Instead of rolling out the welcome mat for immigrants, cities in California’s “Inland Empire” are pulling the rug out from under them by blocking buses and protesting.
LOS ANGELES — In December 2010, the city of Murrieta, California, joined other communities in southwest Riverside County by passing a law requiring business owners to confirm the immigration status and work eligibility of new employees through the federal government’s E-Verify database.
The city council had initially considered an ordinance that only encouraged employers to use E-Verify. But after anti-immigration activists rallied at City Hall, chanting “What do we want? E-Verify!” and “USA, USA!,” council members asked staff to draft the tougher, mandatory law.
During a public comment session in August 2010, 18 people spoke — all in favor of adopting the ordinance.
“We have to send a message back to Washington and that message is, ‘No, we’re not going to allow you to dictate to us that we have to allow illegal immigrants here that are going to drain our economy,’” another resident, Rebecca Dunhoff, said.
Some four years later, it doesn’t come as a surprise to immigrant rights activists that Murrieta residents on July 1 helped block the entrance to the local U.S. Border Patrol station, forcing three busloads of undocumented immigrant parents and children who had been brought there from Texas for processing to leave town.
“It’s a city with a long history of intolerance toward outsiders,” Jennaya Dunlap, a volunteer with the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, told MintPress News in an interview.
The bus blockade, which brought unprecedented media attention to the fast-growing, Republican-leaning city of 106,000 people, followed a June 30 news conference at which Mayor Alan Long urged residents to protest the federal government’s transfer of the immigrants.
“Murrieta expects our government to enforce our laws, including the deportation of illegal immigrants caught crossing our borders, not disperse them into our local communities,” he told reporters.
Since then, Long and other city officials have tried to distance Murrieta from its newfound notoriety as a flashpoint in the immigration debate, with City Manager Rick Dudley insisting that the mayor had only suggested that “concerned citizens contact their U.S. representatives and the President to share their thoughts.”
The July 1 protest “made this extremely compassionate community look heartless and uncaring,” he said in a message to the community. “That is NOT the Murrieta that we all know and love.”
At a July 2 town hall meeting, Long cited his own Hispanic heritage — his mother is Hispanic and he is married to a Hispanic woman, he said. Latinos account for about 26 percent of Murrieta’s population.
But passions don’t seem to have cooled much.
“Murrieta is not a town embarrassing itself, but one that is standing up for itself, refusing to be destroyed by an unwanted incursion that overburdens the city with homeless people, and contagious disease,” Douglas Gibbs, a radio show host and former City Council candidate, wrote on his blog.
Immigrant rights activists say such attitudes are typical of an area spanning much of California’s “Inland Empire” that remains ideologically resistant to the state’s move toward more immigrant-friendly policies.
“Living in the area is really a nightmare for the immigrant community,” Moisés Escalante, executive lead organizer for the faith-based social justice group Pueblo de fe Unido, told MintPress.
Named for sheep rancher brothers from Spain who settled there in the 1870s, Murrieta has boomed since it officially became a city in 1991, with the population increasing more than 300 percent. Residents have been attracted by housing prices and crime rates that are relatively low by Southern California standards.
“It’s a community with a past and vision for its future. One that welcomes challenges, takes risks, embraces opportunity,” the city proclaims on its website. “More and more people are discovering what the Murrieta brothers envisioned more than a century ago: Murrieta is, indeed, The Future of Southern California.”
“Murrieta is a melting pot just like all of California,” a city council member said at the July 2 town hall meeting.
But that image may not match the reality for some residents of Murrieta and the neighboring communities of Temecula, Lake Elsinore and Menifee. Immigrant rights activists say local immigrants regularly encounter prejudice in their daily lives and are distrustful of local police.
“People in the area are afraid to call police for domestic violence and other issues,” Escalante said. “They know the police departments in these cities are working very closely with the Border Patrol. Instead of going to church on Sunday, people stay at home because they’re afraid the Border Patrol is waiting for them … Everyone is afraid.”
