The prospect of a busload of migrant children rolling into this small Arizona town Tuesday brought out dozens of protesters, ready to block the vehicle from reaching a temporary shelter.
Although the bus didn’t materialize, the protesters still made their views known. Using bold letters, placards expressed anger and frustration over the large number of young and illegal border-crossers coming into the United States from Central America: "Take them to the White House," "Stop the invasion," "Get out of here."
Emotions ran especially high as another group of protesters took the opposite stance – hoisting welcome banners for the youths and featuring a seven-piece mariachi band.
The discontent felt by the anti-bus protesters is part of a growing public backlash in some US communities against the Obama administration's handling of an influx of young Central Americans that has reached crisis proportions.
The Arizona demonstration comes two weeks after protesters in Murrieta, Calif., blocked the passage of three buses carrying migrants for processing to alleviate crowding in Texas. Their actions served as inspiration to some protesters in Oracle, a town north of Tucson that is home to some 3,700 residents.
"I feel like they should be with their parents," retiree Dolly Pettet says of the tens of thousands of children coming primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. "I don't understand the parents sending their child no matter what the conditions are down there." These minors, as illegal border-crossers, must be promptly sent back to their homeland, she says.
But some of those who turned out for the expected bus took a more hospitable stance.
"Anybody who is a refugee needs shelter," says Ellen Basso, an Oracle resident who also is retired. "Many of these children were sent up here so they could join their families, so I do see them as refugees in the sense that they're fleeing chaos and violence."
Some say a high crime rate, gang problems, and corruption in the so-called Northern Triangle are pushing people toward the US. Children traveling alone, most of them older than 14, also make the trek to escape poverty and follow family members already here, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides shelter and other services for the children.
Others blame the influx on the Obama administration’s policies, which they say have encouraged youngsters to make the dangerous journey.
In all, the Department of Homeland Security has referred more than 50,000 children to HHS since October, according to the latter agency.
HHS has declined to say whether some children will eventually be transported to Oracle. "A wide range of facilities are being identified and evaluated to determine if they may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children," wrote HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe in an e-mail.
There are approximately 100 permanent shelters in the US where Central American minors can be sent after being processed by border patrol, according to Mr. Wolfe. But the large influx of children has overtaxed those venues, forcing the government to open more temporary shelters.
Word of the government's plan to deliver up to 60 minors to a youth center in the Oracle area actually came from Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a polarizing figure in Arizona politics. HHS is keeping locations secret for security reasons.
Residents "have every right to be upset and to protest,” said the sheriff, a well-known crusader against illegal immigration, in a statement. “Our federal government has failed to enforce any immigration laws. These children should be returned to their home country – not to Oracle, Arizona paid for by American taxpayers."
At one point on Tuesday, demonstrators on the two sides faced off, their shouts at once repudiating and defending the young migrants. Peacemakers urged calm.
"We are not Murrieta! We are not Murrieta!" Jesus Magaña screamed at the top of his lungs.
"We are better than that," he said later. "We come with the message of love and compassion. The law currently states that these kids have the right to due process."
But Urban Smith, who lives near Oracle, says he doesn't like how the government is dealing with the Central Americans – and says that’s taking away from dealing with other problems. He wants the busing of children to various US communities to stop.
"They come across the border illegally; they're going to get to stay here," he says, referring to the young migrants. "And that's wrong. What about all of our kids that are here and live in poverty? Charity starts at home."