WASHINGTON — In places such as Murrieta, Calif., and Oracle, Ariz., the message is clear: The thousands of immigrant children fleeing Central America are unwelcome in Small Town USA.
The children, many of them unaccompanied from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have traveled up to 3,000 miles across deserts and rivers, clinging to the tops of trains.
They sometimes face rape and beatings at the hands of “coyotes,” smugglers paid thousands of dollars to sneak them across the southern border with Mexico.
Upon arrival, they face scenes such as the one earlier this month in Murrieta, where busloads of babies in their mothers’ laps, teens, ‘tweens and toddlers were turned back from a detainee facility.
They were met by screaming protesters waving and wearing American flags and bearing signs that read such things as “Return to Sender.”
And so it goes. Southwest border towns, West Coast suburbs and middle American enclaves have become the newest battleground in the vitriolic political debate over immigration.
Some have volunteered to host and welcome the new arrivals into their homes and houses of worship. Others have mounted grassroots campaigns to stymie them, citing concerns that some are gang members or have disease, worries the Department of Health and Human Services is working to allay.
The ensuing showdowns highlight the scope and depth of challenges the Obama administration is grappling with as officials try to use immigration-related fixes to resolve what politicians on both sides of the aisle have called “a humanitarian crisis.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told WHO on Monday that he does not want federal officials to send Central American children to his state, adding that by accepting them the United States is sending “a signal to send kids illegally.”
Some local aid groups are appalled.
“My God. This is a humanitarian crisis,” said Kathleen McQuillen, the Iowa Program Director of American Friends Service Committee.
McQuillen’s group, a Quaker-based organization, questions how the country could spend trillions on war and not have the pennies on those dollars to spend to take care of children in dire need.
She said, “It’s a simple thing to begin to say, what’s important in this world?”
At a National Governors Association meeting in Nashville earlier this month, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman complained that federal officials did not notify him that they were placing hundreds of immigrant children with family members in his state.
In Oracle, Ariz., a town of roughly 3,700, protesters gathered at Sycamore Canyon Academy, a nearby boys ranch being used as a temporary housing facility for the immigrant minors, as early as 7 a.m. on Tuesday, according to KOLD.
Protesters were expected to spend all day there and planned to block a bus filled with kids from entering. A local tea party group is also organizing a protest.
“These children should be returned to their home country — not to Oracle, Ariz., paid for by American taxpayers,” Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said in a statement on the department’s Facebook page.
A separate group, which gathered at the Southside Presbyterian Church earlier in the day, headed to site of the protests and is planning to welcome the children when they arrive.
In Artesia, N.M., hundreds of residents turned out for a contentious town hall to decry the hundreds of women and children being housed at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, a facility that also trains Border Patrol agents, according to KOAT.
Protestors in Waco, Texas, meanwhile, are demanding better conditions for the 250 men from El Salvador being held at the Jack Harwell Detention Center, according to KCEN.
And the League City, Texas, City Council approved a proposal banning the housing or detention of undocumented immigrants within the city at a recent meeting, according to KHOU.
Federal officials shelved plans to send the children to an unoccupied, historically black college campus in Lawrenceville, Va., a small community of about 1,400, after nearly the entire town showed up at a meeting and furiously denounced the proposal.
“Our staff will immediately cease any further activities in your community,” Mark Greenberg, the Department of Health and Human Services, the acting assistant secretary for children and families, wrote the community in June.
In sharp contrast to the reception similar children received in Murrieta, Central American immigrant children have been welcomed by the community of Fontana, Calif.
Just more than 40 immigrants on Homeland Security buses arrived at the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church there on Thursday and were greeted by staff and community donations of food, clothing and toys, according to KTLA.
And a group of California state lawmakers headed to Central American on Monday to discuss he surge of immigrant children with leaders from that region, according to KCRA.
And on Monday, the United States government deported the first group of what authorities promise will be many more — about 40 mothers and children. They flew to Honduras on a charter flight.
Despite the perils of their journey to the United States and their failed attempt to stay, one woman plans to make the trek again. There is nothing left for them at home, she said.