(CNN) — Protesters and counterprotesters squared off Tuesday in a small Arizona community over where to shelter a surge of unaccompanied immigrant children entering the country, becoming the second border state this month to enter the emotional controversy.
Dozens of demonstrators gathered in Oracle, Arizona, about 100 miles north of the Mexican border, where federal officials were expected to send dozens of detained immigrant children for housing.
The face-off is taking place after a similar demonstration in Murrieta, California, led to vitriolic exchanges about how the broken U.S. immigration system is being overwhelmed by a tide of Central American migrants. The Murrieta protesters blocked three busloads of detained immigrants, forcing them to leave town.
In Arizona, protesters were lining up on both sides of a road where the vehicles of detained juvenile migrants were expected to pass.
Protesters positioned themselves to block the road and held “No open borders” signs. Counterprotesters, however, held “Bienvenidos Welcome” signs.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said he told protesters to stop blocking the road.
But the sheriff has entered the fray by expressing concern about how the federal government hasn’t told his agency about the transfer of the detained youths to his county. He wants the federal government “to provide us information,” the sheriff said.
“If you’re going to send unaccompanied juveniles to another state in another jurisdiction, there’s legitimate concern that other members of this community have about public safety and public health,” the sheriff said. “Give us the information.”
Counterprotesters were concerned that their opponents would create a negative national image for their town.
“We are concerned that Oracle not be viewed as monolithically anti-immigrant, anti-children. We think the angels of our better nature need to be reflected through efforts like this one,” Frank Pierson, a 35-year resident who’s also president of St. Helen Catholic Church parish council, told CNN affiliate KGUN.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office was recently “informed by ‘whistle blowers’ in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security they plan to transfer between 40 and 60 unaccompanied illegal minors to the ‘Sycamore Canyon Boys Ranch’ in Oracle,” the office said in a statement on its Facebook page.
“Our office has communicated with Homeland Security to express our public safety and public health concerns. We have already reached out to the director of the Sycamore Canyon Boys Ranch who has confirmed Homeland Security has been in negotiations with the facility to temporarily house the minors,” the Sheriff’s Office said.
The Sycamore Canyon Academy in Oracle aims to help young men who may be struggling at home or in school. But it’s not where the expected group of immigrant children should go, Sheriff Babeu said.
“These children should be returned to their home country — not to Oracle, Arizona paid for by American taxpayers,” Babeu said in the statement.
“We understand there will be protesters who support and oppose ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) bringing the foreign juveniles to Oracle. The Sheriff’s Office will work to ensure the peace is maintained at these lawful assemblies.”
The tensions in Oracle mirror the strife this month in Murrieta. On July 1, a wall of angry protesters blocked three buses of undocumented immigrants from entering their community and forced them to turn around.
Demonstrators in Murrieta quarreled with counterprotesters over the country’s immigration system.
“I just wish America would be America again because it’s not, and it’s not just pointed to the Hispanics,” protester Ellen Meeks said. “Everybody needs to go through the legal ways.”
But immigration rights advocate Enrique Morones likened the migration to a refugee crisis and suggested that racial antipathy was motivating protesters.
“If these children were from Canada, we would not be having this interview,” he told CNN. “The parents have had enough. They are saying, ‘If I don’t send my child north, they are going to die.’ ”
On Monday, residents in Vassar, Michigan, protested against any undocumented juvenile immigrants coming to Tuscola County under a local social service agency’s proposal, according to CNN affiliate WJRT.
At a special Vassar City Council meeting Monday, members of Michigan Immigration Control and Enforcement told elected leaders they don’t want the juveniles in their town, the station reported.
Vassar Mayor Pro Tem Dan Surgent also opposed any local agency’s plans to house the youths and blamed President Barack Obama for the crisis, saying he is “a President that you can’t trust, you can’t believe him,” the affiliate reported.
“We are not insensitive, we are not a bunch of white racists out here, like they like to portray us. We love children. Otherwise, if we didn’t care of about kids, we wouldn’t have let Pioneer Work and Learn 22 years ago,” Surgent said, according to WJRT.
He was referring to the Pioneer Work and Learn Center, which is a youth program of Wolverine Human Services, the agency proposing to house the youngsters, the affiliate said.
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Michigan, recently expressed concerns about juvenile immigrants being sent to her state for detention in a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“I write today about recent news reports in my home state of Michigan that are deeply troubling,” she wrote, referring to how the federal agency was seeking shelter space in several cities in Michigan.
“To date, I am not aware of any communication, formal or otherwise, relayed to these communities and/or their elected representatives, local health officials and law enforcement agencies regarding your agency’s intention to house the (undocumented child immigrants) in facilities within their communities,” Miller said.
Miller also inquired about what federal protective services have been arranged for the proposed facilities.
Federal officials couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
Poll on President, Congress
A new national poll indicates that a majority of Americans approve of Obama’s short-term remedy, but most give the President and his Republican critics in Congress a thumbs-down on how they’re handling the crisis along the country’s southern border.
An ABC News/Washington Post survey, conducted July 9-13 and released Tuesday, found that 53% support the White House plan to spend $3.7 billion to immediately deal with the situation, with 43% saying they disapprove of the proposal.
The survey shows an expected partisan divide, with two-thirds of Democrats supporting the Obama plan. That number drops to 51% among independents and down to 35% among Republicans. Hispanics questioned in the poll support the proposal, 54% to 43%.
Even though a majority back the President’s proposal, only a third of Americans give Obama a thumbs-up on how he’s handling the issue of undocumented immigrants entering the country, and only 23% of those questioned say they approve of how congressional Republicans are dealing with the crisis. Even Republicans are divided (48% approval to 45% disapproval) on how federal lawmakers from their own party are handling the issue.
The poll questioned 1,016 adults nationwide by telephone. Its sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Behind the surge
A mix of poverty, violence and smugglers’ false promises has led to an influx of Central Americans — including minors — illegally entering the United States.
While critics say the federal government is failing to protect U.S. borders, the Department of Homeland Security said it is stepping up efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
On Monday, a group of about 40 mothers and children were deported on a chartered flight from the United States to Honduras.
“Our border is not open to illegal migration, and we will send recent illegal migrants back,” Homeland Security said in a statement. “We expect additional migrants will be returned to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in the coming days and weeks.”