Raul Rodriguez, Jr. is the son of an immigrant, but while protesting the planned drop-off of migrant children at the Border Patrol Station in Murrieta, Calif., last week, Rodriguez made clear that he’s an American above all else. “I’m a patriot first. I love California. I’m of Mexican descent but I’m an American first, and as Americans we need to unite and stop what’s going on in this country.” He held up a double-sided sign: “WAKE UP AMERICA!” one side read. The other: “OBAMA WORSE PRESIDENT EVER!”
What’s going on is tens of thousands of migrant children who’ve fled Central America have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. After a steady uptick in the number of child arrivals in the last three years, some 90,000 are expected by year’s end. President Obama called the incoming flow a “humanitarian situation,” but has responded with punitive enforcement, asking Congress to help expedite the processing of migrants and promising the deportation of most children who’ve made it into the U.S. It’s not been punitive enough for some. Two weeks ago, Murrieta mayor Alan Long encouraged residents to protest the federal government’s plans to drop off migrants at the city’s Border Patrol station for processing, and hundreds responded, blocking three attempts over nine days to bring migrants to the Border Patrol facility. Each time, protestors like Rodriguez filled the narrow road outside the station, waving American flags and homemade protest signs, until the stalled Department of Homeland Security buses turned around. Murrieta, known as the “Gem of the Valley” in Southern California’s Inland Empire, made national headlines for trying to keep out child migrants the United Nations has said ought to be considered refugees.
Murrieta has since inspired others—residents of Oracle, Ariz., have promised to block the planned drop-off of migrant children in the border town, Fox News Latino reported—but only after becoming a flashpoint in the debate over what to do about these children. Indeed, the turmoil in Murrieta is a starkly framed snapshot of this moment in U.S. history. As the country continues to grapple with the existence of the nation’s first black president, growing economic inequality and rapid demographic shifts, the crisis in Murrieta is emblematic of all the uncertainty that comes with these shifts. It’s the browning of America, or the possibility of a new, complicated future, or the threat of a stolen country. It all depends on who you ask.
To Rodriguez, it’s the loss of the country he’s claimed as his own. Rodriguez recalled his family history: His father was born in Durango, Mexico, and came to Texas, where he met and married his wife. Rodriguez’s family moved to California when he was just 6 years old, and he stayed, working for 32 years for a grocery distribution company before retiring in Yucaipa, Calif., an hour east from Murrieta.
“Get together with your parents, file to become a citizen of the U.S.,” Rodriguez advises children who are arriving today. “That’s the way it’s done. That’s the way we all did it. That’s the way you become an American.”
“You don’t just cross the border and expect to get all the benefits that we have,” he said.
There isn’t a functioning line to get into the back of, though. The immigration system, in sorely overdue need of reform, doesn’t contain allowances for the kinds of people crossing now. Children fleeing endemic violence, widespread corruption and forced conscription into gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have spoken of knowingly setting out on harrowing journeys to come to the U.S. because the alternative—staying in their home countries and waiting for some other kind of relief—means almost certain death.
Protestors who stood last Thursday across the Murrieta Border Patrol station at the ready to block a drop-off of migrants that did not arrive, spoke about other, more pressing needs the U.S. should attend to before considering these children: ailing veterans, hungry children already in the U.S., poor healthcare access.
“Veterans are dying because the veterans’ hospital put them on the back burner and yet illegal aliens can come over and get health care right away,” said Melinda Ward of Lake Elsinore. She decided to join protestors after she says she was called perros—dog—as she exited a heated Murrieta town hall meeting two weeks ago. “America is broken, and somebody’s got to fix her. What will I leave her?” Ward said, motioning to her daughter who stood next to her. “That makes me very sad. I have to do what I can now.”
The debate around immigration quickly becomes racialized, though. It’s difficult for people to distinguish between immigrants and refugees if they’re coming from Latin America, and the protestors outside the Murrieta Border Patrol station weren’t all too concerned with the difference.
“We have some racists, some bigots in Murrieta. Of course we do,” Rev. Jack Barker of Murrieta’s St. Martha Catholic Church told a crowd of 200 gathered at an evening pro-migrant vigil in front of City Hall last Wednesday, urging the public not to let the angry citizen blockades define the city’s reputation. “But we’re very typical middle America,” Barker said. “We kind of are a microcosm of America in many ways.”
What protestors outside the Border Patrol station voiced is not so much a nostalgia for the past as it is a longing for political control in a rapidly changing social landscape. After all, social upheaval and demographic change is the very history of the U.S. In recent years in Murrieta, that change has been particularly swift. Murrieta is a whiter town than the rest of the state—56 percent of the city’s population is white compared with 40 percent of California’s. But those dynamics are quickly changing.
In the decade between the 2000 and 2010 Census, Murrieta’s population grew by 100 percent to 100,000 people. People of color were responsible for the bulk of that growth. Between 2000 and 2010, the numbers of Asians, blacks and Latinos in Murrieta all grew by at least 200 percent in Murrieta, while the white population grew by a comparatively paltry 75 percent. Between 2001 and 2009 the undocumented immigrant population in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, where Murrieta is based, grew by 34 and 76 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the undocumented population in the adjacent immigrant community hub of Los Angeles County actually declined by 6 percent, according to a UCLA Civil Rights Project report (PDF). Demographers have been forecasting a so-called “majority-minority” America for years. California—where Asians and Latinos are driving population growth and Latinos make up nearly half of all babies born in the state—provides a glimpse of where the rest of the country will soon be.
