Murrieta immigration debate: Should they stay or should they go?

California city is ground zero for national discussion about undocumented Central American migrant children

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MURRIETA, Calif. — Mayor Alan Long looked a bit shell-shocked. Less than two weeks after Murrieta had become an international symbol of the impassioned debate over immigration in the U.S., he had reporters from Latin America, Europe and Asia clamoring to speak with him.

“So much is happening so fast,” he said, as two dozen demonstrators marched and chanted outside the new City Hall complex, carrying signs in Spanish that read: “Legalización SI, Deportación NO.”

When Long held a press conference June 30 to warn residents that busloads carrying 140 immigrants would be transferred from Texas to the Murrieta Border Patrol Station for processing the next day and every 72 hours for weeks to come, he said he had no idea about the firestorm he had sparked.

“We knew there was a lot of anxiety, and there was a lot of information coming from the community,” Long said. “We expected a peaceful protest, if any.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Instead, the town is wracked by violent incidents, thrust into the spotlight as a high-profile symbol of America’s anguished debate over immigration policy.

Protesters blocked three buses on July 1, forcing them to turn around and take families and children to be processed in San Ysidro, near San Diego. There were clashes and ugly words. Someone spat in the face of Mexican singer Lupillo Rivera, who lives 15 minutes away and had joined groups defending the arrival of the undocumented. Arrests were made. TV news vans descended on the small community.

On Monday, the city hired crisis management expert Xavier Hermosillo, a former reporter who is Mexican-American, to help the city cope with the onslaught of attention. “This is a bedroom community,” said Long, who was quick to deflect accusations of racism by pointing out that he’s half Hispanic and that his wife's maiden name is Contreras. “And it’s a very controversial subject matter that dropped on our doorstep.”

That’s an understatement.

‘Future of California’

Murrieta’s motto, “The Future of California,” is a little misleading demographically. Hispanics make up 38 percent of the state’s population and are projected to surpass the non-Hispanic white population this year. But not in Murrieta, where they make up under 26 percent of the population of 107,479, according to the Census Bureau.

For the mostly conservative residents of Murrieta, the arrival of busloads of undocumented immigrants is a scary prospect that threatens to disrupt the serenity of their suburban, relatively crime-free haven.

“I didn’t move out here because I wanted people to follow me,” said Jim Burnside, 63, owner of Murrieta Landscape Material, who came from Costa Mesa in Orange County. “They’re saying these kids come in here with all those diseases that we got rid of years ago, and that’s a great concern of all the people. Are they just going to be allowed to run the streets? Nobody explained anything to anybody.”

But the city is divided. Despite such sentiments, others are tapping into a network of sympathetic residents for help with the situation.

“We have been trying to respond to the emergency by trying to get shelter for people who are going to be transferred,” said Emilio Amaya, with the San Bernardino Community Services Center, which provides legal and social services to immigrants and refugees in the area.

Groups are collecting donations to support arriving families.

“Not only do we welcome the refugees, but the message we want to send out is that this is not just an immigration crisis but a humanitarian crisis,” said Fernando Romero, lead coordinator for Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, which helped organize a vigil at City Hall Wednesday.

But, whatever individual residents think of the issue, there is little doubt that events in Murrieta began far beyond the city’s boundaries. The United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Central American migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala crossing the border, many of them children traveling without any adults. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been caught since October, and most say they’re fleeing gang violence and abject poverty.

Many have been apprehended in Texas for months. Now, border patrol stations are so overwhelmed by the flood of arrivals that they’re flying them out to stations in California and Arizona for processing. And that’s how Murrieta residents became embroiled in a crisis that had never touched them before.

Once processed, the undocumented migrants are given a date to appear before an immigration judge. The fear is that many have no place to live and will never show up to a hearing that may get them eventually deported back to their homeland.

The prospect of busloads of people being let out in Murrieta, potentially becoming homeless, crowding hospitals and contributing to crime, is enough to get someone like Greg Allison to spend every night at a makeshift camp across the entrance to the Murrieta Border Patrol Station — to stand guard and make sure no buses ever get in.

“My great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War,” said Allison, 55, a retired CEO of a sales and marketing firm. “I want my grandchildren to live with the same freedom and liberty … There are hundreds like us who are just citizens of Murrieta.”

The protesters who are determined to stop incoming buses have created a network via social media. They have followers alerting them when planes carrying immigrants from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley arrive in San Diego, and when busloads of them leave.

