set up their own booth with pictures they had captured of what they presumed to be undocumented migrants walking along a trail in U.S. territory. In some pictures, the migrants were carrying something on their backs, which the Soldiers presumed to be drugs. They would blow these photos up and prominently display them, so as people purchased their assault weapons, they walked past this booth and saw what seemed like an egregious violation of U.S. sovereignty that played into the politics of white aggrievement.

The Soldiers also offered people a very tangible form of participation. They wouldn’t just take someone’s information down and occasionally send them petitions to sign. They would say, “Hey, come out to the border and do this very sort of tangible thing with the gun that you just purchased.”

I understand that the group’s training was also focused on guns. Can you talk a little about that? 

I looked into this online training that they did for new members and found that most of the modules were about handling guns. Obviously, gun safety is important, but when I would go out with them into the desert, guns were not the main thing that they needed. This was brutal terrain, with threats of heat exhaustion and dehydration. The average member was older, but they wouldn’t have first-aid training or prioritize bringing water. What they valued most was an understanding and familiarity with gun culture. If they had to choose between their gun and a bottle of water, they would choose their gun. 

How did you see the group evolve during the time you spent with them? 

While I was in the field in 2011 and 2012, there was a sense that members weren’t super excited about what they were doing. There were a lot of clashes with the leadership. There was a sense that they were not encountering enough migrants and their efforts weren’t actually giving Border Patrol intel. I half-expected that the organization would not survive. 

But when I went back after Donald Trump had been elected president, there had been this massive change in leadership. They were much more militarized, more serious, more committed. They were still doubting whether they were being very effective, but it came from a different place. It was more, “We’re overwhelmed. How can we possibly keep up?”

In both cases, though, there was a need to maintain organizational morale. 

Guns helped them maintain morale and participation. Can you tell me about that?

Being a Soldier was entirely voluntary. In fact, people were paying money; all the equipment they needed was expensive. A lot of them were living paycheck to paycheck. And with this type of anti-immigrant activism, there’s a lot of waiting. The Soldiers went out on stakeouts of suspected migrant trails that could last as long as 48 hours and they were literally crouched, overlooking what they suspected was a migrant trail. There were long periods when they didn’t see anything.

The camaraderie was built around guns — talking about guns, everyone sitting around with their guns, teasing each other about their guns. That would keep people motivated and interested.

There was this guy, Curtis, who almost left the Soldiers because other members were teasing him about being a novice. But then he met this other guy, Tommy. They were both from California, and they would talk for hours about how they had modified their guns to get around the state’s assault weapons ban. Because of that friendship, Curtis didn’t drop out.