It can be terrifying, or it can be exciting. “I come from Ohio, and where I grew up everybody was white in my town,” said Joanne Love, a 25-year Murrieta resident who attended a pro-migrant vigil Wednesday night outside City Hall. She spoke proudly of the growing diversity in Murrieta. “My kids went to high school here in Murrieta, and my son’s group of friends was like the United Nations.” Love, an ESL teacher, was hoping the planned drop-off of new migrants would mean a new crop of students for her classes.
Instead, she was disheartened by the protests outside the Border Patrol station, just a mile from where the vigil was held. “I was so sad that those people couldn’t come to our community, and I was so sad that people would have the impression that Murrieta was a hateful place.”
But to others who interact with immigration restrictionists on a regular basis, the protests were not new. “At every piece of immigration legislation, anti-immigrant protestors are out there,” said Luis Nolasco, an organizer with the Justice for Immigrants Coalition, based in the Inland Empire. “The TRUST Act. Driver’s licenses for the undocumented. They’re at everything.”
What surprised Nolasco, who grew up in the Inland Empire and cut his teeth organizing with national undocumented youth organizations, was the level of vitriol this time around. “They’ve never been as angry as they were with this issue. And they’re so angry at children—I can’t comprehend that fact.”
Nolasco calls the Inland Empire an “ironic” place. Sure, it’s sunny California, but it’s not the liberal mecca it might seem to people only familiar with San Francisco or Los Angeles. The Inland Empire has been home to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and chapters of the Minutemen Project, self-appointed vigilante patrols at the U.S.-Mexico border that the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed a “nativist extremist” group. Lawmakers like California State Assemblymember Tim Donnelly, whose district includes San Bernardino County, is a founder of what he calls the largest California chapter of the Minutemen. Donnelly includes his stint with the Minutemen in his professional biography. Far from being a deal-breaker for voters, for Donnelly, membership with the Minutemen is something of a resume builder.
“There is a growing insurgency, right here in Los Angeles,” Donnelly said in a 2006 speech during his time with the Minutemen, the Los Angeles Times reported. “We need to begin to root out the insurgency in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, just as we are doing in Baghdad, Samarra and Tikrit, 9000 miles away.” The “insurgency” Donnelly referred to is that of undocumented immigration.
Eight years later, that sentiment still echoes in the streets of Murrieta. “There’s a travesty we’re facing of this invasion of illegals,” a man who’d only identify himself as David said last Thursday outside the Border Patrol Station in Murrieta. “I don’t want them dropped off here. Let Mexico deal with them, and if they can’t do it, drop them off at the White House lawn.” David had come from Mission Viejo, a city in Orange County about an hour away, to protest the potential drop-off of children in the city.
While we chatted, he pulled out an aged photo from his pocket, sepia toned and scallop-edged, and pointed out his grandmother and her two brothers who immigrated to New York from Jamaica decades ago. “They were children when they came,” he said when asked why he brought the photo to the demonstration, “But they came here the right way.”
It’s a go-to rhetorical trick among anti-immigrant advocates to hold out a rule of law argument to mask anti-immigrant sentiments, but the argument takes a new shape when it comes from immigrants themselves.
“I feel sorry for these little kids, but almost every country, when people want to come, they have to go through legal process, not like this,” said Nam-Yong Horn, who stood down the road from the Border Patrol station last Thursday with other demonstrators. While other signs blasted Obama, or urged the border enforcement to “Return to Sender,” Horn’s sign was self-referential. “I AM LEGAL,” hers read.
Horn, who was born in South Korea and lives in neighboring Menifee, said she came to the U.S. 36 years ago. Horn’s baffled that these people, fleeing for their lives as they may be, are allowed to enter the country at all. “I have lived in many different countries, and when we go live in that country we obey their law. We have the right to ask that of others who come here.”
“You cannot come here and say, ‘You owe me.’ No, America don’t owe nobody,” Horn said.
Stretching east from Los Angeles right up to the San Bernardino mountains, the Inland Empire is where many people of color and working-class folks headed in recent decades for warehousing and shipping industry jobs or after being priced out of Los Angeles and San Diego. But the region, buoyed by the warehouse and shipping industry and national housing boom, was also crushed in the following bust and economic recession. Black and Latino borrowers, who were uniquely targeted with subprime mortgages, were hit particularly hard. The region’s unemployment rate hit its peak in July 2010 at 15 percent, when the national unemployment rate was 9.5 percent. Today the jobless rate in the San Bernardino-Riverside-Ontario metropolitan area is still 30 percent higher than the national 6.1 percent unemployment rate.
Against the backdrop of its rapidly shifting racial demography, the region is also grappling with pervasive economic uncertainty and racialized inequity. In other words, the Inland Empire provides a front-row seat to the major fissures in the country today. The resolutions are as yet unclear.
“I have Border Patrol agents who belong to the parish, and I have a lot of undocumented aliens who are members of the parish,” Rev. Baker said at last Wednesday night’s vigil. The crowd of immigrants and pro-migrant allies admonished his word choice before he went on. “And when they come to worship at the parish—undocumented persons—when they all enter the parish, they worship at the same service. No problem. That’s left outside.”
Just beyond Barker’s church doors, the debate is raging.