America’s border chaos

A stand-off between pro- and anti-immigration activists in the southern Californian town of Murrieta over Central American migrants encapsulates the debate over America’s broken immigration system


A long a dusty southern Californian road, protesters occupy two spots just a few hundred yards apart. These are the two entry routes where they can stop immigration officials transporting busloads of newly arrived illegal immigrants, mostly women and children from Central America, into the local border patrol station at Murrieta.

This town, with a population of 104,459, is located about 130km (80 miles) southeast of Los Angeles and 160km (100 miles) from the Mexican border.

It has become a flashpoint between pro- and anti-immigration protestors reacting to what the Obama administration has called “an urgent humanitarian situation” caused by an influx of tens of thousands of immigrants, many unaccompanied children, seeking refuge and a better life in the US.

Most come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador where they are escaping increased levels of gang violence, the highest murder rates in the world and abject poverty. In some instances, they are drawn by family members already living in the US. In many cases, they have been smuggled through Mexico to the border by criminal gangs.

The US Border Patrol has made more than 174,000 arrests of migrants, mostly from these three countries, since October. Some 57,000 unaccompanied children have tried to enter the US since then, a tenfold increase since 2011. Just 1,500 of those have been repatriated.

Struggling to cope with overcrowded detention centres along the Texas-Mexico border filled with migrants entering through the Rio Grande Valley, immigration officials are transporting them to border patrol facilities and military bases in Texas, Arizona and California.

The standoff at Murrieta has been going on since July 1st when protestors waving American flags blocked three Department of Homeland Security buses carrying migrants, mostly mothers and small children from entering the Border Patrol station where they were to be held, forcing them to be redirected to centres in San Diego.

Murrieta’s protest began after its mayor, Alan Long, briefed residents of this Republican-leaning town about the plan to transfer Central American immigrants there from southern Texas.

The residents were told that immigration officials would try to transport 140 migrants to the town every 72 hours. By Wednesday, their around-the-clock protest had stopped buses attempting to enter on three days.

“We don’t want to create collateral damage by trying to bring them in here; you guys have had an impact,” the station’s conciliatory commander Walter Davenport told protestors on Tuesday evening.

While the crisis is a national issue, Murrieta’s stand has cast this conservative place in Californian wine country to the forefront of the raging debate around how the US tackles a perpetual problem: dealing with people seeking to make their home in one of the world’s richest countries at a time when politicians in Washington cannot agree on legislation to overhaul America’s broken immigration system.

Local residents say they are concerned that migrants will carry scabies and other diseases that are commonplace in Central America into their community. They are also fearful of migrants taking jobs when employment opportunities in the town are already scarce.

Murrieta’s military families

“These people here are not the kind of people who take shit,” said Tom Anderson, who is originally from Chicago and has lived in the Murrieta area for four years. “There are a lot of military families here, less of the California yuppie types. These are the kinds of guys who’ll stand in front of a bus and be willing to get run over by it.”

Motorists beep their horns as they pass the protest and shout “go America” and “keep it up” out their windows in support of demonstrators carrying signs reading “Stop Illegal Immigration” and “Illegals Out”. About 15 to 25 people manned the protest for several hours on Tuesday. Their numbers swell significantly when immigration officials attempt to bus in the Central American migrants.

The high-profile demonstration has attracted protestors from further afield, among them libertarians and conservatives who believe this crisis has erupted over the government’s failure to secure the border and who rail against anything that will increase welfare costs and taxes.

“This has nothing to do with the children. This is about the federal government not upholding the laws that are already on the books,” said Randy Crawford, who came from Arizona to join the protest.

“Treat them, feed them and send them back,” said Andrea Rockwood, an unemployed pharmacy technician, also on the protest.

On Monday, pro-immigration activists arrived and the ensuing angry shouting matches between the opposing sides were reported by the national and international media, painting the town in an ugly light.

“It is sad and frankly sickening to see these people showing hatred to women and little children – they have no idea what these people have been through,” said Jennaya Dunlap, a pro-immigration advocate in the Riverside-San Bernardino area near LA who helped organise a vigil for the child migrants in Murrieta on Wednesday evening.

Long, the town’s mayor, has made regular appearances on national television in the past week arguing that this was a “compassionate” town dealing with inaction on immigration by the federal government.

“We feel bad for these children. They are really being used as pawns,” says Anita Toney, a protestor from nearby Temecula.

“My heart goes out to these people. If I lived in those conditions in those countries, I would want to flee too but they have got to do it the right way,” says Angela O’Brien, an employee at the local Walmart in Murrieta who is protesting with her daughter.

Asked about her Irish ancestors who also came to the US as immigrants, she says: “We took the proper channels to get here legally and I think that’s what everybody needs to do.”

Unhappy at how her town as been portrayed, she says: “Everybody is looking at Murrieta as this racist town, that we hate people and that we don’t care. But we do. This is about trying to get our government in Washington to finally step up and do something to fix the system.”

This week, US president Barack Obama asked the US Congress to approve $3.7 billion (€2.7 billion) in emergency funding to deal with the tens of thousands of child immigrants coming to the southwestern US border. Most of the money is earmarked to be spent on their detention and speeding up the process to decide whether they are entitled to humanitarian visas or should be deported back to their home countries.

This puts the issue in Washington’s hostile political arena where Democrats are swayed by pro-immigration reform activists already up in arms over the president’s unprecedented record on deportations, branding him “Deporter-in-Chief” and Republicans are equally critical of what they see as the White House’s loose immigration policies.

Child migrants

Blame for the crisis lies across the political divide. Republicans argue that Mr Obama’s decision in 2012 to stop deporting immigrants who arrived as children before 2007 has added to the perception in Central America that the US is open to child migrants. In some cases, this has been used to misinform people by the people-trafficking gangs looking to exploit migrants.

The Obama administration says that efforts to combat the crisis have been hampered by the unintended consequence of an anti-sex-trafficking law signed by president George W Bush in 2008. This stops children (not from Mexico or Canada) entering the country unaccompanied being returned to their home country quickly. The law guarantees these children legal representation at immigration hearings.

This is where problems have arisen. The Department of Justice disclosed the massive backlog in the system at a Senate hearing this week: there are 375,000 cases waiting to be heard by 243 immigration judges.

At the hearing, Republican senator John McCain noted the lower number of children being repatriated to Central America meant that there were “pretty good odds” that they could stay in the US. “The message that people are getting on the ground is if you make it to the US border you won’t be deported immediately. Even the word immediately might be dropped from that,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the US Immigration Policy Programme at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“If their hearing date isn’t for two years, that is a lifetime for kids who are fleeing circumstances in Central America.”

The Obama administration must now try to deal compassionately with the wave of child immigrants while at the same time strengthening enforcement to deter more from attempting to enter the US illegally.

The $3.7 billion emergency fund requested will be used to speed up the vetting of child migrants by hiring more judges and financing more detention centres while migrants await trial. The White House has said most will be deported.

In Murrieta, demonstrators have vowed to continue protesting until the migrants buses stop coming.

“I am proud to be a part of this,” says Kim Smith, one of the local protestors. “My philosophy is that it just takes a few to stand up and it spreads like wildfire.”

On the other side, pro-immigration activists acknowledge that both sides will eventually have to talk constructively with one another if the country’s immigration crisis is to be resolved.

“It is a conversation that has to be done with more love and empathy and less hate,” says Californian immigration activist Fernando Romero.

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