The Fourth of July was celebrated a few days early in the small California city of Murrieta — although the fireworks in this instance involved repelling busloads of unfortunate Central American migrants with chants of “illegals out!”
Residents waving the Stars and Stripes prevented three buses full of undocumented immigrants from reaching a nearby Border Patrol station on Tuesday. The government had flown some 140 undocumented immigrants to San Diego from holding stations in Texas in an effort to relieve strained Border Patrol facilities along the Rio Grande. Many of them were detained after attempting to enter the United States in order to flee violence and harassment in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
The protesters displayed signs that read “Return to Sender” and “Stop Illegal Immigration.” After lingering for a few minutes — giving the detainees ample time to absorb Murrieta’s charming display of patriotic zeal — the buses returned the 70 miles to another border facility near San Diego.
Most of the undocumented immigrants were children, some of whom were accompanied by parents. A wave of nearly 52,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, have been detained along the US-Mexico border since last October, with Border Patrol stations and holding facilities struggling to accommodate them.
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which was signed by President George W. Bush, unaccompanied minors from Central American nations other than Mexico cannot be expedited through the immigration system. Instead, they must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services and held until they can be released into the custody of a relative or a suitable guardian. Unaccompanied children from Mexico, on the other hand, can be swiftly removed from the country after a brief screening by the Border Patrol.
“What we’ve been seeing at these protests are a number of people holding up signs that talk about things like protecting your kids from diseases, you know, keep our children and communities safe,” Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told VICE News. “We see a lot of demonization of immigrants, both undocumented and people who are here legally.”
According to Mayo, the chief organizer of Tuesday’s protest sent out an email on June 29 in which she wrote, “They need to know we oppose their pro-crime agenda of importing illegal aliens, diseases, and crime.”
The Guardian’s Laura Murphy has noted that Texas news outlets have circulated alarmist claims about disease-carrying immigrants. A Dallas/Fort Worth CBS station reported that four or five Border Patrol agents out of a total of 18,500 along the Mexican border had tested positive for maladies like chicken pox, scabies, and tuberculosis. A television station in Dallas also reported that one of the 52,000 unaccompanied children recently detained at the border since October had tested positive for H1N1. These children were each tested and vaccinated by the Department of Health and Human Services — which is how government agents knew of the H1N1-positive child in the first place.
We the People Rising, an anti-illegal immigration group, was also involved in organizing Tuesday’s protest, which occurred a day after Mayor Alan Long encouraged Murrieta’s residents to resist the government’s shuttling of undocumented immigrants to the city for processing.
As gang violence in Central America has risen, so has the number of undocumented immigrants reaching the US. Immigrants fleeing cartels and gang violence might be considered a persecuted group under US law, and therefore eligible for asylum claims.
“This is an emergency humanitarian crisis,” Megan McKenna, communications director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which provides legal aid to unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children, told VICE News. “These are desperate children, and they’re fleeing situations. They know how dangerous it is, and their families know how dangerous it is.”
A 2010 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees laid out guidelines for gang-related asylum, particularly from Central American countries.
“People fleeing gang-related violence may have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their political opinion, especially where criminal and political activities heavily overlap,” the report said. “In the absence of effective State protection, individuals may also fear persecution at the hands of gangs which pursue religious or ethnic ideologies through violent means.”
Another 140 detained immigrants from Texas will be transferred to El Centro, California, on Wednesday. Meanwhile, anti-immigration groups are planning a nationwide protest “against immigration reform, amnesty, and border surge” on July 18.
“Any form of amnesty for illegals is NOT acceptable,” an announcement of the protest on Facebook proclaims. “The current surge of illegals crossing our border is NOT acceptable and must be stopped.”
“There’s this whole idea of creating a climate of fear around these people coming into the country," Mayo said. “That’s something that concerns us because this is really a humanitarian crisis and it really distracts from a critical issue, which is that we really need to reform our broken immigration system, and that’s what really needs to be dealt with.”
Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist