First came the images of migrant children in cramped detention centers – gritty evidence of a US government suddenly overwhelmed by a crush of hundreds of young migrants crossing the Rio Grande and into Texas every day.
This week came new images, this time of frustrated Americans in Murrieta, Calif., chanting pro-American slogans while blocking and then turning away three busloads of Central American migrants headed to a local federal holding tank normally used to process drug-traffickers.
Into the weekend, the tension continued to build as at least some protesters said they’ve lost trust in the ability of the US government to protect its border – and, thus, its people. Pro-immigrant advocates said that Americans screaming at busloads of women and children looks like ugly xenophobia.
On Friday, six people were arrested as an anti-illegal immigration camp and a pro-immigration camp jawed at each other as they waited for immigrant buses to show up. None did. One side chanted “U-S-A!” while a sign on the other side said, “Relax gringo I’m legal.”
Since October, at least 52,000 unaccompanied alien children and many mothers with small children have made a dangerous 1,000 mile journey from Central America to reach the US border, in turn overwhelming the government’s ability to house and process them.
Many of them are fleeing countries like Honduras and Guatemala, where violence, murder and extortion is common. Unable to process everybody at the border in Texas, immigration authorities have bused and flown many of the migrants to detention centers in Arizona, New Mexico, and California – including the facility at Murrieta.
Emotions about the migration crisis on the Rio Grande are running high on both sides of the debate.
Some pro-immigration activists have flocked to the border to provide food and drink to border-crossers. One group, Humane Borders, is planning to travel to a migrant staging point in Sonora, Mexico, to hand out flashlights to make the crossing safer.
With some calling the crush of migrants an “invasion,” right-wing “patriot” groups have issued calls for arms to link along the border to keep migrants from being able to enter the US. At a town hall meeting in Murrieta this week, many residents said they’ll continue to block any buses from arriving at the detention facility.
Meanwhile, other communities that, like Murrieta, are seeing an influx of government-bused migrants haven’t taken to the streets in protest. In New Mexico, residents have welcomed some of the buses, and there have been no disturbances at a major detention facility in Nogales, Arizona.
In response to the building crisis, President Obama has asked Congress to speed up an often lengthy due process proceeding to determine if a migrant should be given asylum in the US. Obama says he wants the immigration court system to work “smarter and faster.”
Combined with an already overburdened immigration court system, the current law has buckled under the wave of migrants, creating a massive processing bottleneck. That’s why the US Border Patrol is dispersing the migrants to detention facilities far from the border.
That consequence is what has fired up the largely suburban community of Murrieta, home to just over 100,000 people.
“This is a way of making our voices heard,” local resident Steve Prime told the Wall Street Journal, as he protested on Friday. “The government’s main job is to secure our borders and protect us – and they’re doing neither.”
The protests in Murrieta were based largely on concerns about disease and the impact of a flood of new immigrants into American communities already struggling with unemployment and lack of upward mobility.
But they also provided a snapshot of how deeply many Americans feel about the porous border, which all feeds into broader political concerns about leading millions of illegal immigrants already in the country down a path to citizenship – the crux of any reform bill.
The phalanx of migrants and ensuing protests underscore the high political stakes for the President as well as Congress, which has, after years of trying, failed to reform an immigration system Obama called “broken” at a Fourth of July naturalization ceremony.
With immigration quickly becoming a major issue ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections in November, the situation has forced Obama into a peculiar spot where he is calling for faster deportations of migrant children while at the same time lobbying for laws and even considering executive action to make it easier for more illegal immigrants already here to remain in the US.
“Even though the overwhelming majority of Californians support a pathway to citizenship, the Murrieta controversy shows that the immigration issue is still a very complicated one and a potentially dangerous one,” Dan Schnur, a University of Southern California political scientist, told the Los Angeles Times.