Originally Published in The Daily Beast
Kelly Weill - March 31, 2021
At a rally next to the Mexican border this month, the chair of the Republican Party of Texas gave a speech about upholding the rule of law. Shortly afterward, the microphone was passed to Stewart Rhodes, head of the far-right paramilitary the Oath Keepers, who announced that he might soon go to jail for his alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The March 26 “We The People Stand For Border Security” rally hosted hours of speakers who claimed (contrary to expert opinion) that immigration was out of control under President Joe Biden. Among them were prominent Texas Republicans—and Rhodes, whose organization and several of its members are accused of playing a central role in the Capitol attack.
Rhodes’ acknowledgement that he might go to jail follows months of speculation that prosecutors are closing in on the Oath Keepers, and his presence onstage after Republican officials suggests a still-warm reception in the Biden-era GOP.
The Laredo, Texas, rally was advertised as being hosted by the groups “Patriots at Large” and “Women Fighting for America.” The former did not return requests for comment as to whether they invited Rhodes. A spokesperson for WFFA, meanwhile, said that their group did not invite Rhodes, and had been unaware of him, but that the rally was organized by multiple organizations.
Although the rally was not an official Republican Party event, it took place on the same day as a Texas GOP quarterly meeting, which was also hosted in Laredo. That day, the region’s Webb County Republican Party wrote a Facebook post advertising both the official Texas GOP meeting and the “a great Patriotic Rally taking place on the banks of the Rio Grande until 6PM today.”
The Republican Party of Texas did not return repeated requests for comment. A Webb County Republican Party spokesperson declined to comment beyond stating that they did not organize the riverbank rally where Rhodes spoke.
Nevertheless, Republican officials attended the unofficial rally en masse. Among them was Allen West, chair of the Texas GOP, who gave a speech decrying immigration across the nearby Mexican border—and falsely claiming that Democrats are encouraging immigration in order to enlist undocumented people onto voter rolls.
“So often, people say ‘You’re not a Christian, you’re heartless if you just don’t allow people to enter into the country,’” West said. He proceeded to cite a Bible passage “that talks about Christians are supposed to be subject to the laws. Well, the laws say we have a sovereign border. So Christians, we are a compassionate people. But we want to show the compassion on the other side of the border.”
Neither West nor a spokesperson returned requests for comment.
Elsewhere during the rally, however, speakers took a more forgiving approach to the law. Two hours after West’s speech, Rhodes took the stage. (A previous speaker had introduced him by acknowledging that “Oath Keepers get a bad rep,” but claiming that the group was “the frontline of defense against the communists.”)
“I want to say a few things before they send me off to a gulag,” Rhodes began. He claimed, falsely, that the U.S. was being run by China, which had stolen the election to install Biden as its “puppet.”
Rhodes went on to defend the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and other far-right actors accused of breaking into the U.S. Capitol.
“I may go to jail soon,” Rhodes told the crowd. “Not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes. There are some Oath Keepers right now along with Proud Boys and other patriots who are in D.C. who are sitting in jail denied bail despite the supposed right to a jury trial before you’re found guilty and presumption of innocence, were denied bail because the powers that be don’t like their political views.” (Rhodes could not be reached for comment for this story.)
While Rhodes has not been charged with a crime in the Capitol attack, the Oath Keepers are under intense scrutiny, with one prosecutor suggesting that members of the group might face a rare sedition charge. And Rhodes’ name appears multiple times in court documents related to the Oath Keepers’ alleged actions. According to chat logs included in a court filing, Rhodes allegedly told Oath Keepers to bring heavy flashlights that could be swung like clubs. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Rhodes was, in fact, being investigated in connection with the riot, citing a law-enforcement official. Despite the evidence and charges suggesting otherwise, Rhodes previously toldthe Washington Post that his group had “no plan to enter the Capitol.”
“Collapsible Batons are a grey area in the law. I bring one. But I’m willing to take that risk because I love em,” Rhodes allegedly messaged a group chat. He allegedly told Oath Keepers not to bring guns to the event, but stated that “several well-equipped QRFs” (“quick response forces”) would be waiting outside D.C.’s borders (where gun laws are more permissive.)
During the attack on the Capitol, Rhodes allegedly issued orders to the group, telling members to “come to the South Side of the Capitol on the steps.” Members of the group (but not Rhodes) allegedly broke into the Capitol in a well-organized formation shortly thereafter. Some are accused of searching for elected officials to detain. Others allegedly messaged about hunting lawmakers in tunnels under the Capitol. “All members are in the tunnels under capital [sic],” one allegedly messaged another. “seal them in. Turn on gas.”
Another Oath Keeper allegedly claimed after the event that “if we'd had guns I guarantee we would have killed 100 politicians.” That Oath Keeper, Thomas Caldwell, has been released on bond, contrary to Rhodes’ description of Oath Keepers languishing in jail.
Still, Rhodes used his Texas speech to accuse immigrants of lawlessness in south Texas—despite overwhelming evidence that many migrants are fleeing violence in their home countries.
He also said he’d urged former president Donald Trump to unleash the military at the border. “This is cartel territory, when it comes right down to it,” Rhodes told the Laredo audience. “This is no longer U.S. territory. Nor is that Mexican territory. That’s a failed narco-state.”
Language about a “border crisis” is misleading at best, immigration experts say. A Washington Post analysis of immigration data found that border crossings are currently consistent with previous springtime rates, with some increase due to a previous COVID-related backlog. Still, fears of an immigration wave have emerged as a conservative talking point early in Joe Biden’s presidency, and the federal government has struggled to safely house people in detention.
Members of immigrant-rights groups in Laredo said they have monitored the March 26 event—and recent rhetoric about immigration—with concern.
Tannya Benavides, a Laredo-based organizer with the group No Border Wall, said she was disturbed to see Republican officials speaking at the same event as the founder of the Oath Keepers. “That was really alarming for us. This is the first time, I think, that we’ve got this level of attention from Oath Keepers,” Benavides told The Daily Beast. “We really don’t know what’s coming next.”
Although conservative event attendees decried immigration from the south, Benavides said she and other locals were concerned about an influx in far-right actors coming from out of town to rally at the border. In other words, a very different kind of outsider.
“What we’ve seen over the past few weeks has been this elevated rhetoric about our border community,” she said. “They’ve said we’re a battleground, we’re a warzone, we’re crime-filled, we’re being overrun with rapists and criminals. All of that is simply untrue. All of that has given the chance for these far-right extremists to come in and say our communities need saving.”