Immigration Debate Splits California City In Two

Immigration protests are expected to continue for some time in Murrieta, Calif. After protesters turned away buses of undocumented immigrants bound for a processing center, the town now finds itself at the center of the political debate on immigration.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The city of Murrieta, California has put itself front-and-center in the national debate over illegal immigration and border security. Protesters there blocked three buses of immigrant detainees from entering a local border patrol station earlier this week. Immigration authorities were trying to relocate them for processing due to overcrowding in Texas facilities. And since that showdown, the anti-illegal immigration and anti-federal government sentiment has only grown in Murrieta. That's where NPR's Kirk Siegler begins our coverage.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The U.S. Border Patrol station here looks like an outpost. It's surrounded by mostly empty lots and fields. Today things are quiet - no more protesters shouting and waving signs - and the police roadblocks have been taken down. And at the entrance, just two Border Patrol cops stand guard by a tall fence. Town leaders say this Border Patrol facility is more like a jail. It could handle some of the influx of detainees from Texas - they say maybe a few buses if it's just for processing, as the federal immigration authorities say. But this bitter fight unfolding here Murrieta, is about a lot more than that.

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ROBIN VITSTIN: My name is Robin Vitstin, and I just have to say, I'm in a surreal state. I feel like my government has become human traffickers. Who's financing it? The taxpayer.

SIEGLER: Last night, hundreds of residents crowded into a high school auditorium giving immigration authorities an ear-full. The audience skewed older and Caucasian. People here say they're worried about a flood of detainees overwhelming local services, and there are public health concerns. But the overwhelming message here from the public, and the leaders, was that the federal government is at the root of the problem. Riverside County Commissioner Jeff Stone, more than once sees the opportunity to point the finger directly at Washington and accuse the Obama administration of pushing an amnesty agenda.

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JEFF STONE: I call upon the citizens of this great country, and particularly in this great county, to petition their congressional representatives and President Obama to stop this action of exploiting frightened and traumatized women and children from other Central American countries.

SIEGLER: Murrieta's mayor, Alan Long, who called for the protests in the first place, told the crowd that the crisis highlights the fact that the border with Mexico is porous.

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MAYOR ALAN LONG: I didn't turn the buses around. That still did not solve the ultimate problem that lies in Washington, D.C.

SIEGLER: The debate in the city has been peaceful so far, but heated. Outside the auditorium, more than 100 immigrant rights activists held signs and chanted under the bright lights of TV cameras.

CROWD: (Chanting).

SIEGLER: This crowd skewed younger and Latino, and Gina Escalante says her mom came to the country illegally and eventually became a nurse in Murrieta. And Gina is a citizen and currently in nursing school herself.

GINA ESCALANTE: This isn't our choice. This isn't our city's choice. These are government facilities. We must follow the law and abide by it. And why did our community have to react so harsh? We could have - this - this process could have been so much easier.

SIEGLER: For now anyway, it appears federal authorities are moving the detainees from Texas to facilities in other California cities closer to the border. And it's clear the protests and demonstrations here will go on for some time. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Murrieta, California.

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