As the White House decides how to handle the growing number of undocumented children entering the country, local communities where they are being sent are concerned that the young immigrants could end up becoming their responsibility.
Residents of towns slated to receive the immigrants are taking to the streets and town hall meetings to protest federal plans that many say have been forced upon them.
“The situation at the border is the result of a clear coherent policy out of Washington,” said Murrieta City Councilman Rick Gibbs to Fox News Latino. “They’re moving these immigrants – or illegals, whatever term you prefer – out of Texas and sending them into our communities.”
"Send them back! Send the back!" a crowd chanted in a town hall meeting last week in Murrieta, Calif. convened by the mayor and council members to discuss federal plans to transfer children and families to a border patrol facility there.
And in Artesia, N.M., dozens attended a town hall meeting to express anger at the opening of a temporary detention center for the immigrants who are part of the growing surge.
Gibbs said federal authorities gave Murrieta short notice about their plans to hold immigrants there while they are processed and efforts are made to locate relatives in the United States that they can join pending the resolution of their cases.
He said even local agents of the Border Patrol, with whom he said city officials have typically had a good, collaborative relationship, said they were unsure about the plans that Washington, D.C., had.
Federal officials have stressed that the immigrants will not settle in most of the places where they are taken for processing or to be held while families are tracked down in the United States. And even Gibbs acknowledges that many will not be staying in Murrieta – but he says how the federal government has handled the matter still is discomfiting.
“Some of these folks will be moved out within 48 hours, and will be turned over to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and they’ll literally transport them to cities where are bus stations and no one monitors them,” he said. “We are increasing the illegal population in the United States.”
Gibbs said he also is concerned about the conditions of the Border Patrol facility for the sake of the immigrants.
“It’s an ad hoc policy by the federal government that is changing daily,” Gibbs said. “I recognize the humanitarian dimension of this crisis. But what we have here is a facility that is Spartan, to say the least. There are holding cells that can accommodate 30 or 40 people, with just a single toilet facility. The Border Patrol says they’ll get military meals, and there are benches and blankets, but no beds.”
Murrieta Mayor Alan Long, who urged locals to oppose the immigrant transfer plan before it began, said the city will track any spending it does over the issue and send a "big fat bill" to Washington.
On Sunday, Long told CNN that Murrieta is a "caring, compassionate community," and that most of the protesters were from out of town.
"The system that is in place right now lures these people into thinking they're coming to a better place, but, on that journey, one-third of the females, some younger, in their teens, are raped along the way. And that's a broken system. We have to fix that."
In New Mexico, where residents have opposed the children and families being sent there, city and federal officials have fielded numerous questions from residents, including how long the facility would be used for detention.
Residents told federal and local authorities they were afraid the undocumented immigrants might take jobs from locals and resources away from American-born children.
But immigrant-rights groups say the anger is unfairly being targeted at innocent children simply trying to flee violence.
“Nothing saddens the heart more than when a child is subjected to ridicule, hate, and discrimination based solely on his condition as an immigrant seeking refuge in the United States,” said a statement by the California Table, a network of 52 pro immigration reform organizations.
The group said protests like the one in Murrieta show the ugly side of humanity – and they called it “elitist, bigoted and anti-child.
“Whereas we all have the right to our opinion on immigration reform, it is an American tradition to show compassion and empathy to those who seek refuge in our country,” the statement said. “These children and families have traveled thousands of miles north in an act of desperation, courage and love and the least we can do is allow them a place to eat and rest while their request for asylum is evaluated.”
Some groups of unaccompanied minors are being sent to South Florida shelters, raising the demands on non-profit groups that help immigrants with legal guidance and resettling.
But South Florida already has felt the impact of families that have arrived in the past year or so, according to the office of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
District officials estimate that some 300 kids from the surge, which has been occurring for years – though at a lesser rate than now – enrolled in Miami-Dade schools last year. The district is requesting federal aid, about $2,000 per student, to help cover the cost of serving them.
