MURRIETA, Calif.—Since its settlement in the 1870s as ranch land owned by the Murrieta brothers, Basque sheep ranchers from Spain, this valley has been known for its hot springs and race horses—and more recently as a bedroom community to San Diego.
Now, this fast-growing city of 107,000 has gained another distinction: a flash point in the national debate over immigration.
This week, around 200 protesters turned away three buses filled with 140 undocumented migrants sent for processing to a U.S. Border Patrol outpost here, where they were to be processed before being sent to other locations to await deportation or asylum, according to federal officials.
Dozens more Central Americans caught sneaking into the United States were shipped quietly to California for processing by immigration officials, a day after protesters blocked bus loads of migrant families bound for the Murrieta Border Patrol station
Last Wednesday night, hundreds of residents showed up for a hourslong, emotional town hall meeting on the issue, mostly to voice their objections to the federal government sending any undocumented immigrants their way.
Protesters vow to turn away any more buses that show up at the border patrol station here. Another protest at the border patrol station is planned for Friday, organizers say, in anticipation that the buses might return. Protesters are expected from neighboring communities in Orange County, as well as from San Diego, about 65 miles south, organizers said.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency isn’t revealing detailed plans because of security considerations.
The migrants, mostly women and children, are part of an exodus from Central America that has swamped the southern border and taxed the immigration system. Many say they are attempting to escape escalating violence in their countries. The Obama administration has called the influx a “humanitarian crisis” and federal officials are attempting to find housing for migrants while they await deportation or asylum proceedings.
“What we’re saying is right now [illegal] immigration needs to stop,” said Patrice Lynes, a retired nurse and organizer of the protests from the neighboring city of Temecula.
Ms. Lynes, who is married with three grown sons and has lived in the region since 1989, said she started organizing the protests by calling two friends. Now she says she is sending out email blasts to hundreds of people on a growing list of contacts, and fielding calls from around the country and from communities expecting to receive some of the migrants, she said.
“This is not just a Murrieta situation. This is a national situation,” she said, adding that American communities can’t absorb the burdens of suddenly caring for thousands of migrants arriving without resources, and in some cases, with illnesses.
The standoff in Murrieta highlights national frustrations over failed attempts to alter immigration policy at the national level, and a crisis at the border with the number of unaccompanied minors caught crossing the border doubling to 47,000 in the last eight months compared with the prior fiscal year ending in September, according to Border Patrol.
Murrieta sits in the vast swath of southeastern California known as the Inland Empire, which suffered high unemployment and budget cuts during the recession, and has been slow to recover.
Murrieta, however, is a relative oasis of prosperity. According to the latest U.S. census, Murrieta has a 70% homeownership rate—compared with 56% for the state, as well as a higher median household income than the state. While more than 15% of the state’s residents live below the poverty line, just 7% do in Murrieta, according to the census.
At its city hall, brochures about the city declare it one of the safest places in the country. Flowering trees line the streets. On a recent afternoon, open air malls were full of children and teens enjoying lemonade and iced coffee on a sunny summer afternoon.
Aside from being wealthier, the city is also more conservative and less diverse than other parts of the Inland Empire, according to census numbers and immigrant-rights groups in the area. As of 2010, 55.7% of Murrieta residents identify as white alone (not Hispanic or Latino), compared with 40% of the state, according to the census.
El Centro, another Inland Empire city much closer to the border, also received a group of immigrants without incident this week, residents there said. According to U.S. census figures, 13.5% of its 43,000 residents identify as white alone and nearly a quarter of its residents live below the poverty level.
Some local people have spoken in support of the migrants in Murrieta, notably Lupillo Rivera, a Grammy-winning musician who lives in Temecula.
Mr. Rivera said he stopped when he saw protesters in Murrieta turning away the buses, yelling about illegal immigrants. Mr. Rivera, a Mexican immigrant, says he yelled back: “I’m your construction worker, I’m your baby sitter, I’m the one who cooks for you…cleans your hotel rooms.”
Immigrant supporters have rallied around Mr. Rivera, who says friends plan to join him in a counter-demonstration on July 4. “My goal for [Friday] is to show the city of Murrieta that we’re not gonna tolerate racism,” Mr. Rivera said.
Protesters say they aren’t racist, but are concerned with the cost and potential burdens of taking on migrants.
Luis Nolasco, a staff member with the Justice For Immigrants Coalition, an immigrants-rights network made up of groups from across the Inland Empire, said instead of showing up at a counterprotest, he is spending time collecting donations to help migrant families when they arrive.
Those protesting the migrants “don’t speak for everyone. We welcome immigrant families to the Inland Empire. We’re here to offer as much assistance as we can,” he said.
Outside the city’s border-patrol office Thursday afternoon, a small group of protesters maintained a vigil.
Burke Hinman, who has lived in the city for over 22 years, said he was there to protect his community from being a “dumping ground” for migrants who have been fleeing their own countries.
A steady stream of cars and motorcycles drove past the station, and Mr. Hinman raised his fist or shouted “U.S.A.” as the vehicles passed.
Other activists sporting T-shirts decorated with the American flag or holding red, white and blue balloons waved as police and border patrol cars slowly rolled past the complex, which was blocked by law enforcement vehicles.
Melinda Ward, a phlebotomist currently on leave while she recovers from back surgery, says she is against the families being processed in Murrieta because the border-patrol processing station isn’t equipped to handle such a large group of people, and she worries the dollars to cover their housing and medical costs will eat away at tax revenue.
“It all comes down to the tax dollars. We’re paying for it,” she said. “The government has dropped it on us and now we have to pay for it, with our taxes.”