California town chagrined to be flash point on immigration issues

A group of anti-immigration protesters blocked buses carrying undocumented immigrants on Tuesday as they headed to a border patrol station in southern California. (Reuters)
July 5

— Cities don’t get much more patriotic than Murrieta. The streets here are named for presidents: Monroe, Hoover, Madison, Adams, Washington, Jefferson. The mayor is a fireman. Many of the residents are military, commuting each day to Camp Pendleton, the Marine base on the coast.

This Fourth of July, just across the Murrieta line in Temecula, families packed the prosperous, 132-year-old downtown for the Independence Day parade the residents of the two cities hold annually.

There was little talk there of immigration. But only three miles away in Murrieta, more than 100 protesters were shouting aspersions at one another in front of a Border Patrol station that was cordoned off by the police.

This is the station where protesters blocked the entrance last Tuesday and forced three buses of undocumented immigrant parents and children in federal custody out of their town, thrusting Murrieta into the national spotlight. The immigrants had been flown to California from Texas, where there weren’t facilities to house them.

At the Fourth of July parade, there was no indication of the commotion at the Border Patrol station down the road or of the unhappiness the immigration controversy of the past week has brought to many in Murrieta. That includes the city’s 44-year-old mayor, Alan Long, who says his call for residents to write their congressional representatives and the White House was misunderstood as a call to active protest.

“We’re just in dismay over this — on what it’s caused our city in putting people at odds,” Long said in an interview, adding that many of the protesters “don’t even live here.”

“We have this issue, and it’s drawing people from everywhere, and it’s bad,” Long said.

Murrieta is a Republican-leaning city of 106,000 that in the 1970s was a sleepy ranching town in the desert. By 1991, Murrieta’s population was still only 24,000. But today Murrieta is a sizeable bedroom community between San Diego and Los Angeles. The city is not poor: The average household median income is $100,000, according to Long. And the city’s median age is only 32. About 66 percent of its workers commute, mostly to San Diego and Orange County.

With the population increase, the immigrant community has grown. In 2010, the city’s population was 26 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census.

Tammy Espinoza, a 53-year-old mother of three who has lived in Murrieta for more than 30 years and is married to a Mexican immigrant, sat with her family in front of the Border Patrol station at about midnight Friday, hoping arriving buses would make it past the gates. One of her daughters held a Mexican flag.

“We’re Americans, but we’re not on anybody’s side. We’re here just to get the kids to go through,” Espinoza said.

She described Murrieta as a quiet, integrated, middle-class city where Hispanics get along well with whites. She said every July 4 her husband and a group of their friends dress as charros — Mexican cowboys — and ride their horses in the Independence Day parade in nearby Wildomar, a smaller city.

But Espinoza is displeased with President Obama, saying she wishes federal officials had given Murrieta more notice about the buses. “I think this just came as a big shock,” she said. “If Obama wants peace . . . he needs to inform people that this is going to happen way ahead of time.”

For the illegal-immigration protesters, the media attention is welcome. “Other cities are going to pay attention to this,” said ­Diana Serafin, a retired casino worker who helped organize the weekend protest using Twitter. “We’re sending a message to Washington, D.C., that they are not doing their job, they’re not enforcing the laws, and they’re jeopardizing the health and safety of all Americans, especially our children.”

There were protesters and counterprotesters at midnight Friday, American flags on one side of the street and Mexican and American flags on the other. The police stepped in a couple of times, but when the group protesting illegal immigration starting singing “God Bless America,” the group across the street joined in, and they finished in harmony. They also clapped and cheered together after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. No buses appeared.

Many people here are at pains to let outsiders know they aren’t racist. “If I felt that the overall atmosphere was just racist, anti-Mexican, I wouldn’t be here,” said Bob Hays, 55, an insurance inspector who lives five miles away and attended the protest.

Long, the mayor, wrote Obama: “The unfortunate acts at Tuesday’s protest that we learned of later were not representative of our community. Ours is a very compassionate and caring community!” Still, Long said, he doesn’t believe Murrieta has the capacity to handle such an influx of immigrants, and he said that Murrieta officials weren’t given enough notice so many were coming.

Immigration politics are as complex as ever in California. According to Abel Valenzuela, a professor of urban planning and Chicano studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, anti-
immigrant protests in California died down during the recession. He was surprised to see them re­appear so suddenly last week.

But, he said, there are many more groups in California in favor of providing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship — immigrant-advocacy organizations, much of the political class, the agriculture and tech industries, the immigrants themselves — than groups against it. “If history tells us anything, these [anti-immigrant] groups kind of peter out,” Valenzuela said. “It’s hard to get people in California to really protest against immigrants, because you have lots of immigrants who won’t support them.”

Harless is a freelance journalist.

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