“The continued influx of foreign-born students, many of whom are English Language Learners (ELL), increases the need for ESL courses, grade-level content courses, and other educational supports that target students’ content, cultural and English language needs,” said a June 18 request to the federal government. “This has a financial and operational impact on the District. Therefore, it is prudent that M-DCPS continue to seek assistance from the federal government.”
In Long Island, N.Y., and in Lawrenceville, Va., opposition by political leaders and residents seemed to have played a part in the federal government’s decision to drop consideration of holding immigrants there.
At the New York and Virginia locations, residents and local officials said they were blindsided by news that federal agencies were considering holding some of the immigrants in their communities.
In Lawrenceville, local officials said they had been in the dark about an agreement between the federal government and the owners of St. Paul’s College, which is privately owned and sits empty, to house unaccompanied minors.
Last month, an overflow crowd packed into the 900-seat Brunswick High School auditorium in the farming town of nearly 1,500. Many residents arrived at the school carrying small signs that read "No illegal immigrants," but they were told to leave them outside. Numerous law enforcement officers were on hand.
Dozens of residents lined up along both aisles leading to the front of the auditorium to voice their opinions, including Aaron Smith, 32, who said he is a Marine Corps veteran and did a tour in Iraq.
"We will not be strong-armed by federal officials," Smith said. "We will not be pushed around."
The crowd cheered his comments, and he received high-fives from the audience as he left.
Outside the school, Smith said townsfolk primarily objected to the way the planned shelter was handled, but also objected to who would be housed in the community.
"We do not want illegal aliens in our town," he said.
The plan for St. Paul’s later was withdrawn.
Lupillo Rivera, a Murrieta, Calif. resident, said he can understand the alarm people feel over the many undocumented immigrants crossing the border and being held, even if for a while, in their towns. But Rivera, the brother of the late singer Jenni Rivera, who stumbled upon a protest in his city last week, said some of the demonstrators were overly harsh. On person spit on him as he tried to find out what the protest was about.
“It doesn’t matter where the children are from. Children automatically deserve respect. I cannot kick out a child from anywhere. I think that is inhumane,” Rivera, a Mexican immigrant, told Fox News Latino. “I understand there are a lot of undocumented, I understand that the Americans are worried. But I understand too that 90 percent of them come to work, to build, to clean houses. Never in my life have I seen an American picking aguacates or grapes for their wines.”
The broader plan to send immigrants to shelters and detention facilities across the country is intended to help relieve a crunch caused when tens of thousands of people arrived at the border, many of them saying they were fleeing violence and extortion from gangs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Many of the undocumented immigrants are minors, others are young couples with children, or single women. The Border Patrol processes them, and releases – on the condition they show up for court later -- those who have relatives here. Those who do not have someone to stay with, as is the case with many minors, are sent to shelters overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) pending resolution of their case.
Federal officials say that those who are in their facilities remain under their supervision, and are screened for infectious diseases, criminal records, and children receive schooling on the premises. They also receive inoculations from HHS.
But that has not stopped the concern in local communities considered for shelters about having to shoulder a burden.
HHS said last month that it was considering opening a temporary shelter in a former Grumman Corp. facility in Bethpage, Long Island, for the undocumented immigrant children. But local and state political leaders, as well as members of New York’s congressional delegation, fought the idea, saying that it was inappropriate to house children there because it is near a New York State Superfund site.
Federal officials then said they were not going to send immigrants there.
Former immigration judge Bruce Einhorn, who is a Pepperdine law school professor, said many of the undocumented immigrants will not settle in the communities where they now are staying in shelters.
“To the extent these people are allowed [even] to leave detention,” Einhorn told FNL, “they’re not going to stay in areas where there are less opportunities to meet and live with others in their ethnic groups, and get jobs that pay minimum – or, let’s be honest, below minimum – wage.”
Einhorn said that it is understandable that residents of communities that may receive them are concerned and have their doubts.
“People are going to be a little paranoid about ‘the other,’” he said. “We’re still in a tough economy, the last thing that recovers is the unemployment rate. And every time you get a large number of people who are different from you, you get a little nervous. They’re seeing them on a 24/7 news cycle, and it scares them, economically and culturally.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente