A capacity crowd packed a school auditorium Wednesday night in Murrieta, the Inland Empire city that has become a flash point for the national immigration policy debate.
An estimated 750 area residents peppered local representatives and law enforcement personnel with their concerns over plans to move detained immigrants through a Border Patrol processing facility here. About 500 more people were turned away at the door.
A panel moderated by Murrieta Mayor Alan Long fielded questions on everything from national border policy to communicable disease to the flight risk of detained immigrants. Audience members made themselves heard loudly and often, clapping and booing as speakers worked through their responses.
FOR THE RECORD:
Murrieta immigration: A caption in the July 3 LATExtra section about a town hall meeting in Murrieta said Martin Doran and others were cheering as Mayor Alan Long referred to the blocking of buses carrying immigrant detainees. The group was cheering Jeff Stone, Riverside County supervisor. —
"Murrieta is safe, but there was a bigger issue on the federal level," Long said. "What we can all agree on is that change needs to occur at the federal level in many, many ways."
The Murrieta debate began when migrants were routed to the city due to a backlog in the processing that each immigrant requires, explained Paul Beeson, chief patrol agent with the Border Patrol's San Diego division.
A sharp increase in immigration on the Rio Grande border -- 77% from countries other than Mexico so far in 2014, according to Beeson -- has overwhelmed Border Patrol facilities in Texas, leading facilities in other areas such as Southern California to take up the overflow.
Many of the migrants are women and children from El Salvador and Guatemala, who are believed to have sought refuge from gang- and drug-related violence.
Beeson said the Border Patrol brought the planeload of migrants "to Murrieta based on a belief that we would be able to process these individuals efficiently."
Upon arrival in California, four detained children were taken to the hospital, two with fever and two with scabies, Beeson said. All immigrants taken from Texas to California underwent medical screenings in Texas, but certain communicable diseases can't be detected within several weeks of processing, he said.
After processing, immigrants are released into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who will assist them in reaching family members in the United States before their appearance in an immigration court, according to David Jennings, field director for ICE's Los Angeles field office.
"When you have a noncriminal mother, they are going to be released," Jennings said. "The most humane way to deal with this is to find out where they are going and get them there."
Beeson and Jennings attracted much of the crowd's rancor as they attempted to explain the reasoning behind the decision to move immigrants through Murrieta.
As Beeson assured residents that the Murrieta facility could support the processing of detainees, the crowd called for the next speaker.
"I'm not getting into any policy tonight," Beeson said. "I've been doing this job for 29 years; I'd like to do it for 30."
Long reiterated the need for citizens to direct their complaints not to local representatives but rather to Congress and the White House. He urged Murrieta residents to sign a city petition urging the federal government to establish "cohesive immigration policy."
The Obama administration is using "frightened women and children" to score political points in the immigration debate, he said.
Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone hit the national government harder, saying that there was a "lack of political will to protect our borders," adding that the issue was a federal responsibility. He publicly demanded that Congress take action to secure the border.
Stone's remarks were met by applause and cheers of "USA! USA!" from the crowd.
Long said he was proud of his city employees and the people of the town, whom he called compassionate. But he did take a moment to address a contentious incident during Tuesday's protests: A protester spat on Mexican banda singer Lupillo Rivera, who demonstrated in support of the arriving detainees and attended Wednesday's town hall.
"That's not acceptable behavior. That will not be tolerated," Long said. "That's an embarrassment and it's not a reflection of the compassionate people we are."
Attendees grilled the panelists throughout the meeting. Resident Jodi Howard told the panel, "This is about legal as opposed to illegal, period."
Another crowd member said she missed the protests on Tuesday but asked, "Is there another bus coming and where can I be when it does?"
Others questioned the expense to taxpayers brought on by the new arrivals, as well as the concern that immigrants would be released into the community and not depart. ICE representative Jennings was firm that this was not the agency's policy.
"A large majority of these people were going somewhere. When they left Honduras, for example, they had a destination," Jennings said. "We are going to take these people and get them there. We are going to get them to a Greyhound station and get them where they need to go."
Outside the auditorium, protesters milled under the glare of TV lights. Many were pro-immigration, chanting in Spanish and waving American and Mexican flags.
"We're here to support our race as Hispanics," resident Ralph Navarro said. "We are just here to learn, to get a job and to support our families."
He leaned against a police line and gestured into the night.
"We should all get along. We're all the same, just a different color."
Follow @james_barragan for news from the Inland Empire.