On Tuesday, flag-waving protesters shouting slogans including "go home" turned back three busloads of undocumented immigrants heading for a border patrol processing facility in this inland town nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego.
On Friday, immigration officials are set to try again, with more buses scheduled to arrive.
The effort spotlights the predicament in which the federal government now finds itself. Undocumented children and families are streaming across the Texas border by the tens of thousands, swamping limited resources. Most are from Central America, and since the US does not share a border with Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, deportation protocols are more complicated than they are for undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
To cope, immigration authorities have needed to send some of the immigrants to Arizona and California for processing. But last month, Arizona complained about immigrants being dumped by the hundreds at Greyhound bus stations. Murrieta, Calif., has raised the stakes further.
The border patrol is now refusing to give details about the whereabouts of the buses or future movements. “Due to security considerations, we are not providing any further information regarding the schedule or location of migrant transfers at this time,” says a press release.
Which begs the question: What should the federal government do with the tide of undocumented immigrants? Some churches and faith groups have extended a helping hand, and Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE), which is charged with dealing with the migrants after they have been processed, says it has reached out to community groups and faith-based organizations in southern California to enlist their input and support.
But as news of the crisis on the border becomes more widely known, a backlash has built. Critics say Obama administration policy is to blame, suggesting that President Obama's efforts to ease deportation for young undocumented immigrants in 2012 sparked the surge.
“The Obama administration is being caught flat-footed here. They were warned by [the Department of Homeland Security] that there was a potential for this but didn’t act,” says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors strict immigration laws.
This week, Murrieta has given voice to those allegations and frustrations.
At two meetings to hear the complaints of residents – one at City Hall Tuesday and one in a local high school Wednesday – dozens of Murietta residents stepped forward to say they felt compassion for the children’s plight, but worried about an irreversible increase in crime and the possibility of infectious disease if the migrants were allowed to enter their communities.
Carol Schlayfer of Pomona, Calif., said to the City Council on Tuesday: “We were declared a sanctuary city in the mid-'90s, and I want to warn you that the crime level in your city will elevate beyond your imagination, and the quality of life will deteriorate beyond your imagination. That’s how it works.”
On the dusty outskirts of town the same day, where about 100 protesters waved signs and cars driving by beeped in support, mother of four Ellen Meeks held a sign that read: "Help OUR government. Help house OUR children. OUR vets. Our Moms and dads. We need help here first.”
“One reason I moved out of Moreno Valley is because this immigration got out of hand. Well, I found out you can’t run from it. You have to speak your opinion,” she said.
Some 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border since October. The number could hit 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year in September, according to one estimate. Mr. Obama has pledged to send more resources to the border, and the administration has opened new detention centers to deal with the influx, but resources remain stretched.
The Catholic Archdiocese of San Bernardino, for one, has reached out to help.
“To us, it's a no-brainer that churches should come to the aid of the stranger, the migrant. It’s a core teaching of the Christian faith," says John Andrews, spokesman for the archdiocese. Church officials are looking at raising funds, collecting food and clothing, and perhaps providing sites where some of the migrants can go while they wait for deportation proceedings after processing.
"This is like Exhibit A for the broken state of our immigration system," Mr. Andrews adds. "When you don't have comprehensive immigration reform, this is the kind of shortsighted, less-than-ideal situation that happens. There's not a ton of information about how this is going to work."
Immigrant advocates say the immigrants are fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. In Honduras, murders of women increased 65 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to a study released by several feminist groups in March.
“Our biggest concern is to make sure that the arriving immigrant families are safe, that their rights and privacy are respected, and that they have access to due process while they are still detained,” said Jennaya Dunlap, a volunteer with the Inland Empire Rapid Response Network. “After the trauma they have been through, it is important that they feel welcomed in our community, and that they have access to basic necessities and orientation.”
Other immigration analysts say the US should treat this as an opportunity.
"This is the chance for us to lead by example and to show the world that our commitment to fairness and due process is real and doesn’t crumble in the face of difficulty,” says Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council. “If we rush to judgment in these cases, particular in the cases of small children, then we run the risk of handing these children back to the gangs and drug cartels that are abusing and exploiting them."