America's border crisis reached Main Street, as flag-waving protesters in a San Diego suburb turned back three busloads of illegal immigrants after the town's mayor warned Tuesday that federal officials were using the community as a safety valve for facilities swamped by a tide of Central American refugees.
Fears of disease, crime and already-strained government services prompted Murrieta, Calif., Mayor Alan Long to rally residents against plans by the Department of Homeland Security to bus the children and families to a processing center in the city of 106,000 residents. Confronted by the protests, the buses were rerouted to San Diego.
"These people are fleeing a less desirable area -- we all understand that, we're compassionate for that, but those are concerns," Long told Fox News. "We've asked a lot of questions, we wanted to make sure no stone went unturned so that we had certainty on what exactly we were getting. And when you start asking about the health screening that they claim they get -- there's a lot of gaps. They could not answer a lot of questions we had to give us certainty that the people on those buses were healthy."
The three buses were trailed by a half-dozen news crews during the two-hour trip from the border to Murietta. After the buses were blocked, federal authorities rerouted the vehicles to a freeway and then to a customs and border facility in San Diego within view of the Mexico border.
Many protesters at Tuesday's event held U.S. flags, while others held signs reading "stop illegal immigration," and "illegals out!"
"We can't start taking care of others if we can't take care of our own," protester Nancy Greyson, 60, of Murrieta, told the Desert Sun newspaper.
The episode could be played out in communities around the country in the coming days, as DHS grapples with the crowds streaming across the border from Mexico. Processing facilities that are supposed to screen immigrants for health, criminal history and legal status are reportedly so overwhelmed that they are sending illegal immigrants by buses and planes around the country, looking for places to hold them while they are processed.
One longtime Border Patrol agent told Fox News the situation is well past the crisis point.
“We are overwhelmed with [people] coming out of Texas," he said. "We are putting them in hotels, anywhere we can find a bed. We process them, and then they either bond out or are released on their own recognizance. We don’t have the space to hold them.”
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained after crossing the Texas-Mexico border since October in what President Obama has called a humanitarian crisis. Many of the illegal immigrants are under the impression that they will receive leniency from U.S. authorities.
Exactly what has prompted the wave of illegal immigrants is unclear. The Obama administration, which has pushed for amnesty and an easing of immigration policy, claims the illegal immigrants are coming to escape violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But critics and activists against illegal immigration say the administration has deliberately invited the wave of refugees.
“Claims these immigrants have a ‘credible fear’ of violence coming home are a flat-out lie," the Border Patrol agent said. "The kids say they are here to see their mother, father or relative. The adults are working from a script. They all use the same words. When you dig deeper, they tell you the truth. They are here because a relative told them to come. They are here because they’ve been told they can stay. And it's true. We are giving them a free pass. It is terribly frustrating for us who were hired to enforce the law.”
The administration has said that not all of the illegal immigrants will be permitted to stay, although some may be if they can demonstrate they have relatives here legally.
Ron Zermeno, of the National Border Patrol Council, said union members are no longer able to enforce the border because they are all dealing with illegal immigrants who already made it across.
"Our K-9 teams have been kenneled," he said. "Everybody in the field has been taken out and placed to process. We have 72 hours to process 140, because we’ll be getting another 140 in 72 hours."
Earlier Tuesday, a chartered plane landed in San Diego with 136 illegal immigrants on board, according to a federal Department of Homeland Security official who was not authorized to be named when speaking on the issue. It was the first flight planned for California under the federal government's effort to ease the crunch in the Rio Grande Valley and deal with the flood of Central American children and families fleeing to the United States.
The government is also planning to fly illegal immigrants to Texas cities and another site in California, and it has already taken some undocumented immigrants to Arizona.
Another flight was expected to take 140 immigrants to a facility in El Centro, Calif., on Wednesday, said Lombardo Amaya, president of the El Centro chapter of the Border Patrol union. The Border Patrol would not confirm that arrival date.
The Associated Press contributed to this report