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In California Town, Protests Shed Light On National Immigration Debate


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll start today by talking about immigration and the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. We've been reporting on the search of illegal border crossings, particularly of unaccompanied children. And we're talking about how federal authorities have been scrambling to shelter these would-be migrants and meet the demands of the law for evaluating each person's circumstances.

Now citizens in some of the places that federal officials were planning to use to relieve overcrowding at border facilities are resisting those efforts. Last week hundreds of residents stood on the road in Murrieta, California, blocking a bus convoy of immigrants and forcing it to turn around. Protests continue there this weekend. We wanted to hear more about all this and what it could mean for the national immigration debate so we've called upon Tatiana Sanchez. She's a reporter with the Desert Sun in Southern California. She covers immigration and has been reporting on the protests. Also with us, once again, is Dallas Morning News staff writer Dianne Solis who's covering immigration in Texas. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

DIANNE SOLIS: Thank you for having us.

TATIANA SANCHEZ: Thank you. Good morning.

MARTIN: So let me play a clip from Murrieta Mayor Alan Long who spoke to CNN's State of the Union program yesterday.


MAYOR ALAN LONG: We didn't have a lot of answers early on and there were some legitimate concerns, health concerns and humane concerns. People were concerned about the people, the immigrants, coming here. Would they have proper facilities? Who's going to take care of them? How long is this going to be for? And those were questions that we just didn't get any answers to.

MARTIN: Tatiana, can you pick up the thread? I heard people yelling USA, USA. So I'm not really sure that I can hear what their concerns were. What did they tell you?

SANCHEZ: Yeah. USA chants are a lot of what I heard on the ground, especially on July Fourth. There was a lot a flag-waving and USA chanting. And that was mostly coming from anti-immigrant protesters. What their concerns are, aside from the fact that they say that these people are crossing the border illegally and do not have the right to be here, they have a lot of health concerns in particular for their children. They say, well how can we be assured that these people, you know, are not going to bring any diseases or pose health concerns to our children. There are also concerns about their local resources being drained and they say, well everyone is talking about these undocumented children that are coming into our area but what about our own children that, you know, are going to go back to school potentially with these kids or that are going to show up at the doctor's office. So they're really worried about, you know, their local resources being drained.

MARTIN: So then when the bus - after it was turned away from Murrieta, California, it went to El Centro, California, was the response the same there or was it different?

SANCHEZ: You know, the group that went to El Centro was actually interestingly enough a completely different batch of undocumented immigrants. So what's going on is there are buses that are being transported both to El Centro and to the San Diego area and Murrieta. So the welcoming - I don't want to say welcoming - but the buses actually literally came in within a matter of minutes with no protesters in sight, no family members in sight. It was actually very quiet and a drastically different scene from what we saw in Murrieta. So I saw the buses roll in in El Centro on Wednesday and the families were unloaded from the bus very quickly.

MARTIN: Any sense about why the reaction was so different?

SANCHEZ: Yeah. I mean, I think demographics definitely come into play. El Centro sits just a few minutes from the border and it is a highly immigrant town. It's not strange at all to see people coming in from the border from Mexico, you know, predominantly a Latino community. And quite frankly the El Centro Border Patrol Station is equipped. It has a processing center so it is equipped to do these sorts of things and to process these undocumented immigrants whereas the station in Murrieta is predominantly used to process criminals, you know, found with drugs and things of that sort. So I think that definitely has something to do with it. The demographics of the city is that it's a highly Latino immigrant town, just a few minutes from the border. So this is for them, you know, seemingly ordinary.

MARTIN: Dianne, what about you? You've been covering this for some time in many, many dimensions. This question of people coming out on the street and protesting the movement of migrants have you seen that in Texas where you are?

SOLIS: We haven't seen that yet but we may tomorrow when this issue is taken before the Dallas County Commissioner's Court. Up till now what we've seen is really rather extraordinary compassion and the County Judge Clay Jenkins leading the effort saying that these are people - not problems. And that it's his own 8-year-old daughter who told him, daddy got to do something. And he did. He began the effort to look for sides that could house up to 2,000 juveniles temporarily. That is in the vetting process right now with the federal government.

MARTIN: So that - there's a report that Dallas County is considering some kind of a different sort of method for housing immigrants or different facilities for housing immigrants - that's what were talking about here?

