A crowd of 200 to 300 people in downtown Murrieta surrounded three buses carrying immigrant detainees Tuesday afternoon, causing the buses to turn around before they reached a Border Patrol station in the Riverside County city.
Waving Americans flags and protest signs, the crowd refused to give way when the buses arrived with some 140 detainees from Texas, which has seen a flood of Central American immigrants cross the border in recent weeks without legal permission.
FOR THE RECORD
July 2, 8:07 a.m.: An earlier version of this post included a photo gallery that referred to "residents opposed to immigration." The reference should have been to "residents opposed to illegal immigration."
A small number of Murrieta police officers stood between the protesters and the buses but could not keep the crowd from blocking the buses' path.
The face-off came one day after Mayor Alan Long urged residents to protest the federal government's decision to move the recent immigrants who had arrived in the country illegally -- and have overwhelmed Texas border facilities -- to the Border Patrol station here.
"Murrieta expects our government to enforce our laws, including the deportation of illegal immigrants caught crossing our borders, not disperse them into our local communities," Long said Monday at a news conference. The city had defeated two previous attempts to send migrants to the facility, he said.
Unable to drop off their passengers safely in Murrieta, buses instead headed for a Border Patrol facility in San Diego County, arriving late Tuesday afternoon.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials met with city officials in Murrieta and Temecula before the protests, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the agency, adding that ICE is aware of concerns in the region.
"We're sensitive to those issues and we're seeking to address them," she said.
An initial 140 migrants had been expected to arrive in Murrieta on Tuesday afternoon, Long said, followed by arrivals every 72 hours for several weeks. The detainees are primarily children accompanied by mothers or fathers. They were to be processed at the Murrieta facility before being placed under the supervision of ICE agents who would ensure that they were united with family throughout the country, Long said.
This year, Border Patrol agents across the Southwest have detained more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors, with a particular concentration along the Rio Grande border in Texas, according to federal records.
Because of this influx, officials are sending migrants to Border Patrol facilities in less heavily trafficked areas, such as Southern California, for processing and supervised release by ICE agents.
By sending migrants to the Murrieta facility, the federal government is not properly enforcing immigration laws that require immediate deportation of undocumented immigrants, Long said.
But, according to the mayor, public safety officials were fully prepared for the arrival and have established an information hotline that residents can use for updates on the transfer.
"I can say, without equivocation, Murrieta will remain safe," Long said.
Murrieta is one of several cities whose facilities will receive migrants as the government seeks to lessen the burden on the Texas border. Migrants will also be sent to a border patrol facility in El Centro, in neighboring Imperial County, as well as a center in New Mexico, which has also caused lawmakers there to protest.
In his comments Monday, Long emphasized the temporary nature of the new arrivals.
"There is not, and never has been, any intention to release these immigrants locally out the front door of the Border Patrol office," he said.
Protester Roger Cotton, 49, drove up from San Diego to wave a flag outside the Murrieta Border Patrol Station.
"I wanted to say that I as an American citizen do not approve of this human disaster that the government has created," Cotton said. He said he believes the migrants who were supposed to be dropped off at the station would be a burden on an already strained system.
"Who's going to pay for them?" he asked. "What kind of criminality will happen?"
Cotton, who works as a 3D animator, said he blames Democrats for not doing more to secure the border.
"The Democrats are making it easy for them to come here so they can produce more Democratic voters," he said.
Cotton arrived shortly after the bus was blocked and turned around. He said he decided to come to Murrieta on his own accord and was surprised to find other protesters there.
He stood with a group of them on the side of the road, chanting "USA" and sparring with a group of counter-protesters who had come to support the immigrants.
Lupillo Rivera, 42, was one of them.
A well-known Mexican banda singer who came to the United States at age 4, Rivera said he was driving by when he happened upon the protest at the Border Patrol station. He said somebody shouted that he was an illegal immigrant and should go home. Rivera, who is a U.S. citizen, went home and returned with several of his friends and bandmates to confront the protesters.
"Our people cook your food," he shouted at them. "We didn't ask for them to come here," one protester shot back.
Rivera, brother of the late Mexican singer Jenni Rivera, said anybody who would turn away a busload of children was "not human."
"It doesn't matter where a child is from," he said. "He deserves respect and help because he's a child.
"How can a 5-year-old defend himself?" asked Rivera, who lives in Temecula. "I don't think we should push a child out of our country."
As light faded over Murrieta, protesters continued their verbal sparring.
Protesters supporting immigrant rights waved Mexican flags and shouted slogans, while across the street, a smaller group of protesters opposed to the immigrants' arrival waved American flags. Murrieta police patrolled Madison Avenue, which was closed to any further vehicle traffic.
At an evening City Council meeting, officials praised protesters for the lack of violence but assailed the federal government for what they say was a pattern of poor communication and inaction.
"We need to fix this permanently," said Long, who had issued a call Monday for citizens to contact their elected officials to protest the move. "Today was a Band-Aid. The only people with the power to fix this are in the federal government."
Other city officials expressed concern over how Murrieta, with a population of just more than 100,000, would house several groups of immigrants during processing.
City Councilman Rick Gibbs, who toured the Border Patrol facility where the immigrants were to be held, had reservations about the space. "This is a jailhouse," he said. "This is not a hotel. It is a spartan facility."
Gibbs also doubted whether all the detainees would comply with the government requirement that they report back to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office within 15 days of their initial release.
"We're going to dump a bunch of people at a bus station, hope they get somewhere in the United States of America, and somehow in 15 days, they are going to respond and come back?" he said. "Everybody knows that 95% of them are never going to return."
Councilman Harry Ramos agreed.
"You would get fined if you dumped off a dog in the street here in Murrieta, but that's what they are doing to people here," he said.
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