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California city is latest immigration flashpoint

Published July 4, 2014 2:56 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Murrieta, Calif. • Demonstrators on both sides of the immigration debate gathered Friday outside a U.S. Border Patrol station in Southern California where the agency was foiled earlier this week in an attempt to bus in and process some of the immigrants who have flooded the Texas border with Mexico.

The crowd numbered about 120 early in the day — about a third opposing illegal immigration and two-thirds supporting immigrants. Shouting matches erupted but there was no violence.

About 15 officers from Murrieta Police Department, Riverside County sheriff's deputies and the Border Patrol kept demonstrators behind a line of yellow tape. The containment left open potential bus access to the station.

It was not certain, however, that any buses would arrive. The Department of Homeland security said that because of security concerns, it will not publicize immigrant transfers among border patrol facilities.

Earlier this week, Murrieta became the latest flashpoint in the intensifying immigration debate when a crowd of protesters waving American flags blocked buses carrying women and children migrants who were flown from overwhelmed Texas facilities to be processed at the station about 55 miles north of downtown San Diego.

The city's mayor became a hero to those seeking stronger immigration policies with his criticism of the federal government's efforts to handle the thousands of immigrants, many of them mothers and children, who have flooded the Texas border.

However, a message subsequently posted on the Murrieta city website by City Manager Rick Dudley said that Mayor Alan Long was only asserting that the local Border Patrol station was not an appropriate location for that purpose and was encouraging the community to contact its federal representatives.

The statement, suggesting that protesters had come from elsewhere in Southern California, expressed regret that the busloads of women and children had been forced to turn around.

"This was not victory," Dudley wrote. "It was a loss for the city of Murrieta, for the community that we live in and love. It made this extremely compassionate community look heartless and uncaring. That is NOT the Murrieta that we all know and love."

People on both sides of the issue want immigration reform, but immigrant rights advocates say anti-illegal immigration protesters chastise the mostly women and children crossing the border.

"It's sad that some community members don't see the big picture," said Luz Gallegos, co-founder of the immigration legal aid center TODEC in nearby Perris.

Thousands of children and families have arrived on the Texas border in recent months fleeing violence, murders and extortion from criminal gangs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained.

The crunch on the border in Texas' Rio Grande Valley prompted U.S. authorities to fly immigrant families to other Texas cities and to Southern California for processing.

The Border Patrol is coping with excess capacity across the Southwest, and cities' responses to the arriving immigrants have ranged from welcoming to indifferent. In the border town of El Centro, California, a flight arrived Wednesday without protest.

The same day, 140 miles north in Murrieta, an overflow crowd filled a school auditorium for a town hall convened on immigrant arrivals. Those in the crowd chanted "Send them back!" at a Border Patrol official.

Some local leaders said the outrage among some area residents is justified, given the already stressed social services infrastructure and the stagnant regional economy. Murrieta has a population of about 106,000.

"It's not the 140 we're concerned about," Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone said of the number of people on the three buses turned away by Murrieta protesters. "It's the thousands more that will follow that will strain our resources and take away the resources we need to care for our own citizens."

Elsewhere in the Southwest, hundreds of children are being dropped off daily at a large Border Patrol warehouse in Nogales, Arizona. Residents there have donated clothing and other items and the city's mayor, Arturo Garino, has said he welcomes the children and wants to assist them in any way he can.

In New Mexico, one of a few states that grants driver licenses to immigrants who entered the country illegally, residents have been less enthusiastic about taking on the burden.

At a town hall meeting this week, Artesia residents spoke out against a detention center that recently started housing immigrants there. The facility holds women and children migrants while immigration officials work on deporting them. It can house up to 700 people.

Residents told authorities they were afraid the immigrants would take jobs and resources from U.S. citizens.