“There is a minority of people who don’t like somebody who speaks another language, who has another way of life,” Dunlap, the immigrant rights volunteer, said.
Racial tensions have been fueled by the proximity of the Mexican border and the anemic labor market. Employment in the Inland Empire took a particularly big hit during the Great Recession. Unemployment rates reached a record-high, seasonally unadjusted level of 15.1 percent in July 2010, and many residents of southwest Riverside County, unable to find work close to home, commute more than 80 miles a day to jobs elsewhere in Southern California.
Locals have blamed immigrants for inundating industries such as fast food and construction.
“We’re a conservative area, and we’ve had an outcry from our citizens,” Temecula Mayor Jeff Comerchero told The New York Times in January 2011. “Americans should be filling American jobs.”
After Arizona in April 2010 passed the toughest anti-immigration law in recent U.S. history, Los Angeles severed economic ties with Arizona and immigrant rights advocates staged rallies in San Diego, Santa Barbara and other cities.
In southwest Riverside County, the reaction was quite different, as cities launched crackdowns similar to those in Arizona. Murrieta followed the lead of Temecula, Menifee and Lake Elsinore in passing a law requiring that businesses use E-Verify.
“People that are legal should work,” a 16-year-old resident told the City Council in August 2010. “People that are illegal shouldn’t work. They should work in their own country.”
Another speaker at the meeting was Doug Gibbs, who urged the council to adopt a resolution supporting Arizona’s law and introduce an ordinance that “is identical to Arizona’s immigration law so the city can join the immigration fight.”
Black eye for the community
Murrieta did just that on July 1, when as many as 150 protesters carrying signs stating “America Has Been Invaded” and “Return to Sender” stood in front of the buses that had brought 136 migrants and their children to the Border Patrol facility. The government had flown the migrants to California to ease the crisis in Texas after thousands of Central American families and unaccompanied children came to the U.S. fleeing violence at home.
“These are children with their mothers fleeing a situation in their homelands that is scary, that is violent,” Escalante noted.
Rather than breach the blockade, federal agents backed away and transported the migrants to another Border Patrol station 72 miles away in Chula Vista, California.
While some applauded the protestors for standing up to the government, others characterized them as callous and unfeeling. Singer Lupillo Rivera, a Temecula resident who joined a pro-immigrant group at the blockade, was spat on by an opposing protester.
“The press that we’ve been getting on the issue has been an embarrassment for most of us in Murrieta,” a local Catholic priest told the Los Angeles Times.
City officials have expressed some contrition. “This has been a difficult week in the city of Murrieta,” City Manager Dudley lamented in his message to the community. “We have been challenged and in some ways we fell down in the face of the challenge.”
“The protests resulting from the incorrect interpretations of Mayor Long’s comments [at the June 30 news conference] have given our community a black eye,” he said.
But Long has disclaimed any personal responsibility, saying, “I can’t tell people what to do.” He also told CNN that while “we had some local residents with some legitimate concerns, I think most of the angry people that you saw protesting were from out of town.” He repeated several times that “the world showed up on our doorsteps.”
Dunlap and other immigrant rights activists aren’t buying the damage control, though.
“They’re trying to repaint this entire situation in different light because … now they’re in the national and international spotlight,” she said.
Long, she argued, “couldn’t possibly have been ignorant” of the effect his words would have. “There have been outsiders coming to stoke the fire,” she said. “But a lot of [the protesters] are city residents.”
Escalante noted that the outsiders came to “a city and region that is very anti-immigrant. If they had come to L.A., they would not have planted in the same soil.”
Last week, the Justice for Immigrants Coalition and other groups held a vigil at Murrieta City Hall to support immigrant families. Other Southern California cities, including Fontana and Bell, have offered shelter to immigrants.
But in Murrieta, some are claiming victory for the “Murrieta Insurgency.”
“Murrieta has turned back the buses,” Gibbs announced on his blog. “The federal government will no longer send planes full of diseased aliens into California.”