My great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. I want my grandchildren to live with the same freedom and liberty.

Greg Allison

Murrieta resident

Anti-immigration activist Sabina Durden, right, and immigration sympathizer Mary Estrada debate during a protest outside the U.S. Border Patrol Murrieta Station on July 7.
Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Some residents and city leaders don’t like that Murrieta is being vilified for not wanting the newcomers in their midst. But others are proud Murrieta is getting recognition. “This is not your typical California town,” said Allison. “I know very well the predisposition people have is that it’s a left-wing liberal state. It just so happens there are still pockets of conservative-minded people.”

Allison and other hardcore protesters who take turns keeping watch on rumored arrivals were concerned enough about how the nation viewed them, however, that they changed the name of their Facebook page from Murrieta Invasion to Stand for Murrieta.

Whether it’s militancy or conviction, the protesters are certainly forceful. American flags flapping in the wind behind him, former U.S. Marine Pete Santilli said: “If we’re here, the buses will never make it here. This should be the example of how they’re treated in other communities.”

Not likely.

There has been nothing of this magnitude in other border processing centers, such as El Paso, or Chula Vista and El Centro in California. Few protests there have yet to garner national, let alone international, attention.

So, why the firestorm here? It is likely because Murrieta is almost 90 miles away from the border. That is unlike El Centro, for example, which is just a few miles from Mexicali in Mexico, and is a community more than 80 percent Hispanic where there are daily shuttles to the border. In Murrieta, meanwhile, many residents didn’t even know a Border Patrol station was within city limits.

There are income differences as well. Median household income in Murrieta is more than $75,000 a year, almost $25,000 higher than the U.S. median, $14,000 higher than the statewide median and about $35,000 higher than El Centro’s.

It also didn’t help that the border patrol in Arizona had released some immigrants and dumped them at a Greyhound bus station to fend for themselves. And that Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner David Lakey told state lawmakers that the thousands of immigrant children in temporary shelters are in such crowded conditions that health risks for tuberculosis, scabies and chicken pox are mounting.

A national crisis

But what is going in Murrieta is a microcosm of a national humanitarian and immigration crisis.

President Obama, who has locked horns with Congress over immigration reform that would give the undocumented a path to citizenship, requested a $3.7 billion supplemental appropriation on Tuesday to deal with the influx — more housing, transportation and enforcement. The Republican congressional leadership said the request does not include enough funding for National Guard troops to be sent to the border.

Now United Nations officials are pushing for many of the Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. to be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict, a designation meant to increase pressure on the United States and Mexico to accept tens of thousands of people currently ineligible for asylum.

Riverside County Commissioner Jeff Stone, who said the surge in immigrants is overwhelming Border Patrol offices, wrote a letter to Obama asking him to secure the border, bring in the National Guard and beef up the number of Border Patrol agents.

“We’re going to see roughly 10,000 immigrants coming from Central America monthly and it’s going to increase to 15,000 to 20,000,” Stone said. “That’s our biggest concern. As a county elected official, I have a responsibility to the citizens that if they are going to be delivered here, I’m going to make sure they are treated for illnesses they have, especially communicable diseases.” The county has offered a mobile hospital unit to help screen the newcomers.

We’re going to see roughly 10,000 immigrants coming from Central America monthly and it’s going to increase to 15,000 to 20,000.

Jeff Stone

Riverside County commissioner

At a peaceful march and vigil in front of City Hall, under the watchful eyes of Murrieta Police officers positioned around the Town Square plaza, Eva Macias was marching for the children.

An activist with Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional, a non-profit immigrant group, Macias said, “America is known for protecting children, and Hispanic communities will support them. A lot of the children, their parents are already here.”

Shortly after, an older resident driving an SUV yelled out the window at the protesters: “Go home.”

Mayor Long, who said the local border station is a cramped jail not equipped to handle babies and young children, is desperately trying to balance the law enforcement his community is demanding and the compassion he said defines Murrieta.

“We can’t be mean-spirited,” the mayor said. “We need to give those people the help they need.” But cramming them in inadequate facilities and releasing them is not the answer, he said. “How are we going to take care of all this? There’s no end date.”

In Murrieta’s historic downtown district a few blocks away, Casey Poll expresses her concern as she serves customers at the counter of Vista Donuts. 

“I have six kids,” said the 49-year-old Cambodian immigrant, who has been in the U.S. for 30 years. “You have a heart. You feel sad ... when I heard some people say, ‘If kids come in my backyard, I’ll shoot them.’”

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