New flood of immigrants unsettles some U.S. towns

Protesters in Murrieta object to transporting of immigrant detainees.

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A day earlier, angry protesters had blocked buses carrying immigrant detainees from reaching a Border Patrol processing facility here.

On Wednesday, while the rancor in Murrieta had eased, some remained adamant that they would fight any attempts to settle, even temporarily, young immigrants and their guardians from Central America who crossed the border illegally.

And officials and townspeople in Riverside County and elsewhere in border states wrestled with the correct response to the arrival of those immigrants and the backlash it has created.


Carol Schlaepfer, an activist from Pomona who helped block the buses Tuesday in downtown Murrieta, said she and others will organize another protest if officials try again to move immigrants there.

“We’re going to be there,” she vowed. “We’re going to do the same thing, and hopefully with greater numbers of people.”

In the small New Mexico town of Artesia, Mayor Phil Burch said residents held an emotional town hall debate Tuesday night over whether the city should oppose the arrival of underage immigrants at a federal facility nearby. In the end, the town decided not raise picket signs to protest the move.

“We don’t like it,” Burch said. “We’d prefer they not bring these people here. But we’ll do our part to support the government.”

The number of children and teenagers arriving alone from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is expected to reach up to 90,000 by the end of the year, along with a surge of families with children seeking safe passage into the U.S. Many immigrants say they are fleeing violence in their home countries.

The dramatic standoff in Murrieta highlighted a current of angst over the influx and underscored the challenges the government may face as it moves to transfer immigrants away from border areas, where detention facilities are overcrowded.


Many minors who arrive by themselves are being transferred to emergency shelters in Texas, Oklahoma and California, while some children accompanied by a guardian are being sent to processing stations in Laredo and El Paso, Texas, and Murrieta and El Centro, Calif. Most will be released with orders to appear in immigration court.

Immigration officials have not said exactly how many people will be moved.

Murrieta became a flash point for emotions over the issue Tuesday afternoon, when 100 to 150 people blocked three buses of immigrant children and adults from reaching the Border Patrol processing station. Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators shouted and even spat at one another.

Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) said he was surprised that members of the “angry mob” weren’t arrested, adding, “I have never seen a group of people prevent federal officers from doing their job and not get arrested.”

The migrants who were turned back from Murrieta were driven to San Diego and taken to at least three Border Patrol stations. Officials have not said if and when they will attempt another transfer to Murrieta.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), whose district includes Murrieta, said the government should not send immigrants caught in Texas to California.

“They should handle this problem in Texas,” said Calvert, who described his constituents as “extremely upset.”


“I’m getting hundreds of phone calls,” he said. “The anger is growing.”

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) offered a different view.

“The buses the protesters tried to stop weren’t filled with dangerous criminals,” she said. “They were carrying women and children, many of whom fled their homes in Central America to escape violence and death.”

While many of the migrants are likely to be eventually deported, “we must afford them access to basic due process and treat them with simple human dignity while they are in our government’s custody,” she said.

Calvert, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, will play a critical role in Congress’ response to President Obama’s request for more than $2 billion to manage the influx of immigrants crossing the Southwest border illegally.

He plans to examine whether National Guard troops should be deployed to the border, as a number of his GOP colleagues have suggested.

Calvert, who toured the Murrieta Border Patrol facility earlier this week, said he expects the protests to continue if more buses with immigrants arrive. He said the Inland Empire’s struggling economy has fueled tensions over illegal immigration.

In neighboring Imperial County, El Centro also received a convoy of migrants to the city’s Border Patrol station, but the reaction was muted.


“We’re 12 miles from the border,” said El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker. “We understand the dynamics a little bit better here.”

She cited the city’s close working relationship with the Border Patrol and said that, after initial concerns that arrivals would swamp the area’s social services, officials are confident that the federal agencies have a plan in place. And residents have mostly responded positively to the new arrivals, she said.

In Murrieta, a handful of local residents stopped by Wednesday to see if there would be any further protests.

Skylar Faria said he joined the protest on Tuesday after learning about it on Facebook. “We have no idea who these people are,” he said. “There are a lot of medical costs [and] once the children become of age then they’re in schools.”

While activists opposed to illegal immigration waited to see if they would have another chance to block busloads of migrants, immigrant advocates were preparing for their possible arrival.

Tina Nicholas, who has lived in Murrieta for 25 years, said she has been working with local churches to coordinate relief for the migrants. Residents have collected bags of groceries, hygiene products and diapers in anticipation of the arrivals, she said.


Luz Gallegos of TODEC legal center, which offers services to local migrants and is based in nearby Perris, said locals have been emailing, calling and using social media to offer shelter, food and transportation for the migrants.

“It’s overwhelming all the response from the community,” she said. “We are welcoming our migrants and it breaks our hearts that there is so much hate.”

Gallegos said she drove by the protests Tuesday but decided not to stop.

People “see the protests,” she said. “But they don’t see the goodness of people coming together across the Inland Empire.”

Times staff writers John M. Glionna, Matt Hansen and Richard Marosi contributed to this report.