SOLIS: That's exactly what we're talking about, correct.

MARTIN: Now the issue's been getting a lot of attention in Washington, Dianne. I mean, House Republicans held a hearing last weekend - blamed President Obama's policies for the detention crisis. What are the state officials in Texas saying about that? Do they agree?

SOLIS: Some do. Some politicians do agree that there's the perception or the fact of lax immigration policies towards children and therefore they're coming because of that. There are others who say, no it's violence, and it's violence, and it's violence. People are fleeing for their lives. The U.N. for example is emphasizing that as well. That there's been a 700 percent increase in asylum applications to countries other than the United States.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us we're talking about recent protests in California over the housing of undocumented immigrants. I'm speaking with Tatiana Sanchez of the Desert News in California. And Dianne Solis of the Dallas Morning News. When Texas, of course they've been covering this issue from their respective regions. So Tatiana what about that? Talk a little bit more about this resource issue, if you would. Have the local officials been offered any resources to help them or to address their concerns here or did this all happen so fast they didn't - those conversations don't seem to have taken place?

SANCHEZ: I think things have shifted a little bit. Originally there was a lot of concerns that these resources were going to be drained. Now, from what I'm hearing from, you know, local officials and things of that sort, is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't plan on using any local resources for these undocumented immigrants. Local officials have been told that it's all going to be taking care of in-house sort of by the Border Patrol and by I.C.E. But I think that one of the concerns originally, particularly in Murrieta, was that, you know, local officials weren't informed on what was going to happen. On how it was going to affect their town and so I think that's a lot of the reason why that sudden panic set in, is because they were, you know, thinking well we don't really have - we're not really equipped to be a allotting these resources for such a large group of people to be coming into our town every three days.

MARTIN: Have those resources been forthcoming or has that communication been straightened out to your knowledge?

SANCHEZ: To my knowledge it's been straighten out. Like I said, certainly in El Centro what I.C.E. and what Border Patrol emphasize to the County Board of Supervisors and to local officials was that their resources would not be drained and would not be needed. However, local organizations, you know, shelters and things like that are still standing by because the assumption is that at least a small group of these undocumented immigrants, once they are released, will need a bit of resources to, you now, for transportation to see family and that things of that sort to leave the area.

MARTIN: So Dianne, President Obama is scheduled to visit Texas this week but the White House says he's not planning to visit the border. I mean, the spokesman Josh Earnest said that, well, some people are suggesting this is - quoting in the New York Times here - "the reason that some people are suggesting the president should go to the border when he's in Texas is because they’d rather play politics than actually trying to address some of these challenges." But what about that, I mean, is there a desire for him - I don't know what you've been hearing about this - is there a desire for him to come to the border to see the conditions for himself? Or what are some of the officials saying down there about what they would like the president, personally, to do?

SOLIS: You know, I think things have happened so quickly for some people in policy positions and there's probably people who want the president to go down to the border and there's probably people who think that it's a very bad idea politically. It's - this a critical week. We're hearing that there may be an effort in Congress to treat these unaccompanied children differently than they are right now under certain asylum and trafficking victims protect. And already people who are in the immigrant rights community are coalescing and trying to move to make sure that key pieces of existing laws stays in place that protects unaccompanied minors who come for non-contiguous countries and are screened more heavily for fears of persecution.

MARTIN: Before we go, Dianne, can you tell us about, are there - we've talked a lot about advocates and activists and what they're doing but what about people in other parts of the community, like the churches for example, are they getting involved in this question?

SOLIS: Yeah they are. I spent the weekend at a service for Latino immigrants and I was quite impressed by what the pastor had to say about - as he put it - the suffering of the children. And he himself is from El Salvador and he has a niece who's in North Texas in detention proceedings right now. So he knows the issue very well. He fled El Salvador some 30 years ago because of the violence there. And I've also talked to a teacher in Grand Prairie, Texas and she's getting ready to do whatever she can to help youngsters. She's a retired second-grade teacher. She knows what kids need. And she says she's part of a list of people who want to help.

MARTIN: Dianne Solis is a staff writer at the Dallas Morning News with us from Dallas. Tatiana Sanchez is a reporter with the Desert Sun Newspaper. She was with us from Palm Springs, California. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SANCHEZ: Thank you very much.

SOLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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