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Calif. Town Thrusts Heated Immigration Debate Into National Spotlight


As the saying goes, all politics is local. And that couldn't have been clearer this week in and around Murrieta, Calif., a sleepy conservative enclave 60 miles north of San Diego.

Local leaders here made a loud stand against the planned movement of immigrant detainees to their city from overcrowded U.S. Border Patrol stations in Texas — and in the process rather purposefully thrust their city into the national political spotlight.

First came the protesters, urged on by the city's mayor and others, who successfully blocked three buses carrying more than 100 detainees, mostly women and children, from entering a local Border Patrol station on the outskirts of the city.

At a crowded town hall meeting the next day, it was more than abundantly clear that this had to do with a lot more than just a few buses.

Mayor Alan Long, the moderator, speaking to the protest and blockade, said: "That still did not solve the ultimate problem that lies in Washington D.C."

Hundreds of residents proceeded to grill authorities — including two federal immigration officials who were occasionally booed — on everything from health to infrastructure to politics. And sitting in that heated room, it would have been nearly impossible not to notice a strong undercurrent emerging: For many, the federal government was the root of the problem.

Riverside County Commissioner Jeff Stone at one point even had to sidestep one man's plea that his commission vote on a resolution supporting the impeachment of President Obama.

Still, Stone, a self-described staunch conservative himself, didn't mince words when it came to the Obama administration's stance on immigration, accusing them of pushing an amnesty agenda.

"I call upon the citizens of this great country, and particularly in this great county, to petition their congressional representatives and President Obama to stop this action of exploiting frightened and traumatized women and children from other Central American countries," Stone said, to thunderous applause.

The audience inside the meeting skewed older and Caucasian, and outside the auditorium, younger and Latino, making it hard not to draw a comparison to the sharply divided national debate over immigration.

In fact, the symbolism wasn't lost on people like Angena Escalante.

"Why did our community have to react so harsh?" Escalante asked, as she was set to join a counterprotest with dozens of other immigrant rights activists.

She added that she thought many in her community were being mean-spirited toward the women and children detainees: "This process could have been so much easier."

Like many of the anti-illegal immigration protesters, most of the immigrant supporters were local to Murrieta. And as the TV cameras swapped back and forth between inside and outside, it was clear that both sides could agree on at least one thing, even if for very different reasons.

From the podium, Mayor Long addressed it directly, saying everyone recognized the federal government has to act. His city and this county can only do so much.

"And to me that's when I will feel we have won, and until then we will continue to demonstrate in a constructive way," he said.

Still, it's hard not to think that in some ways, Long has already won. He and his city managed to thrust their local protest into the national spotlight, and in the process, reignited the debate on immigration during the July 4 congressional recess.