ORACLE, Ariz. – Protesters carrying "Return to Sender" and "Go home non-Yankees" signs faced off with immigrant rights activists Tuesday in a small Arizona town after a sheriff said a bus filled with Central American children was on its way.
The rallies demonstrated the deep divide of the immigration debate as groups on both sides — and in similar numbers — showed up in Oracle to speak out on the issue.
It turned heated at times, with shouting matches and a group of mariachi musicians getting shoved before the skirmishes were quelled. At one point, protesters temporarily blocked off a bus on the road before realizing it was just a school bus carrying children from a YMCA.
The protests came as the government released new numbers that show how many immigrant families and children have been pouring into the country in recent months. The Border Patrol says 55,420 family members have been caught at the border from October through the end of June, a nearly 500 percent increase from the same period in the previous year. The number includes adults apprehended with their young children, and most of them were caught in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In addition, the Border Patrol says 57,525 unaccompanied children have been apprehended through the end of June.
Anger has been spreading in the town of Oracle since Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu warned residents last week that immigrant children from Central America caught crossing the border illegally would be placed at the Sycamore Canyon Academy in Oracle. Protesters were hoping to mirror demonstrations in Murrieta, California, when immigrants were taken there recently.
"We are not going to tolerate illegals forced upon us," protester Loren Woods said.
Babeu is credited with stirring up the anti-immigrant protesters via social media postings and a press release Monday and by leaking information about the migrants' arrival to a local activist.
He addressed both sides of the protesters, asking them to remain civil, abide by the law and keep the roads cleared. Immigrant rights activists questioned Babeu about why he is stirring up protesters when he should be bringing order as the county's top lawman.
Babeu said he was simply informing the public and was at the site to make sure the protests on both sides were peaceful.
"All this was done in secrecy, and that's where a lot of people are upset," Babeu said Tuesday. "My concern (is) where's the federal government? Why are they not here? Why did they not hold a town hall to answer some of these questions?"
The academy put out a press release Monday acknowledging that it had an agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services to take in a "small number" of immigrant children from Central America. It did not specify how many and when they would arrive. No children had arrived as of early evening.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents southern Arizona, said the congressman's office was told by the federal government that children would not be arriving Tuesday.
A spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services said the agency would not identify the locations of shelters for migrants to protect their identities and safety.
The dueling groups in Oracle had a combined 130 people at the peak of the protests, including about 80 rallying against the shipment of immigrants and 50 taking the opposing viewpoint. Pro-immigrant supporters held welcome signs with drawings of hearts.
Emily Duwel of Oracle said she did not want her town to be misrepresented by what she said was a minority of people against the children being housed here.
"I'm just concerned about these children who have had to escape worlds of incredible violence," Duwel said.
Babeu has generated controversy in the past over his immigration rhetoric. When five bodies were found in a burned-out SUV in his county in 2012, Babeu quickly declared that the killings appeared to be the work of a drug cartel. A few days later, it was learned that it was a murder-suicide of a suburban Phoenix family and not drug-related.
A massive surge in unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally began more than a month ago, turning the issue into a major political debate in Washington and in cities across the U.S.
In a state known for its strict immigration laws, including SB1070, which many call the "show me your papers" law, attitudes are just as contentious.
The fallout began in late May when reports surfaced that immigration officials were dropping off hundreds of women and children at Phoenix and Tucson Greyhound bus stations after they had been caught crossing the border illegally. Within a week, immigration authorities were flying hundreds of children who had crossed the border into Texas alone to be processed at various immigration facilities.